Pete McGrath ready for reunion with his native Down

Fermanagh coach hoping to boost team’s confidence as they confront old enemy

Fermanagh manager Pete McGrath: Keen to produce a winning mentality. Photograph: Inpho

Fermanagh manager Pete McGrath: Keen to produce a winning mentality. Photograph: Inpho


“Why should we in Fermanagh sit in a dark corner and talk about winning Ulster among ourselves but feel you can’t let anybody hear you?” asks Pete McGrath as we sit in a low-lit corner of Kelly’s Inn.

“We have to change that mentality.”

This is in the Harte of the heart of the country: Ballygawley, spiritual home of the Tyrone game, on an elemental January evening: leafless, dark by four, not many pleasure walkers on the roads.

A few hours later, in a rainstorm, Fermanagh will beat St Mary’s in a postponed McKenna Cup match. But for Pete McGrath, this week will be defined by Sunday’s return to Páirc Esler, the Marshes, in Newry, where he will – after a 30-year involvement with Down – at last coach a football match against his native county. It takes him a few moments to recall when he last stood as Down manager in the ground but settles on the summer of 1999. This is a homecoming he would never have planned for then.

“I’m glad it’s not in the league or the championship,” he smiles. “But yes, it will be a strange, almost surreal moment to go out onto that field. Still, I do think that in recent times that those old taboos are being broken down. When I took the Fermanagh job I said to myself: this could be my last chance to manage at senior level. I don’t think I owe Down anything. And in a perverse way I am looking forward to it. I know Eamon Burns [the new Down manager] and many of the players very well. So I don’t think there is going to be any rancour.”

McGrath defied general expectations by engineering the big surprise of last summer’s conformist All-Ireland championship through Fermanagh’s run to the All-Ireland quarter-final, where they were snuffed out by Dublin on what was an oddly celebratory afternoon.

Over the past decade in Gaelic games, there has been an overwhelming trend towards the younger manager equipped, like Michael McLaverty’s young schoolteacher, “with an array of coloured pencils in his breast pocket”. Coaching has become a young man’s game; a modern game, with a perpetual chase to be at the cutting edge. McGrath was well aware of that when he stepped back into the arena in 2014. “I think that’s the world we live in now,” he says. “It is a societal thing.”

He just didn’t fear it. It was perhaps forgotten that McGrath was the original of the type: he was just 38 when he guided Down to their All-Ireland success in 1991.

And it is difficult now to comprehend just how stunning, how miraculous, the fact of an Ulster team winning the All-Ireland was at that point. It hadn’t been done since 1968, the year before the bombs erupted across the North in earnest. McGrath may have always been steadfastly modest in his bearing but make no mistake, he is a radical figure in Gaelic games.

Rules of engagement

“Coming in, I knew what the greatest challenge would be: the emphasis on game plans and how you set a team up and transition from defence into attack. When I managed in the ’90s, you knew your players’ strengths and you had a vision of how you wanted them to play and you went out and did that and either won or lost.

“Now . . . I hate the term ‘blanket defence’ because it is a misnomer; it is a lot more sophisticated than that. But it did take me nearly a full season to get my head around that. And then I had the added difficulty of coming into a county where I knew nobody.”

In the decades when McGrath was Down manager, he simply never thought about Fermanagh. The counties never met in the championship and he is vague about possible league encounters. He simply knew that they had never won an Ulster championship and so “had no meaningful tradition of tangible success”. There was something apt about McGrath’s switch from Down, a county which confesses to being helplessly cocky about its football pedigree, to Fermanagh, a county constantly fighting to be heard and seen.

On the first night McGrath met the Down senior squad in 1989, he had to subdue several expressions of dissatisfaction from the floor. “There were doubters, yes. Some of the players wondered what I was even doing there. I had managed underage teams. The attitude was: this is senior. What are you doing here? So I had to convince them straight away that I knew I was the right man for the job and that we were going to win something.”

In Fermanagh, the nature of the convincing has been different.

“Fermanagh is probably 60/40 in terms of Catholic and Protestant, and the GAA fraternity is a small number of people in comparison to the likes of Tyrone or Down. But there is not just a passion for football in the county, there is a yearning to be at or close to the top table.

‘Serious lack of confidence’

As ever, the statement is delivered with the quiet intent of the schoolteacher that he was. But it is underlined by absolute determination. He always went about his business making little fuss.

His father, Peter, was a Glaswegian who was sent to Northern Ireland by his mother to rid him of what she believed to be the foolish notion of joining the RAF just as the second World War was beginning. He settled in Rostrevor, where Pete McGrath grew up nurturing an obsession for Down football even as the Troubles began. The town’s three hotels, including the Great Northern where his parents met, were bombed. A team-mate was shot dead in an internal IRA dispute. Other friends and team-mates joined up and served time for various offences.

Drafted onto Down squad

“You got on with it. There is nothing heroic about it. You either played or you didn’t. What we will never know is the number of young people who didn’t play Gaelic games because of the fear that GAA teams were considered as targets. Who preferred just to blend into the background. But when you look at the period of the 1970s and 1980s at Ulster teams who were serious contenders but didn’t win an All-Ireland, you have to think that the circumstances were a factor.”

In the record books, All-Ireland titles are equal but in atmosphere and vividness, some are richer than others. Down’s wins of 1991 and 1994 remain ultra vivid because of the hauteur and imagination with which the players carried themselves. There is still videotaped footage of Mary McAleese in the McGrath family living-room on the evening of the ’91 homecoming. Nobody could have imagined then that she would be president of Ireland within a decade.

McAleese was a neighbour and her brother, Phelim Lenihan, played for Down and was a friend of McGrath’s. When the Mourne-Newry council put on a reception, councillors from all political parties attended.

It was impossible to ignore those Down teams: they lit up the county. It is remarkable that Down haven’t won an Ulster title since 1994 but the inherent confidence remains intact.

“Down players have uncles or neighbours who have played on All-Ireland winning teams. It is like a smaller version of Kerry. It creates expectation. That is the environment. So the 21 years will not dilute the confidence one bit. It is not arrogance. Nor is it science fiction: there is this belief that if Down get their act together, then they can do great things.”

For McGrath, last summer was about transfusing some of that blood into Fermanagh veins. They were 10 points down at half-time against Dublin in that quarter-final, but although the victory was well out of sight, they had the chutzpah to run at the Dubs.

Smiling broadly

Jim Gavin

“Yeah, Jim smiled so I smiled. He is a genuine football man who sees sport for what it is and that it is about people as well as games. We are kindred spirits in that since. And he said: ‘You rattled a few feathers there.’ Put it this way: if we had been beaten by a last-minute goal I wouldn’t have been smiling.

“My view now is: firstly, nobody gave us a chance. We played Westmeath in the previous round and hit nine wides in the first half. I told the players on the Sunday morning that if we did that against Dublin, we are beaten out the gate. And we hit nine wides. We had 19 attacks and scored six times. Dublin had 14 scores out of 18. We were 10 points down at half-time.

“And we came with a late scoring burst and it was great and entertaining and all that. My only regret is that first half. If we had gone in even four or five down and got at Dublin. I am not saying we would have beaten them but it could have been tighter. I deep down believed we could beat them. But at half-time, I put it to the players: we can’t lie down and allow to happen to us what had happened to Kildare in the previous game. We had to stand up and fight.”

They did that much and ended the season with Fermanagh football people trailing out of Croke Park with smiles on their faces: out, for sure, but far from down. Promotion to Division Two was secured. It was something to build on.

Still, Fermanagh are still rank outsiders: 33/1 to win Ulster this year. McGrath is not afraid to say he believes his team can win Ulster this summer. It would have to be regarded as his greatest trick in a career that has seen many shimmering days.

Asked what immediately flashes through his mind when he thinks of that Down team and he returns to the dusty day in Celtic Park when Down played All-Ireland champions Derry in the first round.

“You meet people now who still want to talk about it. That was probably the best Ulster championship match ever played. Because it was in their home and there was no second chance and the quality of the football. That was on May 26th. For the teams to reach the quality and intensity . . . that was the apogee.

“And walking off the field that day, I knew we were going to win the All-Ireland. We never played as well again that year. But we had no need to. Down . . . it is part of what you are. That is why Sunday will be a bit . . . different.”

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