A successful and outstanding manager
Peter McGrath has undoubtedly been one of the most successful managers in the history of Gaelic Football in County Down. Born in Rostrevor in the south of the county, McGrath led the Down minor team to All Ireland success in 1987 and the senior team to national victories in 1991 and 1994. His teams were typified by their spirited attitude allied with an attacking flair. This was symbolised by players such as DJ Kane, Ross Carr and Greg Blaney. McGrath managed the Down senior team from September 1989 to his departure in July 2002.
Down traditions – the swinging sixties
Peter McGrath grew up supporting the great Down teams of the 1960s, when they won three All Ireland senior titles in 1960, 1961 and 1968. It was an exciting time to follow Gaelic Football in Down, and McGrath was inspired by the heroics of Sean O’Neill of Newry, Patsy O’Hagan of Clonduff and the McCartans from Glenn. As a student at St. Colman’s College in Newry, McGrath performed well for the college teams which earned him a place on the county minor team.
Three good years on this underage team led McGrath to a natural progression onto the Down senior team in 1971. He played for six years at this level, making appearances in three Ulster senior finals. Unfortunately Down lost on all three occasions, to Tyrone, Donegal and Derry respectively. Peter was in the starting team in 1974, but despite giving a good performance, could not help Down to victory.
St. Colman’s College – a managerial debut
Peter gained a teaching post at his alma mater; St. Colman’s College in the mid 1970’s and assisted his teaching colleague Ray Morgan from Burren from 1978 in managing the McRory Cup team. This partnership has proved to be enduringly successful down the years and until 2005, the college had amassed seven McRory Cups and three Hogan Cup titles under the duo’s guidance.
Peter agreed to manage the Down under 16 team during the late 1970s and a degree of success against other counties led to him accepting the Down minor manager position in 1982. Ulster titles were won in 1986 and 1987, and the icing on the cake was achieved with the annexing of the All Ireland minor title in 1987 when Down defeated Cork in the final by 1-12 to 1-5.
This steady run of success catapulted McGrath to the attention of the Down county board when the senior team managerial post became vacant in the summer of 1989. He accepted the position after several others had refused. McGrath realised there was much hard work in front of him, but also acknowledged that there was a core group of players such as Paddy O’Rourke, Greg Blaney and Mickey Linden who were good enough to win titles.
Phoenix rises from the ashes: Down 1991
The 1990 Ulster championship had provided Down fans with much excitement, especially in the semi final with neighbours Armagh. Armagh sneaked through after a replay, but the arrival on the scene of James McCartan gave Down great hope for the future. Down were not favoured by the media experts for any success in 1991, and they played old rivals Armagh in the first round in the marshes in Newry. A Mickey Linden penalty saw Down gain a degree of revenge for the previous year’s defeat, and followed this with a replayed victory over Derry to reach the final for the first time since 1986.
The final against raging favourites Donegal witnessed a remarkable display by the men from the Mourne county, and some exceptional scores by Gary Mason and Ross Car set the tone for what turned into a one-sided contest. The final score of 1-14 to 0-9 adequately reflected the domination of Down over their North West rivals, and handed Pete McGrath his first piece of silverware as manager of Down.
The reward for winning Ulster was a tilt at the All Ireland title. The semi final was a close encounter against the Munster champions Kerry. The Down full forward Peter Withnell scored two goals to earn the Ulster champions a place in the final. Down were gathering momentum, and in Peter McGrath they had the manager to help them keep focused.
The 1991 All Ireland final has been labelled a ‘classic’ by many commentators, with Down and Meath serving up a thrilling battle. Meath had endured a long summer of football, overcoming Dublin only after four replays. They were termed the ‘team who couldn’t be beaten’ by many, but Down proved too strong on that particular September day. A goal in the second half by midfielder Barry Breen helped seal victory for Down, who celebrated their first All Ireland senior victory since 1968.
More success in ’94
A few lean years followed for Down football, and in 1994 some pundits were suggesting that perhaps Down needed a change of manager. Any doubts that people had were dispelled in great style that year. A first round dismissal of All Ireland champions Derry was followed by routine victories over Monaghan and Tyrone. A disappointing Cork side were brushed aside with relative ease in the All Ireland semi-final, and this led to a meeting with Dublin in the final.
A virtuoso display by Mickey Linden with four crucial points made the difference between the teams, and the final scoreline of 1-10 to 0-12 ensured that Peter McGrath won his second All Ireland title as manager of the Down senior team. Unfortunately, barren years followed for Down, but this fails to diminish Peter McGrath’s reputation as a successful and outstanding manager.
By Cathal Coyle