Part 2: The life and times of Down legend Pete McGrath
In Part Two of our in-depth interview with Down legend Pete McGrath, he tells Brendan Crossan about his greatest moments in football and what the future holds...
TP Murphy: ‘Hello Pete. The county officers were discussing the Down senior football manager vacancy and we’d like you to be part of a new management team…You’ve done brilliantly with the county minors and with your PE background we think you're well suited...’
Pete McGrath: ‘A management team, TP? Right…’
TP Murphy: ‘Yes, that's right. We're looking at a management team; we’re thinking of a three-man management team to take the senior footballers for the new season. We want to go for a triumvirate…’
Pete McGrath: ‘A management team you say, TP? Where you have three managers but nobody is actually the manager? Is that what the county board is thinking? Okay, let me think about it, TP, and I’ll phone you back tomorrow…’
JACKIE McManus left the manager's role after the Down footballers crashed out of the 1989 Ulster SFC semi-finals to eventual winners Tyrone.
A long list of names were linked with the vacancy. Down supporters were still living off the memory of the great 1960s team – but as the curtain came down on the 1980s their barren spell was beginning to resemble a famine, as they hadn’t won an Ulster title since 1981.
McGrath, meanwhile, had enjoyed All-Ireland success with the minors in 1987, so it was inevitable the St Colman’s, Newry schoolteacher would be sounded out for senior job.
“Nobody had contacted me and then TP Murphy, God rest him, the county secretary, phoned me. This was September and the League was starting in October.
“So TP says he’d like me to be part of a management team... I said to give me a day to think about it but I knew I wasn’t going into that.
“So I phoned him back the following day and said: ‘No, TP.’”
An additional hurdle was that some of the more seasoned members of the Down senior football squad weren’t convinced of McGrath’s credentials.
He was still only 36 and guiding the county minors to All-Ireland success and winning a few Hogan Cups was still not a weighty enough CV for some of them.
One afternoon in mid-September, Ray Morgan and McGrath were out in The Meadow putting the St Colman’s Rannafast team through their paces.
Barney Treanor was a farmer and his cattle grazed on the field beside the college.
“Barney was on the small group that was trying to source a county manager,” McGrath explains.
“And I remember this very well. Ray and myself were out on the field with the team; we weren’t that long back to school. It was a beautiful day out in The Meadow… There’s a hedge and then there was a field and Barney’s cows were on that field. Barney was out with cows that day. So Barney came over to the fence.
“‘You turned the Down job down,’ Barney says.
“I said: ‘I did Barney but tell TP I’ll manage the team. Manage the team - not be part of a three-man management team where there is no manager.’
“Barney says: ‘Right, I’ll mention that to him.’
“So the next day, TP phoned me to meet and have a chat, and it went from there...
“But legend has it I was eighth or ninth on the list, or I wasn’t on the list at all.”
With the start of the National League a matter of weeks away, McGrath called a meeting of the senior panel and convinced them that he was in fact the right man for the job.
In his first season in charge Down reached a League final.
The following season they were All-Ireland champions for the first time since 1968.
Three years later, the Rostrevor alchemist guided Down to another All-Ireland proving their greatness as men as well as footballers.
Read more: Part one of the interview with Pete McGrath
THE emotional high of overcoming defending All-Ireland champions Derry at Celtic Park on May 29 1994 was met by an unfathomable low just three weeks later.
The night before Down were to face Monaghan in an Ulster semi-final at The Athletic Grounds, UVF gunmen burst into The Height’s Bar in the small village of Loughinisland and shot dead six Catholics as they watched Republic of Ireland play Italy in the World Cup.
“That Monaghan game, it was flat as the road, the crowd, the whole thing,” McGrath remembers.
“Gary Mason, who played for Loughinisland, didn’t play in Celtic Park because he was doing exams. But he came in for the Monaghan game and Loughinisland happened on the Saturday night, the day before.
“There was talk that did Down still want to play the match, but we felt we had to play it.
“We were kind of anaesthetised to it, up to a point. But it would have been almost a surrender to the people who did it for Down not to play. That day was completely surreal.”
In the Ulster final the following month Down dismissed Tyrone with six points to spare. Ross Carr, Mickey Linden and Gary Mason hit a combined 1-12 of the team’s 1-17 tally.
It was high up in Rostrevor's Sierra Maestra, before the Down players laid eyes on a Championship ball, that McGrath began to see another All-Ireland winning team in front of him.
TWENTY-FIVE years on McGrath leans forward in his armchair in his front room, surrounded by silent images of Down’s halcyon days.
Hands clasped, he could probably recall every frame of the summer of ’94.
“We all look back and you think: ‘Jeez, they were great times. I’d love to be back there. I’d love to relive some of that again.’
“There is a sense of being grateful and feeling so lucky that you were part of something that was so fulfilling to us as people and that it meant so much to other people...
“And when you win it, they are forever in your debt – that’s how they feel about it. I would still meet people who I don’t even know or recognise and they would talk about those days...
“PJ Ruddy was the caretaker in the college. The week after we won the All-Ireland I went back to school and PJ came up to me and said: ‘I want to thank you because I was always telling my children about the 60s and now they are half grown up they were able to experience this for themselves, and I was able to re-live it with them and see it from a different angle.’
“The 60s were a different world to the ’90s and the world is different now than it was in the ’90s. But yet, you look back and there is still so much the same. It just means so much to people.”
There were so many highs for Down football in those years, but for the veteran manager the one occasion that stands above all others was ending the county’s 10-year wait for an Ulster title in ’91, beating Donegal in the decider by playing some sublime football.
That was McGrath’s emancipation day as Down manager.
“It was just the feeling of: ‘Yes, we’ve achieved something.’”
McGRATH is in no way haunted by the titles that got away from Down in the 90s. In fact, he turns the question on its head and reflects on the days when they were fortunate to get over the line.
“No matter what group you’re looking at, they’ll maybe look at one that got away or two that got away but if they actually looked in more detail at the ones they did win, they could probably say: ‘Do you remember that game where we just got over the line?’
When you flick through the archives Lady Luck certainly batted her eyelids at Down a few times.
McGrath smiles at the day Ross Carr thundered over an equalising point against Derry in ’91 to force a replay – a free that in the Down manager’s and everybody else’s minds should never have been awarded in the first place.
“We were coasting against Derry and then Blaney got sent off. Derry then came back at us…
“Derry were in the lead by one point heading into injury-time. Eamonn Burns, who played for Derry and was a very good player, took a shot and the ball was going over the bar and Neil Collins made a fantastic save.
“If you see it Neil’s hands were well above the crossbar and he just batted the ball down and from that possession we went down the field and equalised.
“Henry Downey hardly laid a hand on Barry Breen and the referee gave a free. It was never a foul.”
Up stepped Carr from roughly 50 metres out, slightly to the right and favouring his left foot, to level it up with a nerveless strike.
“It was a great kick from Ross. It was one of those moments that was frozen in time.”
And Down went on to beat all before them to annex the Sam Maguire for the first time in 23 years.
Nevertheless, McGrath still felt there was a kick in Down in ’96 had they overcome Tyrone in the Ulster final.
A Peter Canavan goal early in the second half saw the Red Hands through to the All-Ireland series, but they couldn’t handle Meath’s physicality and bowed out at the semi-final stages.
“Apparently Joe Brolly met Sean Boylan after that semi-final and said: ‘It was a good game, Sean, until Tyrone ran out of bandages!’
“I think if we had beaten Tyrone and gone on, physically, we might have been capable of standing up to Meath a bit better.
“After that the team began to break up. Aidan Farrell - who was a fantastic player - he was gone three years later. He would have been the next Blaney. He’d a back injury, he played club football but his career came to a premature end. Barry Breen’s came to a premature end. Eamonn Burns had very little time left and by ’98 Greg [Blaney] had gone.”
Read more: Part one of the interview with Pete McGrath
THE natural end to McGrath’s tenure was Armagh’s hammering of Down in the 1999 Ulster final.
The Orchard men announced their arrival in emphatic style.
“Armagh’s power that day…” McGrath shakes his head in resignation.
“They just out-muscled us - Diarmaid Marsden, Paul McGrane, McGeeney, of course, Jarlath Burns was in midfield…”
McGrath, uncannily, was still around a couple of years after the thunderstorms of Casement Park in 2000 and that humiliating defeat to Antrim.
“I probably stayed a couple of years too long,” he admits.
So why stay on?
Smiling he replies: “Because I loved doing it so much…”
It wasn’t too long before he was back on sentry duty, minding the next generation of Down footballers and leading the U21s to two Ulster titles and, agonisingly, they were 25 seconds away from winning the All-Ireland title when Colm O’Driscoll pounced to grab a last-gasp goal that gave Cork a one-point victory down in Portlaoise.
Despite the harrowing manner of the defeat, McGrath felt he’d done enough with the U21s to merit a second crack at the senior job – but the privilege was handed to James McCartan.
“If we’d won that U21 All-Ireland it may have made the difference but it shouldn’t have made the difference,” insists McGrath.
“And then other people said to me: ‘Pete, it wouldn’t have made the difference.’
“So, yeah, that did hurt a bit. Down haven’t won an Ulster title since then, at any level… And yet, two years later I was back managing the Down minors for a couple of years. But sure that’s me,” McGrath laughs.
THE old master sprinkled some of his magic dust in Fermanagh’s direction like a modern-day Mr Miyagi before the players sought change and forced him out in 2017.
He maintains the Erne dissenters were misguided but holds no grudges.
“I’m not going to hold it against them because they were too good for too long for me to say anything else.”
Signing up with Louth in 2018, he sighs, was a mistake from the start.
“I didn’t want to do the Louth job. But it’s the old thing of the moth being drawn to the flame.”
Ross Carr, one of McGrath’s longest serving foot soldiers, still feels his old mentor has one big job left in him.
“I would hate to think that Pete’s career will not see another day on a podium,” Carr says.
You relay Carr’s glowing appraisal and McGrath laughs before shooting back: “I would agree with that! Ross is a very shrewd judge!
“I might be 66 years of age but I know that I would have the energy and the enthusiasm and the know-how for one more plug at inter-county senior football. I wouldn’t doubt that.
“I’m managing Rostrevor and I’m giving it all I possibly can. And it’s my own community and I feel I’m giving something back in this way.”
YOU don’t see time drifting by in Pete McGrath’s company. A couple of hours have gone in a blink of an eye.
He retired from St Colman’s, Newry in 2006 after 28 fulfilling years there.
“It was more realignment than retirement,” he says.
“It was a marvellous place to teach - great staff, great traditions, great pupils, just a great place to be.
“But education has changed; it was becoming so computer-based and I was going to have to be something I knew I could never become. Ray [Morgan] finished the year before.
“I missed the college a lot but you’ve got to move on.”
McGrath is a fresh-looking 66. His remarkable physical fitness has probably something to do with him running up the forested mountains that you can see from the front room of his house in Rostrevor three times per week.
Later tonight, he will try to plot the downfall of Downpatrick with his native St Bronagh’s in the Down Senior Football Championship.
Football is his life and the sidelines of Gaelic football pitches will always be his terrain.
You wonder does he have any regrets. Did he give too much of himself over to Gaelic football?
“Regrets is probably the wrong word,” he says after a pause. “Just unanswered questions or a question hanging there. Sometimes I say to myself, if you hadn’t invested so much of your life into football, is there anything else that you could’ve done or should’ve done?
“Investing so much time and effort into all the football teams down through the years, is there any other path your life could’ve taken?
“I don’t take holidays. I’ve been to Australia with the International Rules team. I was in the States with the Down team in ’92. You see, the idea of booking a holiday and going to an airport - it’s just… no.
“If I was to go on holiday I’d rather it was an adventure holiday, a walking holiday. I’d hate sitting beside a pool.
“But I can’t see any about turns at this stage. Life’s been good to me and you’ve got to be thankful for it all.”
For the road that the Down footballers travelled in the early 90s it’s hard not to feel nostalgic, even when creative tensions were at breaking point.
At this year’s Ulster final between Donegal and Cavan, the class of ’94 were suited and booted and paraded before a packed crowd in Clones.
“We were out on the field and I was standing beside Greg Blaney,” smiles McGrath. “Greg nudges me and says: ‘Hey Pete, do you remember the snowy night in Hilltown?’
“And I said: “Indeed I do, Greg.’”
Both men laughed.
For the last three decades or more Pete McGrath has scorched the GAA landscape.
His deep, indelible, unforgettable trace has been achieved so powerfully and so majestically that it's impossible to imagine Gaelic football without his charismatic presence.
And there's still road in front of him. More than the eye can see…
Read more: Part one of the interview with Pete McGrath