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Fulham boss McCartan is as hungry as ever to land the big prizes

 

By Declan Bogue

If ever you needed proof that an All-Ireland medal is not a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket to a lifetime of milk and honey, consider Gregory McCartan.

He was a footballer of superior skill and confidence, a physical embodiment of what Pete McGrath prized in a footballer as Down won the 1994 All-Ireland title. And yet he now has to make his living in England.

A joiner by trade, he is employed by Farrens and has worked his way down from Liverpool to Coventry, Northampton and now to his shared three-bedroom apartment in Chelsea, while he works at a school being built for children with special needs beside Heathrow Airport.

It means less time with wife Sinead, sons Rossa (22) and Eanna (21) and daughter Sorcha (16), who was presented with a school's All-Star medal for camogie last night.

Still, he has some consolations, chiefly his sporting ambitions as Fulham Irish, the club he managed to a London Championship eight weeks ago, face Andy Merrigan Cup favourites Corofin of Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final tomorrow in McGovern Park, Ruislip (1pm throw-in).

"With the football, this year I have been over for six or seven weeks at a time. It's a bit stressful sometimes but what can you do?" asked the colourful Castlewellan man.

"I would love to come home in the evenings and Sinead might have dinner ready for me and I might sit in front of the fire.

"Unfortunately, whenever you quit work here you have to commute an hour and 15 minutes or so and then make your own dinner. It's eat, sleep, work, repeat. What can you do? At the end of the day I'm 47, and there are only a few more years at it. When you are working hard and trying to make a few quid, you have to stay at it."

Only for football, Sundays would be a killer. During the summer he will have a Fulham game to manage at, or if they were playing on a Saturday there would be an inter-county Championship match to catch or even watch some of their rivals. But during the winter it's tough, especially if his flatmates have gone out for the day.

So he catches a train or a tube and strikes out for other areas of London and ticks them off an imaginary list. As Samuel Johnson said to Boswell, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life".

In any case, how could you be tired when you are still involved in football in December? All those nights slogging their guts out with the lights of Wormwood Scrubs Prison to guide their way gives their lives meaning.

Eight weeks ago they beat Tir Chonaill Gaels in the county final, the showpiece day for the new Ruislip with a pitch like carpet replacing the old gluepot.

The following day they gathered in Putney for a day of celebrating and, although they awaited the arrival of their most famous recruit, three-time All-Ireland winner Owen Mulligan, he never showed.

"He went for a hot bath!" revealed McCartan of the legendary Tyrone figure, who played for London in this year's Connacht Championship having followed the same path in search of regular work.

"He has really surprised me. People might have thought he was this wild man, great craic, but nothing could be further from the truth. I've never seen any evidence of a wild man. He is a shy character."

There's more to all of us than meets the eye. Mulligan also has another hat, that of proprietor of Mulligan's bar in Cookstown, and he travels home regularly. But still he keeps his Fulham clubmates up to speed with his workouts and runs in their WhatsApp group, setting the tone for the younger generation at the ripe age of 36.

McCartan and Mulligan faced each other in the 2003 Ulster final, the day that Brian McGuigan made a meal of a ball that McCartan flung at him which earned the Down man a red card.

Together, they are back in the closing stages of an All-Ireland bid. But no English-based team have ever beaten their Irish counterparts, the closest shave being Sean McDermotts of Birmingham coming to within a point of Roscommon Gaels in 1975.

So how do you sell it to the players?

"We took a week off. When we started back again we said that we had created a wee bit of history. We got into the history books and we would always say we won it," recalled McCartan.

"So what do we do now? Do we stand back and train one night a week, mess around and wait for Corofin or whoever to give us a tanking and put us to the sword right away? I said I wouldn't want to be a part of that.

"It is an opportunity of a lifetime to go and play a team - a top, top team - and give it a rattle."

All year long he has provided strong guidance. The club have strong Galbally connections with Mickey Murphy the captain and Mickey Donaghy a selector, and throughout the year Paddy Tally has been dropping in to take a few sessions.

Fulham actually came over a couple of weeks ago and played Tally's St Mary's Sigerson Cup champions and have lined out against the London county team in preparation for this weekend.

What McCartan - a man who won medals in Down, San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia - knew all along is that it doesn't matter what level you compete at, it's the competing that matters.

"It's the level you aspire to," he reasoned.

"If you can win something at the level you are at, sure you could play in an All-Ireland or play in a cup that people mightn't even watch, that means just as much to them.

"To me it's all relative. If you win something, and you win it with your mates, what more could you want?"

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