Down’s way up: James McCartan

First season manager James McCartan took questions in his stride on the cusp of his county’s all-Ireland semi-final. Peter Cheney reports.Down’s way up

James McCartan’s composure on the sideline is well appreciated by players, and no doubt added to his calm form before Down’s encounter with Kildare. The two teams were to meet on 29 August, their first championship encounter, just after agendaNi went to press.

It’s an impressive achievement which he had “certainly not” expected after his first season in charge. Clearly not wanting to raise hopes too high, McCartan was satisfied, not to mention surprised, at how Down had went up.

Down has held the Sam five times to date, first and famously in 1960 and most recently in 1994; it had not reached the semis since then. McCartan was man of the match in the county’s 1991 win over Meath, and also took a medal from a follow-up, against Dublin, three years later.

“Every game that we went into this year, we thought we could win it and certainly felt that we could beat Kerry and then [I] kept having to nip myself to try and tell myself to catch myself on.”

Tyrone knocked Down out of the Ulster Championships (0-14 – 0-10) on 19 June, only to be ousted by Dublin (1-15 – 0-13) on 31 July. The clincher came the same day with Down’s 1-16 – 1-10 win over Kerry.

Asked by agendaNi how he would sum up the season overall, he surmised: “Look at the end of the day, we have won nothing. We’re in the championship a bit longer than Tyrone but in the years in the future, Tyrone will be able to look back and say they won an Ulster title.”

The only thing to show at that point was a possible morale boost in victory over Kerry. “Happy enough so far, hopefully more to do,” he commented.

Kildare’s continual transformation, from league to first round and qualifiers, left a strong impression: “They just have tweaked every week, made a change. It has worked. Made another change the next week that has worked. Their performance levels have just gone up week on week.”

McCartan saw his job as trying to get the best out of the “gifted players” on the team, which was “not spectacularly different” from previous managers Ross Carr and Paddy O’Rourke. A bit of luck, such as the wake-up call against Tyrone and “the rub of the green in Tullamore” against Offaly had helped along the way.

“Maybe it’s better just to be a lucky manager rather than a good one,” he quipped. The team’s success was due to its tenacity rather than any spectacular tactics. “We just have guys who are prepared to work hard all over the field. When they get a setback, they get up and go on again.”

All four semi-finalists have been beneficiaries of the backdoor system this year, though the system still proves controversial by giving a second chance to counties dropping out of the provincials. Tyrone’s Mickey Harte and Kerry manager Jack O’Connor are understandably both critics.

McCartan does see where they’re coming from and, having talked it over with O’Connor after their game, thinks he has a “valid point.”

Many Down players started the season with little experience but picked it up along the way, thanks again to the back door system. “At times, it was chastening,” he continued, “but I’m hoping that the experience that we’ve garnered on the way to this game will help us and that may well be the difference.”

Mark Poland, scoring a quick opening goal and two points against Kerry, had come of age in that game, an example of a small Down man stepping up to the plate. As for Martin Clarke, who added four points at Croke Park that day: “We all know potentially what Marty’s capable of and I just hope there’s more to come from him.”

McCartan and Kildare boss Kieran McGeeny had rarely crossed paths, though they had played together for three years at Queen’s. “Nothing surprises me about Geezer,” he remarked, describing him as “probably the most focused man I’ve ever met to a fault” with an “unreal” dedication and single-mindedness.

The manager consistently avoided speculation about a final place, knowing that “it would be nice” to be compared to Down’s runs in the early 90s but that was still a long way off: “We’ve two massive games to win anything and one big one directly in front of us.”

Based on his 1991 experience, McCartan’s advice on how his players could improve after a semi-final is: “Target something, focus in on it and try and improve on that. Don’t drift into a game.”

After McCartan left for TV interviews, forwards Benny Coulter and Danny Hughes were keen to praise the strong backroom team he had set up. “Sometimes when you’re down at training, you get called aside by these men. Hand round the shoulder, wee chat, then next thing you’re lifted again,” Coulter commented.

Hughes was, meanwhile, pleased with the continuity of selection: “He could have maybe changed a lot of things after the Tyrone game but I think that he stuck with it.” Recalling running on to the field following Down’s 1991 and 1994 victories, he named McCartan among the heroes from those days. While Down was an outside bet to win, it was plain to see they had a quiet confidence even if edging towards another day of Croke Park glory.

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