Down legend Pete McGrath talks Michael Collins, Cloughmore and an epic Sunday in Celtic Park
PETE McGrath greets you outside his home in Rostrevor where the forested Slieve Martin provides a quite spectacular backdrop to the place where he was born.
Track-suited, McGrath is 66 going on 42.
Framed photographs of the glory days compete for wall space in his front room.
But there’s one image just over McGrath’s right shoulder that catches your eye more than any other.
It’s of Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary, striding confidently across the grounds of Portobello Barracks, Co Dublin.
This grainy image is just short of 100 years old.
Behind Collins’s imposing frame is a young boy watching in awe.
Creaking his neck, McGrath says: “That picture was actually taken about 10 days before he was shot. And that wee lad behind him there, he was still living up until about 20 years ago. There was an article written about him where he talked about that day and how he was marching in behind Collins. He knew who Collins was…
“I taught history, that was one of my subjects, and I would've been a Collins fan before it became fashionable, before Neil Jordan made the film and all the rest of it.”
McGrath adds: “I suppose what interests me about Michael Collins is he was a pragmatist and he was ruthless… It’s only when you read books about him that you realise the amount of work that he did.
“Okay, he was the guerrilla leader, he was the man who organised the squad in Dublin and he broke British intelligence - but the amount of work that he did… He was a financial genius, studied in London when he was 16… He was in the GPO in 1916 but he thought 1916 was an absolute farce; they just set themselves up to be shot and it never happened again.”
Once he signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the British Collins knew his fate.
He was shot dead by anti-Treaty forces on August 22 1922. He was 31.
“The Treaty, yeah,” McGrath muses. “He’d no choice, no choice… De Valera set him up because De Valera didn’t want to go because he knew they weren’t going to get the Republic.
“Collins was a wanted man. He rarely slept two nights in the one house. At one stage there was £10,000 on his head - that was a serious amount of money back then. And yet he went around Dublin and he actually used to chat with British soldiers because they’d no photograph of him, they didn’t know what he looked like.
“There was this kind of romantic thing about Collins, a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel figure.
“It wasn’t a question of 'Brits Out' – he had the blueprint at that time where Ireland could develop as a country and could exist economically and support its people and be a member of the League of Nations. He’d a big vision for Ireland.”
The point of this visit is to reflect on the 25th anniversary of Down’s All-Ireland winning triumph of ’94, but the great thing about interviewing the double All-Ireland winning manager is the conversation can go in any direction.
In the opposite corner of the room the boys of ’94 are frozen in time, just as they break away from the customary pre-match team photograph before taking on Dublin in the All-Ireland final.
“That’s a very unusual picture,” McGrath says. “Oliver McVeigh took it. The team was just breaking. You see so many team photographs and quite often the expression on the players’ faces tell you nothing.”
McGrath is right.
This photograph taken just before battle commences is both unusual and brilliant because there is a narrative in every player’s face.
Some of the heroes of ‘94 are still standing in upright position for the shoal of photographers at pitch-side.
Greg Blaney and Aidan Farrell haven’t moved a muscle.
With an admiring tone, McGrath says: “Blaney. Cool as ever. He’s not going anywhere fast.”
“[Pointing at the framed photograph] There’s ‘Wee’ James…Gregory McCartan… You can see Ross Carr is the first to break away. He’s gone. Ross hated photographs...
“That’s Eamonn Burns and Barry Breen at the back. You can’t see their faces but whichever way the camera angle has caught them they look as though they’re embracing…
DJ Kane and Mickey Linden are still in a squat position just leaving the bench.
“Look at the facial expressions of DJ Kane and Mickey Linden. Their eyes are fixated.
“It’s a case of: ‘We’ve a serious job to do and it’s starting very soon. Let’s get about our business here.’”
Leaning against the hearth is another framed team photograph of McGrath’s 1987 All-Ireland minor winning team, with James McCartan, Conor Deegan and Cathal Murray impossibly young.
FAST-FORWARD to a couple of weeks ago and the old gang were back together again for one night only in Newry’s Canal Court Hotel to celebrate the fact that a quarter of a century has passed since they scaled the highest peak.
Reunions can be weird affairs.
The class of ’91 celebrated their 25th a few years ago. So it was only right the men of ’94 got together to talk about old times and to find what’s changed in the intervening years.
“There are some players you would see intermittently, not that they live terribly far away, it was just a question of our paths don’t intersect,” McGrath says.
“And then there are other players who you nearly wouldn’t have seen, maybe fringe players, since ’94.”
With a wistful grin, McGrath adds: “And I suppose you see the ravages of time. You don’t notice them on yourself because you’re looking at yourself every day. But when you see some of them and you think: ‘He’s still in good shape’, or ‘He’s put on weight’, or ‘I didn’t think he’d lost that much hair’...
“In fact, the only time the group was physically together on the night was for photographs afterwards, and it’s only when you’re in the same room with all the players that you get the feel of that dynamic again that was there 25 years ago.
“The same players are still saying the same things in the same way. They’re still coming out with the same quips and the way that they say the things; you can predict what he’s going to say to that particular statement. But the dynamic is still there...”
Twenty-five years may have passed but in the eyes of each other DJ is still the teak-tough leader of the group.
Blaney is still Blaney.
‘Wee’ James still the artful dodger.
Linden the unassuming assassin.
Ross Carr is probably still kicking frees from ridiculous distances somewhere in Hilltown.
And Pete McGrath is still their manager.
“Players remember things as managers remember things,” McGrath says.
“You walk in, the players are there and you still feel you’ve a certain status. Even though at the time there were differences of opinion – there were very strong personalities in that group – there is that respect.
“Ask any manager of an All-Ireland team, there has to be almost a kaleidoscope of different personalities with different backgrounds, different views of the world. You need that because if you’ve got 25 people who think the same way and who are going to be meekly led then whenever they need to show leadership themselves on the field and take the initiative they’re not going to be able to do it because they haven’t done it off the field.
“I mean, Ross Carr was a very driven person. DJ Kane was very driven. Greg Blaney was very driven. Mickey Linden is a very modest, unassuming fella but in ’94 he was a man on a mission.
“Like other players, he wasn’t behind the fence in giving his opinion about how things should be done and what shouldn’t be done.
“Now, they were never crossing a line but nevertheless at times they were challenging me and that’s a good thing because if you’re not challenged, then you’ll get in your own comfort zone and you won’t extend yourself. These fellas did challenge me and sometimes forthrightly. And that was a good thing.
“They might not realise it but some of them have mellowed with age, they definitely have. They’re not just as fiery as they used to be.”
If the Mournemen came from no-where in ’91, the genesis of their All-Ireland success three years later was firmly located in the Championship wreckage of ’93, commonly referred to as the ‘Massacre at the Marshes’.
Derry, who were still hurting from the previous year’s Ulster final loss to Donegal, were primed to land Sam Maguire that summer.
And Down certainly didn’t stand in their way, losing 3-11 to 0-9, their biggest provincial defeat since 1952.
Although they were far from full strength – “Barry Breen was no-where near fit and Eamonn Burns had injuries” - McGrath was livid with Down’s meek exit and let rip in a media interview afterwards that led to star players Greg Blaney and James McCartan leaving the squad.
“The match went the way it did,” McGrath recalls. “And afterwards I said everybody associated with the team owed the Down supporters an apology for the performance, and I was certainly including management in that…
“That was okay, but during the summer it kind of festered. Greg took exception and we had words at one stage. Greg pulled out after a couple of National League matches the following season and James pulled out too.
“I know I’m saying this with hindsight but I knew they were always going to come back.”
BACK in the 90s, a few rounds of the National League were played off before Christmas. It was after Down’s second League match – a narrow win over Jack O’Shea’s Mayo in Newry – when Blaney and McCartan walked.
Time moved on but Blaney and McCartan’s absence was the talk of the county.
By February, there was a thaw in relations.
Fintan Mussen, the county’s PRO, rang McGrath after hearing from a reliable source in Belfast that Blaney and McCartan were returning to training.
“We were training in Hilltown that night and I remember it was actually snowing,” McGrath says.
“I can still see Terry Lawlor driving down the long lane – God rest Terry Lawlor; he organised the Belfast transport – so Greg and James jumped out and I was already on the field.
“They came out and they trained and there wasn’t a word said. It was as if they’d never been away. The thing went on seamlessly.”
Read more: Part two of the interview with Pete McGrath
ALTHOUGH it didn’t feel like it at the time, Ross Carr refers to the upheaval of ’93 as the “perfect storm”. And the recruitment of trainer Pat O’Hare (RIP), Carr insists, was key to getting the Mournemen back on the saddle again.
“Pat’s enthusiasm was amazing,” Carr told ‘The Sons of Sam’ author and Irish News journalist Seamus Maloney in 2004. “He was like a kid who had drank too much coke. He was so passionate and just brilliant to be about.”
McGrath adds: “Myself, John Murphy and God rest Pat O’Hare, we had to be at our best to get the best out of the players because if they saw slippage you could feel the vibes coming and some things would be said. They weren’t difficult – even ‘hard work’ might be the wrong phrase – but you had to be on your toes.”
Call it creative tensions within the group, but McGrath sensed he had another potential All-Ireland winning team on his hands.
The nightly crucifixions up on the mountains to Cloughmore - the ‘Big Stone’ – merely strengthened the manager’s faith.
“All I know is this, and I knew it at the time as the spring went on, that of all the teams that I had trained at any level I knew that this was the fittest team because the work they did on the mountains there behind you,” McGrath points to.
“I mean, this mountain work at the time was quite new and wasn’t very fashionable. Nowadays it would probably be seen as abusing players.
“Honestly, they were crucified on that mountain and they responded so positively. I could see the Blaneys, the Carrs, the Kanes, ‘Wee’ James – I could see these guys were going to put the record straight because they had taken too much abuse from what they were listening to and what they were reading. This was a team on a mission.”
Because of the two-year draw format in the Ulster Championship in the 90s, Down were facing Derry again, who were defending All-Ireland champions in ’94.
“We had to go to Celtic Park and the fact Derry won the All-Ireland in ’93 – I mean, it was the perfect place to be in terms of motivation and in terms of having a real target, a real challenge. And the players knew this.
“And I think we all silently accepted that everything was on the line in ’94 because if we didn’t do something really good in ’94, people would have said we were a flash in the pan.
Derry were an awesome unit: Tohill and Brian McGilligan in midfield, Henry Downey, Kieran McKeever, Enda Gormley and the cerebral Joe Brolly in the corner. They had quality in every area of the field.
But Down were undaunted by the prospect.
“Honestly,” McGrath insists, “that team going down to Celtic Park – and I’m not saying this in retrospect – I knew, I knew that we were going to win that game. I just knew it.”
What unfolded under a baking hot sun in Celtic Park on May 29 1994 was an absolute classic.
“This game had context... We were playing Derry in their own backyard and it was a winner-takes-all. There were no Qualifiers back then. It was all about blood-red lines that day.”
Played at breakneck pace from start to finish, Mickey Linden set an outrageous standard in the Down attack.
Anthony Tohill was like trying to tame a beast.
DJ Kane defended like a man possessed diving head-first into places few would put their boot.
Amid the anarchy, Joe Brolly and Greg Blaney were sheer poetry.
Gregory McCartan’s coolness from placed balls was quite remarkable.
Fergal P McCusker bulldozed his way through the Mourne defence to find the net.
And the way in which James McCartan shook off Kieran McKeever for the umpteenth time to hit an unbelievable score epitomised Down’s unbreakable will, before Blaney found Linden with a perfect kick-pass and Linden off-loaded to Ciaran McCabe who rippled Derry’s net with an unerring drive.
Down had toppled the All-Ireland champions. History wouldn’t forget this day in a hurry.
“Coming off that day,” McGrath says, “I knew that we were going to win the All-Ireland. I never said it to the players and they never said it to me, but in my heart and soul I knew we would.
“There was nothing out there to stop us. I knew how hard the players had worked and I knew they were going to keep working. I thought, all things being equal, we will win the All-Ireland.”
Read more: Part two of the interview with Pete McGrath