Peter McGrath: Down’s title drought almost requires ‘a public inquiry’

Two-time All-Ireland winning manager believes lack of physicality an issue

Peter McGrath pictured in 2018 during his time as Louth football boss. Photograph: Evan Logan/Inpho

Peter McGrath sighs when asked about the sorrowful mysteries of Down football, saying it almost needs “a public inquiry”.

The man who led the county to two Sam Maguires in 1991 and ’94, very nearly wrapped this historic breakthrough in a couple of underage All-Irelands. The minor was landed in 1987 but the under-21 final in 2009 came agonisingly within literally seconds of beating Cork.

The question – and it is startling – is how could it be that the 1994 Ulster title has remained the county’s most recent until now, pushing on 30 years later?

“There is no sort of one sentence answer to explain why 26/27 years has elapsed without Down winning an Ulster senior championship title.”


The passage of that time has left the county’s history neatly boxed over 35 years, from their first provincial title until the most recent, together with five All-Irelands, making them the joint-most successful county from the province along with Cavan.

Since then the torch has passed more than somewhat and five more All-Irelands have gone North, which illustrates the competitiveness of the province.

“You would still say that Down teams in recent times have lacked physicality. They have lacked the physique and maybe the all-round athleticism and power of these other teams who have gone onto win All-Irelands, like Tyrone and more recently Donegal.

“You could nearly hold a public inquiry into that question and we all know how expensive public inquiries can be! But I think it would take one to get to the real reason of why that gap is so long since our last Ulster title. It’s a bit of an indictment on all of us up here.”

There was an oasis of possibility around a decade ago. James McCartan, a graduate of McGrath’s 1990s teams, also led the county from nowhere to an All-Ireland final where they were touched off by a point against Cork.

That landmark is slightly complicated for McGrath by his unhappiness at not being offered a second stint with the county despite having managed the under-21s to two Ulster titles and within touching distance of the 2009 All-Ireland.

“So when the Down job became available then during the summer of 2009, I felt that having managed two successful under-21 teams that I would have been in pole position if I was interested in getting a second run at the senior job.

“I was interested and all the rest of it. It didn’t work out but I feel that the county board, people making the decisions were moving in another direction anyway and I don’t blame them for that. That was their decision but certainly at the time I was very disappointed.

“But it didn’t happen and like everything else you just chew it up and spit it out and go on.”

It may or may not colour his attitude to outside managers and he doesn’t dismiss current manager Paddy Tally’s credentials but McGrath is definitely not a supporter of going outside the county to appoint.

"He's been with Derry, he's done a spell with Galway – he's an experienced coach, I don't doubt that, and if Down are going to go for an outsider, then Paddy Tally is as qualified as any other outsider.

“But if you were to ask for my own personal opinion, I think that a county that in relatively recent times, has won All-Irelands, should be able to have enough confidence in coaches that are within the county.”

*Peter McGrath will feature in the second episode of the latest Laochra Gael series, on TG4 this Thursday at 9.30 pm.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times