McGrath, of course, has two All Ireland titles under his belt, but that was with his native Down back in the early 1990s.
In a way, he has stepped out of his comfort zone this year. It has been 12 years since he lasted managed a team in the Ulster Senior Championship, and it is with a county that he had little knowledge of when he decided to dip his toe back into inter-county management to replace Peter Canavan.
And McGrath admits that it has taken time for him to get to know the players.
“The Down teams and club teams that I have worked with in the past; you were familiar with players before you took the job and you had a very clear idea of what talent was available. You knew their temperament and their background. Coming into a new county though you are meeting a group of players who are essentially strangers to you. You have to try to get to know them as people and as footballers and see exactly where their best positions are, and what they are best at. Then trying to gel it all together is challenging and it definitely takes time. People think you can look at the players and look at the squad and in three of four weeks come to terms with exactly what’s there, it doesn’t work like that. It is brick by brick in the knowledge that you are building up on them. It takes patience, but when you have players who are prepared to work and make the effort then there is only one direction you can go,” he said.
Bit by bit McGrath has got to know the players and the league campaign provided some good performances and results as Fermanagh finished third, this despite McGrath’s late appointment and subsequent late start to training.
“You look at our position in the league, we finished third. Everyone would concede that the best two teams, Cavan and Roscommon, got promotion but we justifiably finished third and, who knows, if we had started earlier we could have pushed them teams even harder,” said McGrath.
He added: “We know that defensively we were frail and porous at times but when you look at the individual games in the league, every game provided very positive things in our performance. In fact, I would say that two of the games we lost against Cavan and Roscommon, were games in which I get most satisfaction from. I thought the Roscommon game was what county football is all about. It was hard physically, it was intense, there was some excellent football from both teams. We know that in the last ten minutes they provided the surge to win the game but I felt that in that game a lot of the qualities of the team shone through. We played seven games in the league, tried out different players, players found themselves in different positions at times and we were trying out different systems of play and tactics which is part of what a league campaign is all about and it will stand us in good stead for the championship.”
The Fermanagh boss is very aware though that they cannot afford to be as loose at the back as they were during the league. They may have scored freely, including bagging 13 goals, but they also conceded 12 goals and that is an area of concern.
“Believe me, we have worked on it and we are trying to put different things into our play that is going to leave us more sound defensively. We all know that the leagues generally have produced greater scores and a lot of teams conceded quite heavily. But when you come to championship you know there has to be a tightening up, you can’t go into a championship match and concede three goals and expect to win it. We have got high returns from our attacking play but there is a serious issue at the other end and I think against Antrim you will see a much more solid defensive display,” he stated.
McGrath did suffer a number of knock backs over the course of the year from players who turned down the chance of joining up with the squad but his hand has been strengthened with the return of the likes of Barry Owens, Paul Ward, Mark Murphy and Sean Quigley and he says he was pleased with the strength of the squad even before Quigley and Murphy returned.
“I have said in the past that I was always happy with the squad, even before Sean and Mark returned. No doubt though, Sean Quigley’s return is a major plus and what I’ve seen so far of Mark Murphy, I like, and he is going to be an asset. Paul Ward has also done well since he came in and I’m more than happy with the squad in terms of talent and depth,” he commented.
The Down man has had issues to deal with over the course of the season with the Quigley brothers leaving the panel, something that was played out in public. That these type of things get played out in the media eye is not a concern for McGrath however.
“I was involved in a number of high profile incidents with players down through the years that were in the public arena. If a situation arises you try to deal with thing as fairly and as honestly as you can. If that makes the headlines or the backpages, that doesn’t bother me because at the end of the day you are doing what you know is right and doing it for the good of the team. If things are played out in the media, it doesn’t faze me in the slightest and every county has that to deal with too. We drew a line in the sand under it, thankfully Sean is back and we are moving on positively.”
As has already been seen in this year’s Championship, the black card rule has caused controversy and McGrath has urged for consistency from referees and for referees only to show a black card if they are certain about the offence.
“The need for consistency is urgent. I still contend that it is difficult for referees and sometimes it can be hard for them to distinguish in the heat of the moment, and the pace of the game, unless it is very obvious. I would hope that if the referee is in any doubt, he doesn’t give the black card. If it is stonewall, and no-one can argue about it, then the player deserves it, but if there is even a minor doubt in the referees mind about a black card he shouldn’t show it,” he explained.
Antrim’s league form this season has been unimpressive as they failed to make their mark in Division Four. However, McGrath refuses to read anything into that and expects a tough test at Brewster Park on Sunday.
“They are going to bring a massive challenge,” he said. “I don’t read too much into Antrim’s league campaign at all, I just know they will be well prepared. They are a big team physically and they have a number of very good footballers. Liam Bradley has said in the papers that their preparations have gone very well and everyone is very committed. They lost a few players and they say since those players have gone their squad is more unified and focused. Any team in the championship is a threat but as far I’m concerned the important thing is our performance. I know the capabilities of this team and if we perform on the day in Brewster Park somewhere near our capacity we’ll be okay.”
And he feels home advantage will be important for his side.
“I think in the early rounds of the championship, home advantage is important. We are familiar with the ground, we played four league matches there and the players know the ground. But when 3.30pm comes and the ball is thrown in, it is just another ground and it is what goes on between the sideline and the endlines, that’s what going to decide the issue.”
And McGrath is now ready for what he describes as the “ultimate test”.
“I suppose managing at inter-county level is ultimately about the championship. The league is important but this is the sharp end. It is where you want to be, it is the ultimate test of management and the ultimate test for players. Together we go forward to June 1 and I’m convinced that while we will be put to the test, it is a test we are well capable of passing.”