`Peter The Great` Soars To Summit Of GAA World
(Part 2)

“Then, when the walls came down in 1989, Peter answered a request from the Down County Committee, and took charge of the senior squad. They reached the National League Final in 1990, for the first time in seven years, but lost to Armagh in the Ulster Championship replay. And they finished bottom of Division 1.

“But a metamorphous took place, Down became a confident and superbly-fit team, and went on to win the Ulster title. They recorded the first victories over teams from Munster and Leinster, for the first time in 23 and 30 years respectively. However Derry deprived the Mourne county of success over the next two years, until they blazed a glorious path in 1994, finishing on a wet Sunday in Croke Park, winning Down’s fifth All-Ireland title.”

Danny Murphy stated: “”It was once stated that Peter McGrath was not a great manager, but was good at cobbling a team together. The insult was implicit against the team and manager. It failed to take into account what the Down team had achieved.

For, with the exception of Mick O’Dwyer, Peter McGrath’s record stands equal to any manager, going back to 1960.” Meanwhile, Peter’s right-hand-man as manager of the 91/94 squads, John Murphy, who starred in the 1968 Sam Maguire Cup winning squad, has described how “the feelings of joy and despair are as fervent for the management as for the players, - the expectation and tension of the changing room just as keen.

“Management is about regular training, absorption of information, taking guidance and instructions, improving one’s ability and technique. The 1968 squad were ambitious for success, meeting the demands and criteria required to achieve National League and All-Ireland success.

“We had the task of harnessing the individuality of players, in order to create one well-prepared, resilient and resourceful unit. Fortunately, in those days there was not the media circus of to-day. There were some scribes, but the sight of TV cameras at the training HQ in Newcastle was a novelty. `Press nights` were unheard-of. Cautious optimism prevailed. How would I cope against Denis O’Sullivan, regarded as the best wing half-back, and also 70,000 fanatical fans? But we had the expert guidance of Sean O’Neill, Dan McCartan, Paddy Doherty and Joe Lennon, who had seen it all before.

“Management of a senior squad can be enlightening, time-consuming and traumatic. The team can become your adopted family. Modern-day management is about thinking on your feet, - your every word is picked up, every action scrutinised. You must have football knowledge, training techniques, psychology, as well as a great deal of humour and flexibility. Players may have formed strongly-held opinions, which must be listened to, if not necessarily agreed with.”

And John Murphy stated in the Down GAA Yearbook of 1994: “After 23 years in the doldrums, the All-Ireland victory of 1991 was sweet indeed. We shielded the squad from the bombardment of the media, as the players had to be prepared physically and mentally. They responded magnificently. I was pleased for Paddy O’Rourke, Liam Austin, Greg Blaney, Ambrose Rodgers and Mickey Linden. They had toiled manfully in the late 70’s and the 80’s,- now their ambitions were fulfilled!

“Down were the last Northern side to win the Sam Maguire Cup before the `Troubles began. Now in 1994, with the conflict over, Down are again champions. Did the unrest inhibit the performances and fortunes of Northern sides?” asked this nephew of the legendary TP Murphy, scorer of a brilliant goal in the 1968 Final.

Meanwhile, a top player in Peter McGrath’s 1991/1994 squads, James McCartan (junior), has been public defended by a former Armagh and Ulster star, Dr Felix McKnight, in the face of conviction for assaulting a player on an opposing team.

Dr McKnight, who resides in Australia, is married to Delia McCartan, an aunt of young James, and sister of Dan and James McCartan (senior). A GP for 43 years, with a Diploma in Sports Medicine, Dr Felix has attended to International Rules teams for 28 years. And he has played for Killeavy, Armagh, Ulster, the Combined Universities, soccer, rugby and Australian Rules football, despite losing the sight in his right eye from an early age. He “came up against some of the toughest men in the game, - no quarter was asked for or given.”

And Dr McKnight declared: “I have known the McCartan family, long before I met my wife, having played against many members of the family. They were tough but fair. Indeed, James (senior), Dan and James (junior) would rank with the best, who ever played that wonderful game. Their word was always their bond.

“I have watched James (junior) since the early days. He is indeed a champion, as two All-Ireland senior medals, and one `Sportsman of the Year` Award would suggest. He would have received more abuse from full-backs than almost any player, because his style of play was always to head for goal. I have never seen him retaliate.

“Finally, if I was still playing, I would wear a black arm-band to show solidarity with a great champion, and to mourn the death of justice and fairness in the so-called Republic of Ireland,” Dr Mc Knight concluded.

But Dr Felix is not the only member of the McKnight family, related to Down stars. His sister, Mary is Mrs Kevin O’Neill, while Bridie is the wife of PJ McElroy, stalwart midfielder in many Mourne county triumphs. John and Michael McKnight were in the Armagh squad, which met Kerry in the 1953 All-Ireland Final.

Meanwhile Kevin’s brother Sean O’Neill, cousins James and Dan McCartan and Val Kane, would often be in the Down squad. So when the Orchard county met the Mournemen in the 60’s, it was a case of happy families all round.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008