Twenty-five years ago, Pete McGrath led Down to their fifth and his second All-Ireland title. A year of rifts and bridge building; of violence and sorrow, of one magnificent match, and of vindication.
Every Thursday, the postman turns in off the Warrenpoint Road and into St Colman’s Gardens in the picturesque Down village of Rostrevor.
He slips an A4 envelope addressed to Pete McGrath through the letterbox. If the occupant is not away at the gym or running on the nearby Kilbroney Mountain, he will open the sports supplement ofnewspaper; a weekly gift from Irvinestown man George Beacom.
“And the funny thing is,” smiles McGrath at the thought of the gentlemanly Beacom, “I never read the Herald once in the four years I was in charge of Fermanagh. But I read it now!”
Time passes. We’re here to talk about a landmark.
Twenty-five years ago, he led Down to their fifth and his second All-Ireland title. His county begin their road back to former glories tomorrow in Newry when they face Armagh in the Ulster Championship, a fixture to get the blood pumping.
But for now, he leans back into memory.
1994 came with context. Derry took away everything Down had in 1992 with an Ulster semi-final win.
In 1993, the day became known as ‘The Massacre at the Marshes’. Eamon Coleman’s men sent them spinning with an 11-point win, captured live on BBC NI.
Their reporter Jim Neilly interviewed McGrath straight after.
“And I said that all of us associated with that today should give the Down supporters an apology because it was a shambles,” winces McGrath.
Well, talk about a war! Greg Blaney, one of the most cerebral footballers of his generation and James McCartan — one of the most influential — pulled out of the Down panel.
The row drifted on through their first two games of the National League. McGrath spoke to Blaney over the Christmas break. The next game was Derry. Still no sign of the boys.
“This whole drama was becoming a melodrama,” McGrath recalls.
One day, the County PRO Fintan Mussen called him with a rumour he had caught in Belfast that the two would return to training that night in Hilltown. On the 6 o’clock news bulletin, UTV’s sports anchor Adrian Logan repeated the claim.
The hunch turned out true. Logan even brought a camera crew with him to capture McCartan and Blaney bounding out of the changing rooms and broadcast it that night, a scene that would make Jim Gavin’s blood run cold.
Down needed everyone for Derry, says McGrath.
“By this time, they were All-Ireland champions. Celtic Park was going to be the showdown of showdowns. No backdoors.
But of all teams I have managed, no team trained as hard as that team of 1994. God rest Pat O’Hare, he was our trainer and the physical training was ferocious. These were men on a mission. Reputations were at stake, players and mine as well.
“’91, was it purely a one-off thing? One-season wonders? Caught Meath on the hop?
“’94 had to be the year of vindication for what happened the previous year and that’s what happened. What you got was what I believe was one of the greatest games ever in the Ulster Championship. To think those teams played a match of that quality in May! You normally get matches of that quality in August or even July.
“Going down the road to Celtic Park that day I just knew we were going to win that match despite the fact we were written off. And after the match, I knew we were going to win the All-Ireland. There was nothing there to stop us.
“I could throw out one-liners and hang stuff out in front of them. But that drive, that burning appetite has to come from within the players.
“There are other times in different seasons when you have to feed things into players. But there was nothing to be fed into them by me.
What was burning inside of them was an internal thing — 90% of the motivation, the drive, the sheer single-mindedness came from the player’s group themselves.”
Derry beaten. A semi-final against Monaghan in the Athletic Grounds.
The night before, like everyone else, Down players and management were scattered throughout the county huddled around televisions, wondering if the Republic of Ireland could grimly hang on to their 11th-minute lead from a Ray Houghton goal against Italy in the World Cup.
Over in Loughinisland, the home of Down player Gary Mason, two members of the Loyalist Paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force entered The Heights bar.
One shouted, ‘Fenian bastards!’ before they shot six people dead with assault rifles.
“Loughinisland happening when it did,” recalls McGrath, “We were still in a period where violence was the norm. You look back on it now, we are living in a relatively peaceful society. In those days we were nearly anesthetised to violence to an extent.”
McGrath spoke to Mason.
“He knew these people who were shot dead on a Saturday night. I felt that maybe the less said about it, the better. This was in the context of the ‘90s. We couldn’t change it.”
Down won the game but the day was a blur. Even McGrath whose powers of recall are microscopic for tiny incidents in games, is fuzzy over the details beyond a 0-14 to 0-8 scoreline.
It left them in a final against Tyrone. While they had reservations over how to handle Peter Canavan, McGrath challenged his players to not let his marker Brian Burns hang out to dry.
They got through it. As they did the semi-final win over Cork.
On the other side of the draw stood Dublin.
“In the build-up to the final, all that you could hear from the media, particularly the southern media was that for the good of the GAA, Dublin needs to win an All-Ireland. To save football in the capital,” says McGrath.
“They had been beaten in the final in 1992. Derry beat them in the semi-final of ‘93. All those matches with Meath in 1991 and so on. If ever a team needed an All-Ireland, here they were; We present you the team that deserves an All-Ireland.
“And as well as that, for the good of football, to keep Gaelic football up there as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan thing, Dublin needs an All-Ireland winning team.
“You nearly felt, ‘Jesus boys, we will just give it to them’. We won’t even bother going down. And again, I had no doubt we would beat Dublin.”
Former Meath midfielder and journalist Liam Hayes threw out a line that caught McGrath.
“He is a serious man. He will always try to get to the obtuse view of things. He wrote on the day of the match: ‘This Down team doesn’t know how to win an All-Ireland. Doesn’t know what it takes’.
“Now, what he meant was, for example, this Dublin team had striven for years and still hadn’t won an All-Ireland, while Down had come out of nowhere to win an All-Ireland. So they don’t really know what it takes.”
The game took on the same pattern as the wins over Tyrone and Cork. Get into a big lead, then subconsciously retreat. Dublin came at them, just as Meath had in the 1991 final.
Dublin won a penalty. Charlie Redmond stepped up and Neil Collins saved it.
“We had Blaney, (James) McCartan and (Mickey) Linden,” he recalls of the attacking triumvirate.
“Blaney the supplier. Linden and James the pace, the firepower, the scoring power and threat. The menace. They were all firing, particularly Linden, he was a man possessed.
“You had Gregory McCartan in the middle of the field, who really came of age that day against Jack Sheedy, and Sheedy was a big, strong man. People said that if Dublin had scored the penalty? Well… The penalty was saved. That was it. We won the game by two points.”
Another All-Ireland. Another homecoming.
In 1991, he had met RTÉ GAA Correspondent Mick Dunne in the Croke Park car park after Meath beat Roscommon in the semi-final. Dunne said that it was impossible to beat them, given that four-game saga against Dublin earlier the summer.
It was with that line that he told the Down fans in 1991; ‘They said Meath were the team that couldn’t be beaten. So here’s the team, that beat the team, that couldn’t be beaten.’
“A kind of Churchillian thing, you know?” laughs McGrath.
Now, he had another theme, back in Newry.
“’Liam Hayes says in the paper that this Down team doesn’t know what it takes to win an All-Ireland. Well, as far as I am concerned, we don’t know what it takes to lose one!’”
He’s still managing, still in demand at 65. He points out that Mickey Harte — who was on the sideline on All-Ireland final day last September — is merely months younger and adds, “I would be surprised if I am still not doing it in five years’ time.” Now, it’s his home club Rostrevor St Bronagh’s. For the first time, the timing was right. He wasn’t involved at county level and the clamour for outside managers has abated.
“It’s hard and frightening to imagine being without it, to be honest. Seriously. I suppose you look at what is the fabric of your life and what is the big part, the engine of your life, and it is football. Managing, being involved and having that connection with other people. It gives you a purpose.”
He first played for the St Bronagh’s at 15 and last togged out at 37. His career spanned the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and then it got a bit awkward, coming up against other footballers that he was managing in the county senior team.
Last November he got the Rostrevor squad together. The early start was a test of character. They sit third in the Down league at present behind Kilcoo and Clonduff.
They have a set-up to rival any club in the country and quite a few counties with a strength and conditioning coach who oversees blocks of work, a nutritionist on hand, a video analyst and an occasional visit from a sports psychologist.
“I don’t use the word professional, but we are trying to be meticulous in what we are offering to the group. So far, they have bought into it,” he says.
“At the end of the day, if it is good enough for a county player, it is good enough for a club player. All I am saying is that whatever resources are out there, whatever opportunities you can provide for them, then I think you are duty-bound to provide them.”
Last year’s disastrous spell in charge of Louth is flushed away.
Initially, when Louth approached after his time with Fermanagh came to an end, he said no. He needed to regenerate.
He admits he should have stuck with his first hunch. They lost every league game and lost to Carlow in Leinster, before eventually limping out to Leitrim in round two of the qualifiers.
“Not defending myself here, but people in Louth, even before a ball was kicked, said to me, ‘we are going to struggle in this division. We shouldn’t be in Division Two.’
At the end of the season the Chairman contacted me again but I couldn’t see me turning it around. The players are good fellas but I just felt it was a disappointing experience. I enjoyed some of the times we had. They were good, good players and a marvellous training facility in Darvar. But, you move on.
It made for two rotten years back to back — 2017 was the year that he didn’t deserve after the two previous years with Fermanagh.
In 2015, they reached a quarter-final defeat to Dublin. An incredible comeback and victory over Roscommon in Brewster Park possibly the high point, the crowd taking over the pitch and players taking an hour to return to the dressing room. He reconnected the team to the fans.
In 2016 they were a point up against Mayo in the qualifiers when Aidan O’Shea went down under minimal contact. Cillian O’Connor buried the resulting penalty. Mayo eventually won by five but then Marty Morrissey showed the penalty call on live TV to McGrath during a compelling post-match interview.
“When I saw it on the monitor, it was nearly funny to see such a big man take such a dive. Because the really infuriating thing was that Che Cullen did everything right. He shepherded him away from goal.
“And this man… I mean, it was just exasperating, I thought. I just said, ‘Holy God, that’s a dive. Hook, line and sinker. How was the referee conned into that?’
“What annoyed me, to be honest… I am not saying that if they hadn’t got the penalty, that they wouldn’t have won the game. I am not saying that. But what I am saying is that the penalty took away that chance.
“What really annoyed me — and he is a guy I had no sympathy for afterwards — was (Stephen) Rochford (then Mayo manager). He said in one of his interviews that they were going to win the match anyway, that it didn’t matter.
“I thought that was a thoughtless thing to say. If it had have been my position, I would have said ‘the penalty was harsh, and it may have changed the course of the game, who knows?’ I would have left it as an open question.
“But he wrote us off completely. I was delighted to see them beaten in the All-Ireland final.
“That day, before the game I went up to the toilet and this young Mayo girl came up to me and said, ‘I want to apologise’. She was just a Mayo fan. At the Ulster final in Clones the same year, a Mayo man came up to me and said ‘I want to say sorry for what happened down in Castlebar.’
2017 had irritants, on and off the field.
A local Sinn Féin man, Mick Murphy, had asked McGrath if he might attend the launch of Chris Hazzard’s candidacy for the local elections.
“Can’t Mick, I have training,” McGrath said.
“I wouldn’t be there anyway as I am not that politicised, to be truthful. So he asked if I would say a few words about him and I said I didn’t mind. They came down with a camera crew and Chris was here as well. I said a few things endorsing Chris and thought no more about it.
“The launch took place and they showed my clip. I talked about what he represents, I can’t remember all of what I said exactly.
“But what I did say was Sinn Féin represented all of the people in terms of same-sex marriage, all that type of thing.”
It became an issue through BBC Radio Ulster’sprogramme. McGrath received a call one morning asking him if he would come on the show to explain himself, as a GAA man getting involved in politics.
And I said, ‘Excuse me. I wasn’t speaking on behalf of the GAA. I was speaking purely as an individual who has political rights the same as anybody else. I have the right to vote, to endorse whoever I want to endorse and I was endorsing that person for me.’
I mean, is nobody connected with the GAA allowed to do anything? You have to be disenfranchised? You can vote, but shut up?
While McGrath was ratified by the county board for a fifth year into 2018, the players disagreed.
A short standoff was averted when McGrath left with dignity intact. And he doesn’t make himself the martyr either.
“There is not a Fermanagh player that if I met today, I wouldn’t stop and talk to. Even those who were the orchestrators of what happened, I wouldn’t hold it against them,” he says.
“At the end of the day they were young men, they felt they were doing the right thing for themselves and that’s ok. That’s football.
“I often said to the Fermanagh players, when we picked a team and someone was left out, I used to say, ‘it’s nothing personal. This is football.’ And I would look at it the same way. What they were doing was not personal against me, it was a football thing.
“I look back on the Fermanagh experience with great fondness. Seriously. Because the Fermanagh people and the good days we had, the spirit in that group…”
He’ll be in Newry tomorrow, of course. There with his nephew Peter who goes everywhere with him and has been a constant present in recent backroom teams. He’ll be wearing some class of a Down garment and he’ll desperately want them to win, especially against Armagh.
Still, there’s something that rags. When he thinks back to the Down U21 team he managed to two Ulster titles in 2008 and 2009, well… “I would say since 2010 there has been serious slippage.
“Ok, there was maybe a bit of good fortune getting to an All-Ireland final, but good fortune is what the game is all about,” he says.
“We won an Ulster U21 title in 2008 and 2009 and came within 20 seconds of winning an All-Ireland in 2009. Cork scored a goal in injury-time to beat us by a point.
“I feel that the nucleus of that team was possibly not handled properly. That was the last Down team to win Ulster titles and that’s going back ten years now. What happened the players on that team? That squad should have been the backbone of Down teams going forward.”
For the record, if he ever got the chance to manage Down again?
“They might never call. But if they did call, I would have to be very careful. In the sense that the Fermanagh opportunity came out of the blue.
And the moment that it came, as soon as I thought about it, I knew I wanted to do it. And it was a thoroughly enriching experience.
But if Down came calling, there would be no doubt. With each passing year that becomes less of a possibility, but who knows.
It’s strange after all these years that you think you still want to do that.
Maybe for some. But not for Pete McGrath.