Pete McGrath is still enjoying the game
By Cian O’Connell
Kingspan Breffni Park provided the ideal backdrop for a memorable GAA occasion on July 25, 2015. Pete McGrath stood proudly on the sideline, the coolest man with 10,378 spectators watching on.
At the end when Fermanagh beat Westmeath to secure an All Ireland Quarter-Final berth the Green and White crowd celebrated furiously. A year and a half later McGrath, who had enjoyed such distinguished success with Down, admits it is the thought and possibilities that exist on those type of stirring occasions which keep the Gaelic Football flame burning in so many.
“The days when you get memorable victories and when you see supporters coming on to the pitch, families and that, a county like Fermanagh doesn't get too many of those days,” McGrath remarks.
“When they do happen, they do tend to leave a memory or an imprint in your mind. That is the type of experience that drives players on, the players aren't doing it just for themselves.
“They are doing it for their clubs, their families and their counties. When they get a victory that is significant and when everyone is able to celebrate it then that is what makes the GAA what it is.
"Yes, it is a competitive Division, all teams have dropped points."
“Those days do drive us on, to attain more occasions like those, yeah, that is certainly is something that motivates us. As well as that, players and managers, we are all competitive people, who have been in sport a long time. It is in our nature to want to compete, to be the best we can. That underlies the whole thing, that personal challenge and fulfilment.”
McGrath, who guided Down to All Ireland glory in 1991 and 1994, is still an utterly relevant figure in the game. The passion and desire to succeed remains strong with Fermanagh’s Allianz Football League Division Two campaign occupying his sporting thoughts presently.
A victory over Down was followed by defeats to Galway and Cork so Sunday’s trip to Newbridge for an encounter with Kildare carries importance. “Yes, it is a competitive Division, all teams have dropped points,” McGrath states.
“I think the next series of matches will be very telling in terms of the final outcome of the League placings. We have a very tough game against Kildare on Sunday, they are going well. I know they were beaten on Sunday by a late goal against Derry, but it is a competitive Division.
“At the moment there is no team running away with it, everyone is still in the hunt for promotion and by the same token, if you aren't pushing up then you are looking down which isn't a nice thing to be doing.
“It is competitive and that is what teams want at this time of the year. They want competitive matches, which are going to improve us, to bring our players on. That is what we are getting.”
Does McGrath feel Fermanagh compare favourably with his previous two campaigns in charge? “After three matches of the League last year we had two points and we have the same this year,” McGrath says.
“We succeeded in securing our status last year, that has to be our priority over the next four games. We started off with a very good performance with a very good win against Down. Then against Galway we were leading by four points at half-time, we had lost to Eoin Donnelly to a black card.
"I'm more than happy with the progress that has been made."
“He is one of our very inspirational players. In the second half of that game Galway's superior height and strength told, they won the game by six points in the end. That was disappointing. We always knew going to Cork was going to be a major challenge. We played well enough in bits and pieces, but not consistently enough over the 70 minutes.
“Generally we would like to have more points on the board, but you are where you are and the players are working hard. I know we have a very good team in Fermanagh, major challenges are ahead which I'm sure we are going to meet.”
Progress is being made by Fermanagh, but McGrath is adamant that his team can develop further. “Yes, I think the common consensus is that we are moving in the right direction. Geographically Fermanagh is a small county with only 20 clubs so there are limited playing resources, but the panel we have got, I have great faith in them.
“They are talented, they are committed, there is an awful lot of serious potential. I'm more than happy with the progress that has been made.
“Ask any inter-county manager or player, they want to push on. You just don't want to make a certain amount of progress to then stall. We are always looking to reach that better performance, that higher status, that is a continual challenge we all face.
“Fermanagh is no different to any other county. There is still a way to go in this journey, we still have some distance along the road to travel, but I think we are headed in the right direction. If the players continue to work hard, to believe, to really dedicate themselves to individual improvement then we can go a considerable distance further along the road.”
Throughout the decades McGrath has always shown a willingness to adapt stitching teams together with the resources at his disposal. Down had a deep tradition, but McGrath found ways to inspire a gifted generation in the 90s.
Now it is Fermanagh, who are benefitting from his shrewd approach. How and what has changed in the intervening period? “You would have to say that the whole process by which players are prepared and by which teams are prepared. There is a lot more expertise, managers have to delegate a lot more today than I would have in the 90s.
“There is specialisation with fitness trainers, strength and conditioning trainers. Guys work with some part of the team and others work with other parts of the team. Sports science obviously plays a role, the whole process has become more complex, that in itself is a challenge.
"Gaelic Games like everything is like every other aspect of life, it changes, it evolves, it develops, it becomes more complicated, in some cases too complicated. So that is the kind of background and environment we are all operating in.”
"Enjoyment still is the fundamental reason why they do it."
The one thing that matters most of all though for McGrath, a teacher with a thirst for knowledge, is to ensure everything is in place for footballers to prosper. “Still for any team manager the basic philosophy has to remain the same, the group of players you have got, you are simply trying to unlock their potential as players and as people,” McGrath stresses.
“To try to generally push them along in a certain direction where they are going to challenge themselves and they are going to see a lot of the reasons why they are doing what they are doing. Enjoyment, fulfilment, the challenge, something that takes them away from the workplace.
“These things are all rolled up in what I think it takes to be a football manager or an inter county senior player. There are many things that feed into the whole mindset and the rationale why people do it - but I think enjoyment, despite the talk we hear about how difficult it is to be an inter-county player, yes it is and they have to make sacrifices.
“But to do anything in life worthwhile you have to make sacrifices. Enjoyment still is the fundamental reason why they do it. Enjoyment, satisfaction, working with a group that are committed, the dynamic of that. All those things make it a very, very worthwhile experience for everyone.” With McGrath on the line it will be rewarding.