When Down won the Ulster Championship title in 1991 James McCartan was at the peak of his playing powers, cementing his reputation as one of the best players ever to represent the county.
And the man in the Donegal team with whom he went head-to-head in the provincial decider that year was teak-tough defender John Joe Doherty.
On Sunday these two former rivals on the field will again square up to each other — tactically speaking, of course — on the touchline at MacCumhaill Park in their managerial roles as they strive to plot Championship success.
The mutual respect that underpinned their playing careers — McCartan won All Ireland medals in 1991 and ’94 while Doherty claimed his sole honour in ’92 — has not diminished with the passage of time. If McCartan carries a minor psychological advantage of sorts into Sunday’s contest following his team’s National League win over Donegal then Doherty’s desire to make sure that lightning does not strike twice is very much in evidence.
His pleasant demeanour masks a fiercely competitive personal streak that was savagely shredded when his team capitulated to Armagh in their last National League match — a sizeable defeat that prompted Doherty to invite his players “to take a good look in the mirror in advance of the Championship.”
Never less than disarmingly honest, Doherty admitted he could hardly absorb the anaemic display served up on that occasion and since then he has not spared himself in trying to inject pride, power and commitment into his players for a game against Down he describes as “a gigantic test of everything that we are supposed to stand for.”
And he makes no bones about the possible consequences of defeat in Sunday’s showpiece in front of what will be a full house.
“Time is running out for several of these Donegal players. This is their chance to show what they can really do when the chips are down. Having watched that desperately disappointing show against Armagh I just know that there is an awful lot more in my side and it’s absolutely vital that they prove this on Sunday,” declares Doherty.
He may be in his second term in charge but he has yet to oversee victory in the Ulster Championship.
“Antrim shocked us last year and that was a major setback. We simply cannot afford to allow lightning to strike twice. I want my players to go out and express themselves in the manner in which I know full well that they can,” raps Doherty.
“We know that we are going in against a Down side who have been taking big strides since the start of the year but we should have enough confidence in our own ability to come out on the right side.”
Doherty is conscious that Donegal’s s track record in the Ulster series since the turn of the century has spawned cynicism and criticism in equal measure. The county lost the provincial finals in 2002, ’04 and ’06 — and that’s a statistic that Doherty has inherited with considerable reluctance.
“While we have been unable to go the extra mile over the past 10 years or so we should not allow that to become a burden for us. It’s a whole new ball game on Sunday,” he stressed.
Yet his intense hunger for an Ulster breakthrough is matched by that of McCartan. Both men eschew convoluted jargon preferring instead to tell it like it is in layman’s terms — not for them confusing tactical embellishments.
They have shown to date that they are now managing their respective teams in much the same manner as they played — with commitment, pride and honesty. These are virtues that will undoubtedly decorate the proceedings on Sunday.