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Old master McGrath still in love with game at age of 64

By Declan Bogue

Some 25 years on from the moment Pete McGrath became an All-Ireland-winning manager with Down, he is still here, perched on a plastic chair in a prefabricated hut on the side of a windswept hill in Fermanagh at their Lissan training ground.

On Sunday, he faces Antrim in the Championship. For now, he is discussing the great love of his life - Gaelic football.

Never less than courteous in interview, time stands still when he measures the last quarter of a century and this eccentric, final act in a county that necessitates a four-hour round trip, door-to-door.

"I enjoyed the challenge in the '90s. Things were done a certain way and you were in it, in the middle of it, and getting things done," he recalls when asked to compare the two eras.

"If I was coming up here every night knowing that I had to get them warmed up, doing the drills, I don't think I could stick it. I couldn't do it physically. It's been a change, but it's a change I've embraced, and I think it's a change for the better."

How come?

"In '91, I took every training session. Every part of every session. That's unheard of today. You have different experts for different things. We talk collectively of what we want to do and what has to be done, and then it's done. Leon Carters, Raymie Johnston, Simon Bradley, Brian Tracey, they'll do it and I'm overseeing it.

"A lot of sessions ended with a sprint session, and as soon as the last sprint was done, bang, they were into the changing room. That would not happen now."

While discussing GAA books and yarns, McGrath name-checks the great Kerry team of Mick O'Dwyer, the several physical education teachers (he was one himself at St Colman's, Newry, until retirement) on that team and how their expertise was never sought nor asked as O'Dwyer made them carry each other around a hard pitch or sprint from wire to wire. Their legacy is of hip replacements as much as medals.

Again, that's changed. Coaches are more "player-friendly" and there is a lot more expertise on the training ground. But McGrath has a severe distaste for talk of players being 'indentured servants' or that they are doing this against their will.

He says: "I remember in 1994 when we won the All-Ireland, we started training the previous September because of the National League at that time (which ran over the winter).

"When I quantified the number of sessions we had and divided by the number of weeks, it worked out on average our team was together 3.9 times a week."

Essentially, McGrath believes the job of manager is still about people. "You're dealing with young men. You're trying to get the best out of them as footballers, which means you have to try and get the best out of them as people.

"With players, it could have been work or marriage. I don't see myself as a qualified counsellor, but we all have lives outside football. Those lives can impinge sometimes, and do quite a bit."

He adds: "Any manager managing any team will tell you that you're trying to facilitate someone to be the best they can be as a footballer. Someone who's a rogue or a scoundrel off the pitch isn't going to be a good performer on the pitch.

"I think there is a correlation between what you're doing here at training and playing, and your private life and social life and professional life is like."

McGrath finds it easy to agree with Sir Ranulph Fiennes' maxim that you can teach skill but you can't change character.

"We all learn as we go along that no two people see the world in the same way. You have to remember that when you're dealing with players," he says.

In Fermanagh, he has had to show his mettle occasionally over the thorny issue of club fixtures, but he is universally respected. While rumours will always persist over under-the-table payments to managers, Lissan insiders will tell you the difficulties in getting McGrath to file his mileage expenses.

Because to him, this is what he does for kicks. Ask him how many hours a week he invests in it and he starts to tally up before switching the emphasis.

"I left Newry at 4pm, I'll be home tonight around 11.30pm.

"Friday night will be something similar with the Club Eirne event… (McGrath names the team to fundraising sponsors at their annual chat night).

"If you quantify it in hours, yes, quite a lot. But that doesn't bother me. I'm doing something I enjoy, something I get great fulfilment and satisfaction from. It's a challenge and I enjoy it. I don't sit and think 'God I spent 38 hours over with that Fermanagh crowd last week'.

"When you're at home, you're maybe looking at DVDs of matches and making notes for training. If you added it all up, you'd say I'm crazy for doing it. But when you enjoy doing something, if you enjoy your job, you'll never work a day in your life."

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