Peter Rooney is better equipped than most to offer an opinion on James McCartan’s high-flying Down.
For the big, genial Warrenpoint man was only 18 when he played on Down’s 1968 All Ireland winning side.
Earlier he had put down a marker when winning both MacRory and Hogan Cup medals with St Colman’s College, a path wee James McCartan was to tread with similar success in the late 80’s.
Also on that same Down side was his colleague from college days, 19-year-old John Purdy, as well as Mickey Cole and John Murphy.
If they represented a new generation of Down footballers, two of the county’s greatest ever players full forward Sean O’Neill and centre half forward Paddy Doherty brought a wealth of big match experience.
“Kildare are a very good side and we’ll afford them possibly even more respect than we did Kerry,” he says.
“James McCartan will make sure the players don’t lose the run of themselves.
“It might be an All Ireland semi-final, but it’s still another step up the ladder in a championship that is now wide open.”
Down’s remarkable resurgence has taken most Down fans, including Rooney, by surprise.
“Expectations weren’t that great at the start of the year as we had been in the doldrums for so long.
“But things began to look up when wee James took over.
“To their credit James and his backroom staff have done a terrific job in shoring up what was a much maligned and porous defence.
“Going to Dublin last weekend few people gave us a chance, but we in Down believe we’ve always
a chance in Croke Park. Losing to Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final wasn’t a disaster as we came out of that match having played some great football in the opening 20 minutes.
“We stood back against Tyrone in the second half and allowed ourselves to be dominated by them.
“Fortunately we didn’t make the same mistake against Kerry. We just got a dream start and never looked back.”
A former teacher in St Mark’s Warrenpoint, the affable Rooney has the distinction of having played in an All Ireland while still a month short of his 19th birthday.
Down were beaten in the 1966 All Ireland minor final but six of that side Colm McAlarney, Brendan Sloan, Mickey Cole, John Murphy, John Purdy and Rooney were drafted onto the senior squad.
His Down debut couldn’t have been any more low key. He was asked the night before a game against Galway to bring his boots.
His second senior outing was against Monaghan in the McKenna Cup in 1967 and the following year he actually played two games in the one day, a Hogan Cup semi-final against Belcamp and a national league game with Down.
His Down career stretched from 1966 to 1981 has last game against Offaly in the 1981 All Ireland semi-final.
What impresses him most about Down’s much trumpeted resurgence is the teamwork on and off the pitch.
“What we’re seeing is a progression,” he said.
“Taking the back door route
has allowed James time to get players to gel.
“Kevin McKernan at centre half back has matured into a super player. What you have now within the squad is genuine competition for places.
“In beating Kerry the team has taken another step up the ladder.
“There have been some great players who have never won an All Ireland medal, so I count myself very fortunate.”
Rooney admits he has good cause to count his blessings.
For 32 years ago to the day his wife Geraldine had a stroke and thankfully she’s made a complete recovery.
So there was double cause for celebration yesterday for their 38th wedding anniversary.