When Down won their Ulster and All Ireland titles in 1991 and 1994, the qualifier series would have been deemed a figment of the imagination such was the inertia in relation to change within the GAA just then.
But now Peter McGrath, the man who guided the Mournemen to both those accolades and who is still very much regarded as a managerial visionary within the Association, provides a telling endorsement of a series in which he himself had no involvement.
Indeed McGrath, whose impressive management CV with Down also encompasses an All Ireland Minor title in 1987 as well as Ulster under-21 crowns in 2008/09, attributes the huge sense of anticipation and overall fervour surrounding Down’s semi-final meeting with Kildare on Sunday to the spectacular upsurge in the teams’ fortunes via the qualifiers.
“The qualifiers actually suited both teams,” states McGrath. “Firstly, the respective managers James McCartan and Kieran McGeeney now know just what their strongest available starting line-ups are, and secondly they have both been able to cement the pattern to which they want their teams to play. Any manager will tell you that this can only be done over several games so the qualifiers series has served these two teams particularly well.”
McGrath’s theory has already been endorsed by Down forward Benny Coulter, who says: “If we are honest, we would have to say that had we beaten Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final we would have gone on to meet Monaghan in a 50/50 game in the Ulster final which we might have lost. That would have meant us finding ourselves up against Kildare six days later in the qualifiers (Monaghan lost against the Lily Whites) and we would hardly have been ready for that.”
James McCartan, of course, was a Down hero in those 1991 and ’94 triumphs and McGrath has a vivid recollection of the qualities he displayed then.
“He has brought the same levels of commitment, single-mindedness, fierce resolve and marked pride he showed as a player to his role now as a manager,” he said. “This is certainly benefiting Down.”
And while McGrath points to Down’s burgeoning self-belief and positive attitude as key assets, he stresses that Kildare’s renaissance has been one of the highlights of the All Ireland Championship to date.
“Kieran McGeeney’s side has improved incrementally and I feel that is to their benefit,” insists McGrath.
“They have learned more about themselves as they have moved along and they have now acquired a level of confidence and intensity that will stand to them.”
His belief that Sunday’s contest could be one of the best of the year is founded on two key elements.
“Neither side will be hamstrung by nerves because they have experience of Croke Park this year although managers will always have the nagging fear that butterflies can still perhaps intrude,” suggests McGrath.
“And I suspect that the strength which both managers have on their respective benches will ensure that the tie goes right down to the wire.”
As Down under-21 manager he has helped to further shape the ca reers of Paul McComiskey, Peter Fitzpatrick and Conor Maginn, all of whom have had an impact at senior level this term, while in his current role as Bryansford club boss he has overseen the rapid development of Kalum King, now the mainstay of the Down midfield.
“I was pleased for Kalum when James McCartan made the decision to bring him into the senior squad at the start of the year,” predicts McGrath. “He has certainly more than justified his selection and I would expect that his competitive spirit, unlimited stamina and ability to win primary possession as well as make telling tackles will be of great benefit to Down on Sunday.”
The strong influence of Martin Clarke in both defence and attack, the overall cohesion which manager McCartan has engendered and the experience of Danny Hughes and Benny Coulter up front are other attributes which McGrath feels will bolster Down’s chances of securing a place in the All Ireland final against Cork.
Clubs managed: Bryansford, An Riocht, Cooley |Kickhams
Counties managed: Down (1989-2002)
Honours: All Ireland SFC winner 1991 and 1994, All Ireland MFC 1987, Ulster MFC 1986, Ulster Under 21 2008/2009.
Hogan Cups: 1986,1988, 1993, 1998
MacRory Cups: 1979, 1981, 1988, 1993, 1998
Rannafast Cups: 1979, 1986
Other honours: Louth Division 1 title with Cooley 2004, Down Division One League title with An Riocht 2007
James McCartan may ultimately call all the shots as Down manager but his backroom team of Brian McIver, Paddy Tally and Jerome Johnston have come in for a glowing tribute from the players in the build-up to Sunday’s All Ireland semi-final against Kildare.