Pete McGrath: 'Progress has been made'
By Cian O'Connell
“The day you lose your enthusiasm, the day you lose your sense of excitement about the game, you just have to take a look at yourself and say maybe this is the end of the road,” Pete McGrath is in full flow because Championship possibilities always exist. The decades may change, but around this time every year something stirs in McGrath.
Saturday evening’s Ulster SFC preliminary round tussle involving Monaghan and Fermanagh will be heavily influenced by one of Gaelic Football’s great minds.
Sport will always matter to McGrath. “I still think very enthusiastically about it and I'm really looking forward to Saturday. Things are falling into place, with the rub of the green we can certainly put in a big performance in Clones.”
McGrath’s life has been spent training teams at various levels, but the opportunity to manage Fermanagh was a challenge. A connection has been forged between McGrath and Fermanagh.
“What I have found in Fermanagh is an awful lot of goodwill from people,” McGrath says. “The players over this last three seasons have committed fully to what we have asked them to do.
"Progress has been made and we feel there is a lot more to come from this team over the next season or two."
“I'd like to think what we asked them to do were the right things, that is was manageable, that it wasn't taking over their lives completely. As a consequence of that they have retained their enthusiasm for the whole enterprise. There definitely is a good dynamic there, I'd like to think there is.
“When you are working with any group over a period of time of course there is going to be frustrations and moments, I wouldn't say of conflict - differences of opinion, but you need that to give players and management an edge.
“We respect each other and we try to get the best out of each other. I try to get the best out of them and indeed they get the best out of me and my management team so we push on regardless.
“Progress has been made and we feel there is a lot more to come from this team over the next season or two. Obviously what happens on Saturday will be another indicator in terms of the direction we are going in.”
Having steered his native Down to All Ireland glory in 1991 and 1994 McGrath still carries the same sense of passion and enthusiasm. “Inter-county level is the pick of the bunch, it is the cream of the crop.
“Yeah, at this time of the year when the Championship is in the air and the players have worked hard over the course of the season when you see players improving, getting fitter, and you see the team ethic getting stronger.
“The challenge then is looming large as you get closer to the game. That does bring excitement, it brings anticipation, that air of expectancy. I always enjoy that, I always have.
“Working with players who are committed and talented, who want to be the very best that they can be. That has always given me a lot of satisfaction, a lot of fulfilment. I'd like to think that my enthusiasm sort of interacts with the players.”
Fermanagh’s relegation from Division Two of the Allianz Football League was a blow, but Westmeath responded in the summer following disappointing spring campaigns in 2015 and 2016. “That is for sure, the League is, I always think, extremely important in seeing where your team is at, giving players opportunity and game time at a pretty sharp end.
“Once the League is over it is over and the League doesn't become relevant again until next February. The League campaign is well out of our system, we have learned from it.
"The players have worked exceptionally hard and we have put our League disappointment behind us to focus on this game for the past four or five weeks."
“We have taken the blows that went along with it and we have taken positives too from what we encountered during those seven matches. It is all now in the mix for Saturday.”
Malachy O’Rourke’s sterling work with Monaghan is acknowledged and respected by McGrath, who accepts that the trip to Clones will be a demanding assignment. “Every Championship match is obviously a challenge, the fact that we are in the preliminary round, out first, the first day and Monaghan have had a good League campaign,” McGrath remarks.
“They certainly consolidated their position in Division One, they are an accomplished team, they have won two Ulster titles over the past four or five years.
“Nobody has to tell us the nature of the challenge and the extent of the challenge. The players have worked exceptionally hard and we have put our League disappointment behind us to focus on this game for the past four or five weeks.
“Like every team at this time of year we are very single minded in knowing what has to be done, realising the challenge that is there. It is all about meeting that challenge, it is the same for any team going into any Championship match: you have to perform on the day, that is what we are intending to do.” McGrath will be patrolling the line, still central and relevant to the adored game he has served so well.