Louth manager Pete McGrath. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
Acceptance is perhaps the greatest strength of Pete McGrath. Acceptance that he has had to change his philosophies to earn himself an inter-county management career of four decades. Acceptance of the mistakes which taught him to improve.
He accepts that he stayed too long with Down, he perhaps feels the same of his stint in Fermanagh. However, you get the impression that when it’s time to go in Louth, it will be of mutual accord.
We speak over a coffee as McGrath butters his scone. He's in his Louth tracksuit with his rucksack kissing the hind leg of the chair. The room is noisy with Buttercrane shoppers making their way in for some lunch. But, for over an hour, we are oblivious to the raucous mood because the conversation is flowing; it's enthralling.
Sir Alex Ferguson has given lectures in Harvard and such places on leading. He’s even published a book on it. Maybe McGrath should be doing the same thing, as opposed to preparing the Louth seniors for Sunday’s Leinster Championship encounter with Carlow.
Football is what he thinks about morning, noon and night. Carlow is what he’s thinking about now. He doesn’t look beyond this weekend’s tie simply because, to him, the world doesn’t exist beyond it.
He has no aims or targets set even though the possibility of a Leinster title is marginal to say the least for a team that has suffered greatly in the months past.
“Sport isn't about sanitising, it's about romance, it's about the underdog, it's about aspiring, it's about dreaming,” he says as if preaching from an altar.
The manner in which he speaks could raise the spirits of the most depressed. After interacting with him, you almost feel invincible. His honesty is infectious and the proof is in the pudding.
“Having beaten Derry at Celtic Park in 1994, walking off the field that day, I had no doubt that we were going to win the All-Ireland, no doubts, no doubt,” he claims as if arguing with a non-believer. “Barring some kind of a catastrophe, we were going to win an All-Ireland. That's the kind of men that I had.”
Ultimately, McGrath’s faith must have rubbed off on his players as they achieved what he had prophesied.
“The team in '94, from when we started training, which would have been mid-to-late September in '93 through to the All-Ireland final, the team were together 149 times. That was incredible.
“My greatest contribution, and I think the greatest contribution that the players made, was in '94 in Celtic Park.
“Of all the teams that I've trained down through the years, no team trained as hard. No team trained as hard and they were put through the mincer I can tell you and they just did everything they were asked to do and more.
“(Greg) Blayney, Wee James (McCartan), (DJ) Kane, (Ross) Carr and those guys led us through the mountains and everywhere. There was just no way that Derry were going to beat them. It was a non-runner and that's the way they played. For me, that was the greatest thing that I was a part of.”
His ability to extract the optimum from a group of people is the unheralded aspect of his career. He had an input to many on that Down team at earlier stages in their career. Whether it be through the years he spent in St. Colman’s, Newry, and training teams alongside Ray Morgan, to manning the line with the Down minors for much of the 1980s. In many ways, McGrath planned and presided over the building of a dynasty.
Equally so, but perhaps not as flatteringly, he helped build the team across the Clanrye. Armagh, with many of his former students, would win an All-Ireland as McGrath’s time with Down came to an end.
“Diarmuid Marsden, Paul McGrane, Benny Tierney et al. Those idiots, who came through the college, went on to win an All-Ireland with Armagh,” he says, with a grin as if reflecting back on good times.
After some thought, he adds: “You couldn't pick up a manual and say that this is what you do in certain sets of circumstances. A team is a complex unit. All 15 players are different and you cannot make global statements because it’s about drawing them all in and not isolating or alienating anyone. I think, as a team manager and as a person, you get to know players. It takes time, by god it takes time, but you get to know what makes them tick.”
A CHANGE IN STYLE
Thirty-six years have passed since he first dabbled in inter-county management with the Down minors, whom he would lead to Ulster triumphs and the 1987 All-Ireland title.
His teams are synonymous with a never-say-die attitude and a swash-buckling, utterly offensive style. But something has to give.
“It’s 2014, it’s not 1991,” he says to himself.
He is after managing Fermanagh for a year. They finish the top-scorers in Division Three, but finish mid-table. They score heavily against Antrim in the Ulster Championship, but lose by a point. They are again a potent scoring force at O’Moore Park, but Laois beat them in the qualifiers. There are words exchanged in the dressing room, frustrations vented, a heart-to-heart.
“A philosophy is, I think, your belief about what makes the game what it is. For me, the game is about a group of people coming together, players particularly, who want to get the best out each other, who believe in what they're doing and are convinced in their own minds that what they're doing is worthwhile and that it's something that is bigger than themselves. They buy into it, everyone buys into it.
“That type of unity and sense of purpose is transmitted through the medium of the game and the game is all about sacrifice, endeavour, skill, courage and the challenge. That, to me, is a philosophy of why you're involved in the game itself.
“Your principles on how the game should be played, they have to change because if they don't change then you will certainly be left behind. I've had to change principles. I mean if I wanted to play the game my way entirely it would be an all-out assault. It would be on the front foot and all the rest of it. But the way the game has gone, in terms of setting up defensively and retaining possession, you simply have to take cognisance of that.”
It is a watershed moment a long way into McGrath’s career, yet he adapts and leads Fermanagh for a further three years.
Year two produces an All-Ireland quarter-final against the Dubs. It also produces an experience like no other for Rostrevor man McGrath. The qualifier win over Roscommon at Brewster Park - 1-14 to 0-16 - was a triumph on a paranormal level.
“That was one of the greatest experiences ever in my life. We were five points down with five minutes to go and then six unanswered points… Just to see the emotion of the Fermanagh people on the field afterwards, seriously, you would have thought that they had won three All-Irelands in one. It was just drama and excitement.”
MOMENTUM IS HARNESSABLE
Momentum is harnessable. He’s walking off the field at Casement Park in the driving rain. His Down U21 team are after pipping Armagh to the 2009 Ulster title and three days later they’re down to play Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final. A right-hand man, Liam Murphy, questions if they are going to be ready for the Saturday. McGrath is adamant, as too are the players. Momentum is in their favour.
It's a seminal occasion. It's his first trip back to Longford since stepping away from the Down senior post seven years earlier. Mayo, fresh, have Aidan O’Shea and Tom Parsons among their selection, but Down win and are through to an All-Ireland final with Cork.
The momentum is key. They're after winning three games in Ulster with late salvos. It's a team he compares to the Meath outfit of the early nineties. They're simply never beaten.
Cork are leading the final at half-time, but Down come back and are ahead entering the dying embers until the Rebels strike with a goal. It's over and Down are beaten.
“That was a marvellous team and a marvellous campaign.
“Of all the teams that I managed, seriously, if you were to say which team gave you the most fulfilment, it would be that U21 team because they simply refused to accept defeat and if they were going to be beaten, it was going to be with the last kick of the game.”
There was a similar momentum about Fermanagh’s run in 2015. They had momentum going into the lion’s den to face Dublin. But, there was a chance.
“There was, there was, there definitely was (a chance). Sometimes you can brainwash yourself, but I wasn't. I knew this Fermanagh team, they were a very, very good team.”
Trailing heavily at half-time, the match after Kildare had leaked seven goals against Kerry, McGrath urged his players never to give in, and they obliged, achieving something which is yet to be replicated.
“No one has scored 2-15 against Dublin since in championship football.”
It was the same in 1991, with Down.
“‘91 was a rollercoaster because the team came from nowhere virtually. The thing gathered momentum and we were really in an All-Ireland final before we knew it. The people in the county were the same. You had to be living here to understand the actual euphoria and the adulation the team were afforded. It was serious, it really was.”
But, like with the other occasions, as the doubters presented themselves, McGrath was anything but hesitant.
“It was all about this 'indestructible Meath team', but I knew we had the forwards to beat them. These weren't just forwards, these were Blaney, McCartan, (Mickey) Linden, Carr. I mean these guys could take punishment and still play football, but they could take punishment and I knew they would and continue to play.
“There was never any doubt in my mind that we were going to win, no doubt, seriously. You're in a bubble. There was an atmosphere about that Down camp that was one of utter confidence.”
In 1994, while the motive was different, the sequence and sense of inevitability was identical. Down laid to rest so many disrespectful observations that day. They could play in the rain!
“'94 was really about redemption. It was about redemption and vindication that we were not a one shot wonder and the team proved that.”
Having lost his final five championship matches, including qualifiers, with Down, McGrath knew it was time to go in 2002 after losing in Longford. He wasn’t pushed, however, as the respect for what he had achieved remained.
The edge had gone from the team heading into 1992, while McGrath conceded that he was not going to get the same effort from his players in ‘95. However, in 1996, he felt they had a chance only for Peter Canavan’s goal to deny him a third Ulster senior title. The team broke up thereafter.
Was it time to go? Maybe, but McGrath was determined to build again. In 1999, there was a false dawn and an Ulster final appearance against Armagh. But there was to be no return to Croke Park.
“The wheel had turned full circle and that's the nature of management. It takes a very objective guy to sit back unemotionally and say, 'look, this is the time to go, even though you don't want to'. I wasn't conscious of that.
“The last couple of years had been difficult. The championship defeats were harrowing. It was written, it was written that it was time to go, but I couldn't see the signs. When you love something, it's always hard to walk away from it. The end came, it was painful but no-one put a knife in me. It was my own decision.”
Though, he wasn’t finished and was primed to return ahead of 2010. He felt, having led the U21s to the final day, that he could go back. He knew what was coming and felt that he was the man to steer them towards senior success. But James McCartan was chosen, and it hurt.
“It hurt, it definitely hurt and it hurt for a long time. But it got to the stage where I said that there was no point in feeling resentment and grievance because the only person you're hurting is yourself.”
He returned to the Down minor job for three seasons before heading to Fermanagh, where, after year three and a controversial, if narrow, loss to Mayo in the qualifiers, saw him with an ultimatum. Stay or go, the latter as a hero.
Encouraged to remain, he did. He did not, however, foresee the departures of several panel members for various reasons. Things became difficult quickly and it failed to end well.
“The four years with the players were brilliant, they really were, but they felt that they needed a change. There was a meeting, which was due to take place under GPA rules between management, county officers and GPA reps, and it came out in that meeting. It just turned very, very unfriendly...
“You don't think too far ahead when something like that happens. You're gone and you're trying to make it as amicable as you possibly can. You don't want to leave a bitter legacy or say things about people that you would regret. The players were great, I've no malice or no issues (with them).”
Intelligence drips from every word McGrath utters. A retired teacher, he is a keen reader. Sometimes the genre is in the form of religion or spirituality, “nothing too serious” mind.
‘First Ask Why’ is a book he read recently. “First, ask why”, he quips. It’s the first thing he asked the Louth players.
“When you start scratching beneath the surface then you get a wider, deeper meaning and that's what should apply for people from then on. Why are you doing it? Is it for your own personal glorification?
“That's what disappointed me about people leaving the panel… It made me think, 'do these guys really have the ambition to play for their county, what does it mean to them'.
“The people who are still with me, there's no doubt about them, but, for those guys who jumped ship, and that's what it is, jumping ship, you can give all the reasons you want, that would annoy me, that would unsettle me.”
‘Black Box Thinking’ is another book which was name-checked. About the aviation industry, it advocates learning from your mistakes, something which McGrath takes very seriously.
“We all make mistakes, but if we learn from them and not replicate them then we'll all be in a better place. There shouldn’t be a stigma attached to it.”
He touches on Joe Brolly, the GPA and the tiered championship. “Sam Maguire, as a person, has a lot to answer for,” he says with a smile. He's against its break-up, while the Super 8s, in his view, is another step towards elitism.
The room has since emptied and we're the last lodgers to leave. Small talk later, he's on his way with the rucksack on his back. He's in control and looking forward with a bag of lessons and memories trailing behind.
“We had a very good, positive session last night,” was one of the last things he said.
He remains at the coalface, the leader in more ways than one.
His championship record reads 48 games and 23 wins. "It's a pass mark."
But, "stats can be deceiving".
The only stat he's interested in is the one on the Portlaoise scoreboard after 70 minutes.