McGrath relishing crack at native Down

By Niall Gartland

DERRY u-20 manager Hugh McGrath is ready to pit his wits against his native Down in Saturday’s Ulster Championship opener at Páirc Esler.

McGrath is a native of Saul but you could say he’s a de facto Derry man at this stage having lived in the city for the last two decades.

Indeed, he was at the centre of the most famous day in his adopted club Steelstown’s history, managing the team to All-Ireland Intermediate honours just two years ago.

He has also been involved with Derry at inter-county level having previously been part of senior set-ups as well as the managerial group that led the Derry u-20s to Ulster success in 2018. That said, he says he’s still ultimately a ‘blow-in’ to the county.

“I think if you’re a blow-in, you’re always a blow-in,” he laughed.

“I’ll always be a Down man, there’s no forgetting that, I’m reminded of it often, but I have had a lot of joy being in football within Derry, with my club, Steelstown.

“In 2018 I was part of the u-20 group that won the first Ulster U-20 Championship, and we were beaten the following year in the final by Tyrone.

“That final, up until last year, was the last final that we have been in.

“We’ve only been successful once at this grade, and for us, we think that that’s too long.

“The group we have is good, they have enjoyed success before, but you’re only as good as your last game, and for us the Down game is a great opportunity to get things up and running.”

This weekend’s game against Down is a repeat of last year’s final, albeit the stakes are significantly lower given it’s only the start of their group stage campaign.

They’ve a tough group with games to come against Monaghan and Tyrone but McGrath wouldn’t have it any other way.

Asked if it’s a group of death, he said “You could look at it that way, but in another way, you could say, yes, you want to test yourself against good teams.

“Tyrone are always hot favourites in this age group, Monaghan have shown unbelievable potential across minor and u-20 grades for a number of years now.

“Down are reigning champions, and you have Antrim in there as well, they will all be competitive.

“We’re in a province where at every age grade it is competitive, and it’s very difficult to predict, at u-17 level, at u-20 and at senior level.

“And that’s the way we want it to be in this province, we want the football to be exciting, we don’t want any foregone conclusions.”

Derry can call upon some seriously talented footballers, including All-Ireland winners at minor levels, Patrick McGurk (u-20 team captain), Niall O’Donnell, Ruairi Forbes, Ben O’Connor and Rory Magill.

“We have good experience, we have guys who have been successful, and they want to continue that path. They want to be successful at this grade.

“We’re very lucky in that we’re currently riding high at senior level, and these lads all have an eye on that.

“The only way to attain a position on that team is to be successful at under-age, to play well, to get the head down and get the hard work done.

“And we’re very thankful that this group have done that up to this point.”

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