When Down concluded what had been their most successful season since 1994 by losing out to Cork by the narrowest of margins — 0-16 to 0-15 — in last year’s All-Ireland football final their manager James McCartan was the recipient of plaudits from all sides.
In his first year in charge, McCartan had transformed Down’s fortunes.
His feat in masterminding their promotion to Division One and arrival in the National League Division Two final was then surpassed by his tactical expertise and motivational guile in bringing them through to the All-Ireland’s last hurdle.
Yet Down’s stirring renaissance, if anything, left McCartan deflated — and he lost no time in pinpointing just why.
“We have nothing to show for our efforts at the end of what has been a long, hard year and I am bitterly disappointed for the players,” sighs McCartan.
“They have expended huge effort and have no silverware to display. You would have to say that this is the real way in which success is measured.”
It’s hardly surprising then that eight months on McCartan now views the forthcoming Ulster Championship as a golden opportunity for his county to try and take their seat on the provincial throne once again.
No stranger to success himself as a player — he was in the Down side that won the 1991 and 1994 All-Ireland titles — McCartan knows better than most the feeling of total satisfaction that emanates from becoming the very best you can be.
And as one who always set high standards for himself, he is now particularly keen to see his side scale an even bigger peak.
“There is still a great value put on provincial titles as any manager will tell you. Besides, they offer a direct route into the All-Ireland quarter-finals,” states McCartan.
For all the debate concerning a perceived ‘evening out’ of standards at inter-county level, one stark statistic best encapsulates just where the balance of power lies in Ulster football.
Since 1999 only Tyrone and Armagh have taken delivery of the provincial senior football championship title and the affable McCartan, whose personal stock has soared since succeeding his former All-Ireland winning colleague Ross Carr as Down boss, is among the new breed of managers anxious to jettison this monopoly.
Last year his side squeezed past Donegal in their opening game before succumbing to eventual champions Tyrone in a semi-final which they dominated for the opening 20 minutes before being suffocated by the Red Hands’ trademark tackling and accurate finishing.
That defeat shunted Down into the Qualifiers in which they beat Longford, Offaly and Sligo before overcoming Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-finals — a superb performance highlighted by a masterly contribution from Martin Clarke — and then claiming the scalp of ambitious Kildare in the semi-finals.
Now with neighbours and deadly rivals Armagh, a team currently managed by Paddy O’Rourke who skippered that triumphant Down side in 1991, lying in wait at their newly-refurbished Athletic Grounds on May 28, McCartan acknowledges that his side face demanding physical and mental tests.
“Armagh and Tyrone have dominated the Ulster Championship for the past number of years and it is going to be very difficult for any other side to get their hands on the title but we are ready for that challenge.
“The hope is that the experience we gained last year and the hunger that our players have will stand to us,” says McCartan.
If the ongoing absence of skipper Ambrose Rogers from the midfield sector and the hamstring injury which Benny Coulter picked up in a recent club game have to some extent cast a shadow over Down’s build-up, McCartan is certainly not preoccupied with negatives.
After all, two-thirds of his first-choice defenders — Daniel McCartan, Declan Rooney, Conor Garvey and Damien Rafferty — missed a sizeable portion of the National League because of injuries, yet the manager was not found wringing his hands in public.
“You are always going to have to deal with the unavailability of players because of injuries — that’s why we have a squad.
“But obviously for major championship matches every manager likes to be able to deal from a full hand if possible,” points out McCartan.
His team’s consistency, style and sportsmanship may have earned them praise last year but McCartan is quick to state that this weekend’s Ulster Championship blast-off marks a whole new ball game in every sense.
“We have raised the bar but that is a good thing. We have to show we have learned from last year’s experience and that we are a better side for it,” he says.
“The upcoming game against Armagh is our sole focus.”