McCartan looks to banish Down nightmare
It was a long winter spent wrestling with his emotions, James McCartan admits now, but in the end his pride would not allow him to walk away from the job of Down manager.
Heavy defeats to Donegal in the Ulster final and Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final by an aggregate of 23 points left him shocked and disgusted. It's never been in his nature to accept defeat. So he spent a period questioning himself before jumping on the carousel again.
“You have to find out whether people who put you in place, still want you in place,” he revealed at the launch of Down’s new kit. “Then, you have to try and figure if you have the hunger and desire to try and do it again.
“If Donegal had have beat us by two points and Mayo had have beat us by three I would probably have walked away to tell you the truth.
“But it was the fact that we got a couple of beatings that I certainly found it hard to deal with and that’s probably the reason I’m back — to see if I can try to put those right, but obviously it’s a long way away.
“Those things happened in Clones and Croke Park and I suppose you have to get back to the scene of the crime to try and rectify those first.”
Every journey begins with the first step, and that comes on Saturday night when Down host Tyrone in a National League opener. McCartan knows all about Tyrone's strength — “you’d expect nothing else from a team Mickey Harte is involved in” — but over the last two seasons, Down have excelled in the top flight.
Last season they opened with a win over Donegal and despite losing the next two games to Cork and Kerry, made it to the league semi-finals for the second consecutive year.
Yet, they are by some distance again the bookmaker's favourites to go down. McCartan illustrated how tight division one can be when he said: “If we had lost our last game we were relegated. We won it and we were into the top four.
“The previous year, four points kept you up and last year it was going to take seven. It was a completely different league last year.”
While he states that division one is the strongest since he started playing inter-county football in 1990, he adds the thought that league football is still no preparation for the kind of hand-to-hand combat that is the Ulster Championship.
“This is no disrespect to anybody in Ulster,” McCartan explains. “A lot of them that are in there, are in to fight and battle while in division one if you are good enough you do get to play football.
“But, the Ulster championship is obviously a battle ground and going to Fermanagh last year we knew that nothing was going to be easy, while in Division 1 some of the teams they beat you at football.”
It seems that every conversation about Down football should be prefaced with a mention of their injury list. At present, McCartan cannot call upon key figures such as Ambrose Rogers and Danny Hughes, while they would also covet Marty Clarke and Caolan Mooney who are pursuing professional sporting careers in the Australian Rules code.
Some time ago in passing, McCartan was asked if he was 'nearly there yet' with this Down team. It prompted some consideration and his reply was that he has been forced to start all over again with them.
“We could play Cork this year in the national league and from the  All-Ireland final I reckon they’ll have two retirements, Nicholas Murphy, who didn’t start in the final, and John Miskella.
“I reckon if we are able to field six of the All-Ireland team we will be doing very well.
“That tells you about the turnover of players we would prefer not to have, but at the same time some of the guys have stepped in and done well and it probably shows we have a wee bit more strength in depth than we thought.”
Down get shirty
The unveiling of Down's new jersey in the Canal Court yesterday represents the shortest spell a GAA county team have retained a jersey.
The previous jersey was worn for the first time for the 2011 Ulster Championship meeting between Down and Armagh in the Athletic Grounds, on May 28. With a new jersey now launched, it meant the previous one was only 'current' for 20 months.
Normally, counties would unveil their new strip in time for the Christmas market, but in recent years, securing a jersey sponsor has proven to be problematic for some county boards.
At the moment, Cork and Galway are the only counties left seeking a sponsor, and with that will come a new jersey.
GAA jerseys still compare favourably in the replica jersey market. An average O'Neill's jersey will cost £41 while Manchester United and Chelsea jerseys are priced at £50 in official club shops.