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Pete McGrath: why I still savour my All-Ireland glory with Down in 94

 

Fantastic memories: Down manager Pete McGrath celebrates All-Ireland Championship success in 1994
Fantastic memories: Down manager Pete McGrath celebrates All-Ireland Championship success in 1994
Skipper DJ Kane holds the Sam Maguire aloft
Down manager Pete McGrath
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Come Sunday, Pete McGrath will leave his house in St Colman's Garden's in Rostrevor, turn right onto the Warrenpoint Road and make the short trip into Newry for Down against Armagh.

His mind may just wander to a time a quarter of a century ago, when he was on his way to Celtic Park as Down manager - the first step on a journey that took him to his second All-Ireland title as manager, and beginning with what many consider the greatest game of all time.

But 1994 came with context. Derry took away everything Down had in 1992 with an Ulster semi-final win.

In 1993, the day became known as 'The Massacre at the Marshes,' Derry winning by 11 points.

A year later, Down had their chance for revenge.

"By this time they (Derry) were All-Ireland champions. Celtic Park was going to be the showdown of showdowns. No backdoors," he said.

"But of all teams I have managed, no team trained as hard as that team of 1994. God rest Pat O'Hare, he was our trainer and the physical training was ferocious. These were men on a mission. Reputations were at stake, players and mine as well.

"Going down the road to Celtic Park that day I just knew we were going to win that match despite the fact we were written off. And after the match, I knew we were going to win the All-Ireland. There was nothing there to stop us."

Derry beaten. A semi-final against Monaghan.

The night before over in Loughinisland, the home of Down player Gary Mason, two members of the UVF entered The Heights bar.

They shot six people dead with assault rifles.

McGrath recalled of that time: "Loughinisland happening when it did, we were still in a period where violence was the norm. You look back on it now, we are living in a relatively peaceful society. In those days we were nearly anesthetised to violence to an extent."

McGrath spoke to Mason.

"He knew these people who were shot dead on a Saturday night. I felt that maybe the less said about it, the better. This was in the context of the '90s. We couldn't change it."

Down won the game but the day was a blur. Even McGrath whose powers of recall are microscopic for tiny incidents in games, is fuzzy over the details beyond a 0-14 to 0-8 scoreline.

It left them in a final against Tyrone.

While they had reservations over how to handle Peter Canavan, McGrath challenged his players to not let his marker Brian Burns hang out to dry.

They got through it. As they did the semi-final win over Cork.

On the other side of the draw stood Dublin.

"In the build-up to the final, all that you could hear from the media, particularly the southern media was that for the good of the GAA, Dublin needs to win an All-Ireland. To save football in the capital," McGrath said.

"They had been beaten in the final in 1992.

"Derry beat them in the semi-final of 1993. All those matches with Meath in 1991 and so on. If ever a team needed an All-Ireland, here they were."

The game took on the same pattern as the wins over Tyrone and Cork. Get into a big lead, then subconsciously retreat. Dublin came at them, just as Meath had in the 1991 final.

Dublin won a penalty. Charlie Redmond stepped up and Neil Collins saved it.

"People said that if Dublin had scored the penalty? Well… The penalty was saved. That was it. We won the game by two points."

Another All-Ireland. Another homecoming.

He's still managing, still in demand at 65 with his home club Rostrevor. He added: "I would be surprised if I am still not doing it in five years time."

And so, to tomorrow. He'll be wearing some class of a Down garment and he'll desperately want them to win.

Still, there's something that rags. When he thinks back to the Down Under-21 team he managed to two Ulster titles in 2008 and 2009, well…

"I would say since 2010 there has been serious slippage. Ok, there was maybe a bit of good fortune getting to an All-Ireland final, but good fortune is what the game is all about," he added.

"We won an Ulster Under-21 title in 2008 and 2009 and came within 20 seconds of winning an All-Ireland in 2009. Cork scored a goal in injury-time to beat us by a point. I feel that the nucleus of that team was possibly not handled properly. That was the last Down team to win Ulster titles and that's going back 10 years now. What happened to the players on that team? That squad should have been the backbone of Down teams going forward."

For the record, if he ever got the chance to manage Down again?

He responds: "If Down came calling, there would be no doubt. With each passing year that becomes less of a possibility, but who knows?"

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