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Down manager James McCartan's belief shines through

By Declan Bogue

A cold, wet, dark day in Crossmaglen and most sane people have long forgotten about Gaelic football for the year.

Around the stands in Oliver Plunkett Park, the hardcore have turned up to satisfy their lust for masochism. The weather is nothing short of horrendous, the football could be filed under the sub-section 'experimental', tucked into the 'brutal' cabinet.

Yet there he is on the sideline, coaxing and cajoling Down in the O'Fiaich Cup against Derry. Wee James McCartan. He cares, oh boy he cares.

As a player, McCartan had a devil-may-care attitude that manifested itself in what tricks he might perform on the field.

It's hard, though, to see McCartan the player getting the juices flowing for a game of this type. As he emerges from the dressing room and into a thicket of awaiting reporters wanting his views on the first black cards his side have been awarded, he jokes, "Jesus, youse have little to be at coming down here!"

It's true. We do. But Wee James is still enough of a draw to bring people to a Dickensian setting, and besides, he has yet to chat about coming back for another season as Down manager.

"I was appointed for my second three-year term and this is the second year of that," he begins.

"You always reflect at the end of the season and you talk to the people, talk to the county board and you ask what direction they want to go." And then the trademark pay-off punchline; "So, they couldn't get anybody else!"

While McCartan was making his deliberations, a stream of established players granted interviews to the media, stating they felt that James was still the man to take them forward.

McCartan surprises you when it's put to him. "Sometimes that's not a good thing. Just because the players like you, it doesn't mean ... maybe that's the wrong way to be!"

He's more emphatic when he continues, "I have a belief that if we can get our 15 best players on the field, we are a match for most teams in the country. Over the last three or four years this has been the difficulty through emigration and injury.

"I have to give credit to the guys who stepped into the team last year because as far as I am concerned, they achieved as much in an unsuccessful year as we would have achieved in other years.

"With that experience under their belt I think they can add to that, with more experienced men coming back in."

The experienced men include the likes of Declan Rooney and Conor Garvey coming back from injury, and Peter Fitzpatrick now home from Australia. Liam Doyle has also made a couple of welcome appearances in the O'Fiaich Cup.

Those he would dearly covet though, include the injury-prone Paul McComiskey, Danny Hughes and his own brother, Eoin. Caolan Mooney and Martin Clarke are out of his control, enjoying life and their careers in Australian Rules footie with Collingwood.

Yet, with all these men gone, they hit Donegal with a right hook that had them on the ropes for a long spell in the Ulster semi-final this year. It has been said since that the tactical formation and the attitude Down brought to that encounter in Breffni Park was 'The Blueprint' to beat the All-Ireland champions.

When Monaghan went through Donegal for a shortcut in the final, it wasn't hard to see where they got their inspiration from. McCartan reveals that Monaghan midfielder Dick Clerkin – a former Queen's player of his – sent him a text of gratitude after they lifted their first Anglo-Celt in 25 years.

Don't expect McCartan to bathe in the reflected glory, however.

"I don't think it was any rocket science, I think Donegal went a wee bit off the boil last year and they could be a different kettle of fish come next year.

"It was disappointing the way the year ended for us, we didn't get the performance we wanted against Derry after beating them the first day out and you are a sitting duck to a certain extent going back there.

"The Donegal game was obviously a good performance without putting them away. It was a disappointing year but with the group of players, I could have no qualms with the level they played at all year.

"They played throughout the National League even though they were relegated, some of the performances were top drawer."

In his first year as manager, McCartan took Down into Division One, although they were beaten by Armagh in the Division Two final.

In the three years they spent there, they were always earmarked for relegation and turned the tables by reaching the league semi-finals in 2011 and 2012.

Last year, relegation finally came, a fate that can be traced back to a last-kick-of-the-ball goal for Cork in an important meeting.

In Division Two, as Jim McGuinness acknowledged after Donegal and Down's relegation, you can rebuild a team.

You are also out of the media glare and the lurid headlines proclaiming massive pressure on managers who might have lost their first two league games.

As he begins life in the second flight, he's careful not to risk his more seasoned stars, commenting, "We are trying to be smart. We are not asking Benny Coulter, Ambrose Rogers, Mark Poland or Kevin McKernan – any of the boys who have played a lot of football – to play now."

This weekend, the squad are all back in training in some form or other, even if it's just a bit of weights training.

Once it starts, it only stops when the Championship campaign is over.

Not even Christmas gets in the way for the modern inter-county footballer.

"I think you would find that most are training between Christmas and New Year, I am sure we will be. There is only so much turkey you can eat, so we will be glad to get to training if it's anything like my house!"

Again with the wisecracks. Wee James.

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