Football

'It was just one of those occasions where you know, yeah, this is it': Down, Longford and the end of an era

It is a day that is etched in the Down subconscious and, as the Mournemen prepare to face Paddy Christie’s Longford in Newry tonight, Neil Loughran talks to some of those involved when an unforgettable era came to an end 21 years ago…

The Down team take the field ahead of their ill-fated 2002 qualifier clash with Longford, which would signal the end of Pete McGrath's reign as manager. Picture by Louis McNally
The Down team take the field ahead of their ill-fated 2002 qualifier clash with Longford, which would signal the end of Pete McGrath's reign as manager. Picture by Louis McNally The Down team take the field ahead of their ill-fated 2002 qualifier clash with Longford, which would signal the end of Pete McGrath's reign as manager. Picture by Louis McNally

SOMEWHERE in the deepest, darkest corridors of the Down subconscious, far removed from All-Ireland glories and sheets of red and black festooning the Hill beneath summer skies, sits a sorry Saturday night in Longford.

It is not nearly enough to send a shiver along the spine when the counties come together - as is the case with Saturday’s Tailteann Cup preliminary quarter-final - but it’s always there in the background on days like these; the low hum that can’t quite be quietened.

Pearse Park on June 8, 2002 wasn’t where it was supposed to end for Pete McGrath.

After 13 years that twice brought Sam Maguire back to the Mourne County, the Rostrevor man deserved better than for his last stand to come in such ignominious circumstances. But sentiment holds no sway in the cut and thrust of Championship football.

And, if the writing had been on the wall after Ulster exits to Antrim (2000) and Cavan (2001) before Donegal trampled Down into the dirt six days earlier, a qualifier loss in Longford proved the point of no return.

By the time referee Pauric Mangan pressed the whistle to his lips, McGrath knew. Turning to assistant John Murphy, who had been by his side from the beginning, the pair found themselves in agreement one last time.

“I think it’s time, John…”

“I think it is, Pete…”

But how did it come to this? How had the county who breathed new life into Ulster football in the early ’90s found itself at such a low ebb just eight years after being crowned kings of Ireland?

There are a few strands to it, the prevailing winds of a perfect storm playing a part as Down stuttered towards a crossroads before stopping still, the 1999 Ulster final hammering by an emerging Armagh the line that separated hope and despair.

On one end of the scale was what remained of the old guard. Mickey Linden was 39 and had long entered the nadir of a glittering county career, while James and Gregory McCartan remained from the glory days of 1991 and 1994.

In the middle were men like Mickey McVeigh, Alan Molloy, Aidan O’Prey, Shane Ward, Shane Mulholland and Shane King, and then there was the All-Ireland minor winning side of 1999.

Against the backdrop of that provincial final trimming at the hands of the Orchard, a heavy burden of expectation suddenly rested on young shoulders.

Benny Coulter, John Clarke, Brendan Grant, Liam Doyle, Michael Walsh, Ronan Sexton and Ronan Murtagh would all play their part in years to come, even when silverware and success still remained elusive, but it was too big an ask to stop the slide while finding their feet on the senior stage.

Having come from a culture of winning, though, what materialised in those early years was a shock to the system.

“We were coming in with enthusiasm thinking that, because we’d won a minor All-Ireland, we were going to step in and start doing the same at senior level,” says Walsh.

“We came in with the mindset ‘we’re going to win things here’. There probably was that naivety. You need that stepping stone at U21, and we didn’t really get that… we did play with the U21s, but we didn’t really get to train with them.

“Myself and Benny had played in 2000 against Antrim, 2002 was our third Championship but we were still very young, learning our trade at senior county level – still developing, really.”

And yet, within such a short space of time, those young men had become “pivotal”, recalls Brian Burns.

The Bryansford man forced his way into McGrath’s side in 1994, one of a new breed brought in to pile the pressure on established stars after Down failed to hit the same heights post-’91.

By 2002, though, that competitive edge had been lost. Was McGrath too loyal to some of those who helped deliver such unforgettable moments?

“I would never point the finger at a manager,” says Burns.

“There’s years you’re really on it and you know you’re working hard, and that definitely wasn’t one of those years.

“After Pete went, I felt I could have served the thing better. I don’t know if it was complacency, maybe underneath it all I thought I still had my place no matter what.

“I wasn’t fighting as hard as I maybe should’ve been. Maybe that was symptomatic of where we were at the time.”

That largely the same group, under Paddy O’Rourke, would reach the following year’s Ulster final – coming within minutes of defeating eventual All-Ireland champions Tyrone before losing out after a replay – demonstrated the instant impact a new manager, and a new voice, would have.

“That was a team in transition, there were a couple of us hanging on -12 months made a big difference to those younger boys, and we did get a bit of a bounce off Paddy coming in,” says Burns.

“The next year was a harsher camp. Paddy took no shit, everybody was in tremendous shape, playing really well for their clubs… you were on notice if you weren’t really on it.”

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Liam Doyle attempts to stop Longford midfielder Paul Barden, who was superb as Down were defeated at Pearse Park. Picture by Joe McDonagh
Liam Doyle attempts to stop Longford midfielder Paul Barden, who was superb as Down were defeated at Pearse Park. Picture by Joe McDonagh Liam Doyle attempts to stop Longford midfielder Paul Barden, who was superb as Down were defeated at Pearse Park. Picture by Joe McDonagh

IT is in the context of all those contributing factors that defeat to Longford could never be looked upon in isolation – it was simply the tipping point, a day when everything that could go wrong did.

Indeed, even before the ball was thrown in, the signs were not good.

A family commitment saw Mickey Linden unable to take the team bus to Pearse Park, instead driving down with Mayobridge club-mate Michael Walsh.

“They took a wrong road somewhere,” smiled Gregory McCartan a few years back, “ended up halfway to Tullamore.”

“This was well before sat navs,” says Walsh, “when we arrived the team had just gone out to do the warm-up. It wasn’t ideal in any way.”

Hope didn’t last long for the small crowd of Down supporters either, a 0-3 to 0-1 lead six minutes in as good as it got. Injury forced Linden and O’Prey off before half-time and, scenting blood, Longford soon shrugged off the disappointment of their Leinster replay exit to Louth a fortnight earlier.

Captain Padraic Davis had been groomsman at a wedding in Carrick-on-Shannon earlier that afternoon, making a mad dash across the midlands to arrive in time for throw-in.

“I had to leave during the speeches...”

Davis had a soft spot for Down, and one player in particular.

He remembered watching James McCartan rip it up at schools’ level as notice was first served of his outrageous talent, the pair sharing the same field when St Colman’s College, Newry – under McGrath and Ray Morgan - got the better of St Mel’s College in the 1988 Hogan Cup final.

This time around, though, Davis had the last laugh, the Fr Manning Gaels full-forward finishing up with 0-6 in a one-sided victory.

“When we saw the draw, it was a case of ‘maybe there’s something here we can go after’. That 100 per cent would have been the feeling.

“They had been in decline for some time, we were probably a qualifier team – we knew it was an opportunity.”

And while Down supporters will always associate that game with McGrath’s departure, it is remembered in Longford for something else entirely –Paul Barden’s superb second half score, the midfielder catching the ball under his own bar, playing a one-two on the way out of defence before a 70 yard dash up the field that finished with the biggest roar of the day.

“We would still say now that’s the greatest individual point we have seen.”

In the dying moments, and with the game gone, the Down manager summoned Gregory McCartan from the bench. To his eternal regret, given the road he and McGrath had travelled from minor days, the Castlewellan midfielder refused.

Within minutes, an era had come to an end. McGrath told the players he was stepping down and thanked them for their efforts. County board chairman Eamonn O’Toole said a few words before, one by one, the Mournemen boarded the bus for the long journey home.

The sound of silence will stay with all for a lifetime.

“It was funeral parlour stuff,” says Brian Burns.

“That day,” said John Clarke in a 2019 interview, “you’d never forget that.

“Pete was in tears when he told us he was standing down - it was a tough journey home. There was nothing said and then he got off the bus at Newry and that was sort of... it.

“It was a sad way for it all to end, and you did feel a bit of guilt thinking maybe I didn’t perform and this man’s gone because of me, because of us.

“I mean, this was a game Down traditionally would have won. Now Pete’s resigned, there’s tears in the changing room. All of a sudden you’re thinking ‘this isn’t what I imagined here’.”

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Pete McGrath brought an end to his Down tenure in the moments after the 2002 qualifier defeat to Longford. Picture by Darryl Mooney
Pete McGrath brought an end to his Down tenure in the moments after the 2002 qualifier defeat to Longford. Picture by Darryl Mooney Pete McGrath brought an end to his Down tenure in the moments after the 2002 qualifier defeat to Longford. Picture by Darryl Mooney

PETE McGrath found himself in demand from journalists during the days leading up to Down’s last Tailteann Cup group game against Meath, all keen to rewind the clock to the counties’ famous All-Ireland final clash.

While at Parnell Park, on his 70th birthday, he was reunited with an old acquaintance when former foe Sean Boylan extended a hand from the other side of the wall, the Dunboyne man having been brought back into the Meath fold by one-time disciple Colm O’Rourke.

A week on, McGrath is being asked to take another walk along memory lane. He would rather talk about 1991 than 2002 any day but understands that, ultimately, it is all part of the same story.

Typically, time is of the essence as, alongside nephew Peter jr, McGrath is preparing to head out the door to take Aghagallon training on Wednesday evening. Football is, and always has been, at the epicentre of everything.

That’s why it hurt so much when the end eventually came with Down.

“For a couple of days after, whenever I met people, I was emotional, to be honest.

“You were talking to members of your own family about it, then going into the College on the Monday, but very quickly you come to realise – you have to realise – that everything, no matter how long it lasts, is temporary.

“Talking to people in the weeks after, people’s gratitude for what had been done in the ’90s, that’s really what shone through. Of course in that period there were disappointing days, but whenever something like that ends, people do remember the good times too.

“Hopefully they still do.”

A lack of enthusiasm for the new qualifier system, the shorter turnaround from the Donegal defeat after a waterlogged pitch in Ballybofey saw that game put back a week, all were factors when Longford rolled around.

Despite Down’s difficulties in the years before, walking away hadn’t crossed McGrath’s mind before. But when it did, there could be no going back.

“It was just that game - that night.

“That season, and the preceding season, had been difficult in terms of players leaving the panel, players coming to the end of the line in terms of their playing careers. The personnel, in relation to what we had in previous years, it was just one of those occasions where, at the end of that game, there was a finality about it – and that finality had never really surfaced at any time prior to that.

“It was just one of those occasions where you know, yeah, this is it. It was an instinctive thing. It was a situation where the writing was on the wall very clearly, so don’t fight it… don’t fight it. Just go.

“And it’s funny,” he smiles, “I remember meeting someone locally in the days after, and he said to me: ‘Peter, it was rather poignant that, after all the great days, your reign should end on a Saturday evening in far away Longford’.”