It has often been said that when James McCartan accepted an approach in mid-November to become the Down senior football manager for a second spell, he was digging the county board out of a hole.
Others were interested in the job. The most high-profile of those was a ticket that included the Ulster-winning Under-20 manager Conor Laverty, with Marty Clarke and a surprising bolt-on of Jim McGuinness which floundered once it seemed there was real potential.
That wasn’t the only option. Calls were placed with the county board by others who were assembling potential management teams, only to be told that they — the board — would ‘get their man’.
Others made their feelings known that they would like to be interested, and were blithely ignored.
Paddy Tally stepped away on July 9. Sixteen weeks and one day later, Down announced McCartan as their new manager.
It’s hard to recall any county taking longer over a managerial appointment. It is damning of how unattractive the job is, and how poorly it must have been sold.
Nonetheless, like the dutiful Down men ‘born into the red and black’ as he says himself, McCartan went into it with his eyes wide open, saying in the press briefing at his unveiling: “It is fairly clear that James McCartan and Aidan O’Rourke were not the first port of call. We were asked and we were fully aware of what had gone before so the decision was there whether we wanted to take the job or not.
“We were fully aware of the process up to now and the decision we had to make was did we want to take the job under these circumstances or not and we decided to take the leap.”
Asked if he would feel pressure because of his county’s heritage — heritage that McCartan himself had done a great deal to make happen — he replied: “I’m not sure there’s pressure there because expectation isn’t there. The public in Down know where we’re at and it’s not where we want to be so we just have to put the shoulder to the wheel and change some of that.”
Unfortunately for them, the season has mirrored that of the promise of Tommy Docherty when he took over Rotherham United and promised the chairman he would get them out of the second division. They ended up in the third.
“You’re a man of your word, Doc,” the chairman is reputed to have said at the end of the season.
Down’s relegation to the third tier of the Allianz League, with just one draw from six games, hasn’t been a huge shock.
Former Mayo defender Colm Boyle said on Allianz League Sunday: “Just going on the league, possibly Division Three is where they are at, at the minute. You have to say, they were relegated with a game to go so they deserve to be there.
“You are thinking Kilcoo, after they won the All-Ireland Club title, would they have given Down football a bit of a boost? It hasn’t transpired that way.”
What is happening in Down is scarcely different to what happens in the vast majority of counties, possibly around 25 of them that take football seriously.
A beleaguered county board fighting a rearguard action against expense, trying to cram in fixtures for all grades, struggling with capital development projects and all the daily rubbish that grinds people down.
But things are astray. Too many have identified that the fault lies in long-standing administrators who are out of touch. The similarities with Cork complaints on the recently-retired Frank Murphy are frightening, and both counties are in similar shape.
Decent coaches within the county despair at the lack of cohesion between the age groups, and the recruitment of coaches to work with development squads.
Some counties find themselves at rock bottom before they begin to address matters. And when they do, they have to start at the foundations.
A messianic managerial appointment might guarantee headlines, but it is nothing without a fully-functioning system behind the teams, with a background in sports governance and at least some individuals within the framework with a working knowledge of and sympathy towards high performance.
All that distinguishes the likes of Down from, say, Longford, Wexford, Fermanagh, Antrim or Westmeath are the memories of their glorious past.
Which count for nothing, really. McCartan and Down fans deserve better than this.
A few weeks ago, Antrim hurler Neil McManus was invited onto BBC NI’s The GAA Social podcast.
McManus was hurting from the previous day’s defeat to Laois, which had put a bad look on a league campaign that up to that point had been very, very promising.
But it wasn’t in hurt that he made some very clear, rational comments. And top of the list was that Ulster GAA are still failing the game of hurling by continuing to put the Ulster hurling final in mothballs, a decision first taken a few years ago.
Most startling for McManus was the way in which he found out, via a throwaway comment from an Ulster official while he was handing over the Conor McGurk Cup, a pre-season warm-up that some Ulster counties partake in.
It’s too easy to hold up the treatment that hurling gets and imagine what if it was happening in football, but it’s worth doing here anyway. What if an Ulster Council official who, when handing over the Dr McKenna Cup to, say, Padraig Hampsey, whispered that there would be no Ulster Football Championship later that year?
When McManus raised his objections publicly, he was contacted by someone. Not to find a solution to staging the Ulster Championship, of course, but to ask him to stop the negative publicity.
Naturally, our old friend fixture congestion gets the blame. It saves on coming up with imaginative solutions.
As to whether the Championship itself might be a procession for Antrim, I wouldn’t be so sure. One look at Down’s progress over the last couple of seasons would soon show that there would be a contest.
In any event, McManus offered up a very clever solution to this. Let the teams who are not playing Liam MacCarthy Cup hurling compete for it. If that means no Antrim, then so be it.
In recent years, the most high-profile hurling games in Ulster have been clashes between Slaughtneil and Dunloy.
The crowds that have attended those games in Owenbeg, Newry and the Athletic Grounds have shown there is an appetite to watch skilled players playing a blood and thunder game of hurling. That it isn’t happening at county level is bizarre.
That’s not right. And that’s a dereliction of duty.