All Ireland: James McCartan is blessed by strength in depth
The long-held theory that championship football in particular is a 20-man game has now been given added currency by All Ireland semi-finalists Down — and that will present manager James McCartan with interesting options when he sits down to name his side to face Kildare.
From the moment he inherited the Mourne county reins from Ross Carr, McCartan (pictured right) made it clear that he would view every player in the squad as having the capability to be in his starting fifteen.
And it’s in selecting that particular 15 on an ongoing basis that he has encountered some of his most difficult decisions.
Now as he prepares for the Croke Park showdown with Kildare on August 29 McCartan has been provided with further food for thought as three of his substitutes — Conor Maginn, Ronan Murtagh and Peter Fitzpatrick — all scored in the 1-16 to 1-10 win over Kerry on Saturday last.
Indeed, there were raised eyebrows in Down when Murtagh’s name was not included in the starting line-up against the Kingdom as he had scored 1-5 in the win over Sligo the previous week when he emerged as a hero after coming off the bench.
If Maginn, Murtagh and Fitzpatrick have served up a reminder that they are ready, willing and able to confront the athleticism, power and scoring expertise of Kildare, then James Colgan, Aidan Carr and Brendan McArdle continue to covet places in a defence which revealed a level of authority and composure against Kerry that suggests this particular unit may again be rubber-stamped for duty against the Lily Whites.
It is a measure of McCartan’s defensive resources that both Colgan and McArdle were regulars for the greater part of the season until Daniel McCartan returned from suspension and Kevin McKernan, majestic against Kerry, claimed the No 6 shirt.
Colgan had been playing as a sweeper while McArdle had been at full-back but with Dan Gordon now very much a key figure on the edge of the square and Declan Rooney having bedded down at right-half-back the machinery would seem to be in place to offer solid defiance to Kildare’s marauding front men.
Aidan Carr has been involved in a lengthy fitness battle and has missed most of the National League and Championship but his experience and free-taking ability are nonetheless assets which manager McCartan may yet avail of to some extent in what will be the most crucial segment of the season.
It was in mid-July last year that Down, having exited the Ulster Championship to unsung Fermanagh, were shunted ignominiously out of the All Ireland qualifiers by equally unheralded Wicklow.
Few people thought then that the Mourne county would not only make it into Division One of the National League this year but would also find themselves in the last four in the race for the Sam Maguire Cup.