FOR the footballers of Down, 2010 has been a season-long tale of surpassing expectations -- gaining top-flight promotion when survival was the priority, and now playing on into September when angst-ridden June/July exits have been a staple diet of the noughties.
How has this remarkable renaissance come to pass? Marty Clarke (pictured, below right), conducting the on-field orchestra in his first season back from Oz, is one obvious explanation, eclipsed by only one other -- the influence of James McCartan (pictured above) in his debut campaign as manager.
It's fair to surmise that you won't hear Down's 'rookie' boss making such self-aggrandising statements. Nor will you hear 'Wee James' peddling the line that Down's historic penchant for launching All-Ireland assaults from seemingly nowhere will have any bearing on the outcome of next Sunday's final against Cork.
As he noted at Down's All-Ireland press afternoon in Newry: "The past means zero."
Still, ever since Pete McGrath's marathon Mourne reign ended in 2002 after another demoralising summer exit to Longford, the fortunes of Down's flagship team have been inextricably linked with that glorious early '90s epoch.
Their three managers in the post-McGrath era were all key players in that same period. In 1991, Paddy O'Rourke captained Down to their first All-Ireland title in 23 years, sharing in that triumph with Ross Carr and McCartan, who both returned to the Croker summit in 1994.
In their sideline roles, neither O'Rourke nor Carr (in tandem with another '90s hero, DJ Kane) were able to rekindle Down's flickering All-Ireland spark. And so the years of struggle that had marked the latter half of McGrath's tenure extended through a decade of under-achievement.
Reaching the 2003 Ulster final, where they drew with Tyrone only to be annihilated in the replay, was the early high point of O'Rourke's four-year tenure. He went in the wake of a dismal qualifier defeat by Sligo in 2006; enter Carr, but the closest he came to making the watershed last-eight stage was 2008 when Down reached the last round of qualifiers.
Once there, however, they suffered a grim seven-point defeat by Wexford in Croke Park -- the county's first summer appearance at HQ since the '94 All-Ireland final. The Wexford game was played on August 2: the only time Down featured beyond July throughout the noughties.
It was against this backdrop that McCartan took the reins last September. Carr's three years had ended in another demoralising 'back door' defeat -- away to Wicklow -- but he had bequeathed at least one positive to his former team-mate, securing NFL promotion from Division Three the previous spring.
Under their new boss, it soon got a whole lot better. In their opening Division Two foray, they hammered Kildare in Newbridge, kickstarting a successful promotion campaign.
Down may have lost their Division Two final to an Armagh side now managed, ironically, by Paddy O'Rourke -- but the primary promotion goal had been achieved.
Or rather, it wasn't even a goal to begin with.
At a Dublin press conference last April, ahead of that Croker clash with Armagh, McCartan insisted that the "first port of call was survival" in Division Two. "Down were just promoted and they were two years in Division Three, so there was nothing to suggest that they'd be able to kick on again," he explained at the time. "You hear Premier League managers saying they wanted to get to that 40 points mark, which is maybe (the equivalent of) six or seven points in a National League. We got to seven points and we tried to kick on and we managed to do that."
Fast-forward four-and-a-half months, and McCartan is asked a similar question. Did he ever believe at the outset -- long before they had ambushed Kerry or put Kildare to the Croker sword -- that Down would reach an All-Ireland final in his first season?
"The obvious answer to that question is 'no'," he replies. "Starting out the summer, everybody in Ulster -- probably bar Tyrone -- was just simply thinking about Ulster championships and we were probably no different. So, when that rug is pulled out from underneath you, it does take a little bit of time to adjust.
"We've managed to do that. Our route through the qualifiers was ... hopefully I'm not going to be disrespectful to anybody, but they were the right teams at the right times. We've been steadily improving bit by bit, nothing spectacular, but gradually we've been getting better. It's going to take another huge improvement to try to win an All-Ireland."
Now that the underdogs are here, however, this Down team is being reminded at every pass that the county's All-Ireland final record is a pristine five-from-five. That 100 per cent strike rate could be viewed as a burden or a comfort -- McCartan sees it as neither.
"I know I was part of two of them, but they've absolutely no relevance to this bunch of guys," he maintains.
"If I could use the description, would you rather have six All-Irelands out of six or seven out of nine? I'd rather have seven out of nine," the manager adds. "The '90s have no relevance, the '60s either. It would be nice if we managed to pull it off, that these guys would join a select bunch and then it would be history ... but at the minute that's just what it is, history. What we have here at the top table and hopefully what we have on the 19th (of September) is something for the future and the past means zero."
The future is almost upon us. On Sunday we'll know if the red bunting comes with black or white trimmings attached.