Down rising from ashes of garden agony
Belief crucial to transformation under McCartan, says Colm Keys
In the last decade Down have contested an Ulster final just once, have never made it as far as an All-Ireland quarter-final and have operated mainly in the basement divisions of the National League.
They have watched championship campaigns wind up in Aughrim against Wicklow, Markievicz Park against Sligo, Pearse Park against Longford and even Croke Park -- where they have a reputation for being almost invincible -- against Wexford. Fermanagh turfed them out of Ulster last year, Monaghan did two years before that and even Cavan have had their pound of flesh in the province.
Their record is dismal, yet they have only changed their manager three times in that period -- Paddy O'Rourke for Peter McGrath at the end of 2002, Ross Carr and DJ Kane after 2006 and James McCartan for his two colleagues and great friends this time 12 months ago.
Every time a change was made the incumbents were more than keen to stay. McGrath reluctantly left after Longford in 2002, O'Rourke was desperate to procure one more year after the 2006 trip to Sligo went so badly wrong, and Carr and Kane wanted more time to to salvage what was left from the ashes of their ill-fated journey to Aughrim 14 months ago.
That these men were so keen to stay says much about their loyalty to a county which they already owed nothing to. It also perhaps says more about their state of mind, that no matter how bad things are, no matter how low they appear to go, there is always the belief that nothing is unmanageable and that salvation in this county is only ever 12 months away.
Not one of them departed thinking they had given everything and there was no more they could do. Not one felt the team had run its course.
McGrath's ire at not being considered for the latest transfer of powers 12 months ago had its source in the type of treatment he felt was meted out to him by a county board that should have respected his record more. But, as always, McGrath would have looked 12 months down the line and felt his county were good enough to break bread at the top table.
That's Down for you. That's the way it is with them, reflected in the desire of O'Rourke and Carr to stay and McGrath to get back in.
It's often said that the Cork hurlers were like mushrooms with their capacity to arrive overnight. A Down football team's gestation period can be even quicker. At best Down have been only seventh best in Ulster over the last decade, Antrim and Cavan lagging slightly behind.
Beyond Ulster their record is even worse. But here they are just 70 minutes from a sixth All-Ireland title against a county whose record of losing finals is the worst by some distance relative to appearances.
Bad as things may be, they always feel it won't take much fixing. Tradition surely plays its part. Five All-Ireland final appearances, five victories. But for Conor Deegan, full-back in the 1991 final and midfielder three years later, its significance is overstated.
"It's there, it's part of history but we don't talk about it. People talk about Down teams coming to Croke Park and they expect to be there and whatever. I can't put a finger on it. I don't know what it is," he says.
"I grew up listening to my father telling me about the great 1960s team. So maybe subconsciously you believe. But it doesn't really come into it. Down have won five All-Irelands. But we've only played in five. The reality is we haven't been up at the top table very often."
Deegan admits that the results in recent times have been "dire". McCartan himself doesn't pay much heed to history either, suggesting that a greater level of consistency would be more welcome even if it meant an odd All-Ireland final defeat.
"If I could ask the question, would you rather have six All-Irelands out of six or seven out of nine? My answer is I'd rather have seven out of nine."
Ironically, their rise from the ashes this time looks to have taken a steeper rise than ever before.
No player represents the lost years in Down more than Benny Coulter, given his debut in 2000 by McGrath while still a minor. In 11 seasons he has suffered championship defeat 20 times, but never felt worse than when the Down bus pulled out of Aughrim in July 2009 after a third-round qualifier defeat to Wicklow.
"For me it was the same old story for (recent) Down football. We didn't even look like getting to the latter stages of the All-Ireland," he recalls. "We just didn't seem to have the players, the belief, anything. We didn't have the belief we could get to the latter stages of the All-Ireland, let alone win one.
"After the likes of the Wicklow game, or the Sligo game, there just didn't seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel for us. It was pure devastation on the bus, maybe not for the younger lads but for the older boys like myself, and Danny (Hughes) and Brendan (McVeigh), and them boys. It was just devastation."
But from the ashes has come a transformed team. Martin Clarke, described by Coulter as the best underage player ever to emerge from the county, returned from Australia, Kalum King swapped cage-fighting gloves for football boots, and the embracing of a more defensively orientated game-plan has been bought into.
There are a couple of fundamentals about the county that have to be factored in also. In Down the forward is king, untouchable to the kind of illegal suppression tolerated in so many other counties.
Hence players like Clarke and Coulter from this era, Mickey Linden, McCartan and Carr from the last era and Sean O'Neill, Paddy Doherty and James McCartan senior from the 1960s have thrived.
And they love their 'sevens' football. Since its inception in 1973, the Kilmacud 'sevens' football tournament, held on the eve of the All-Ireland football final, has been won by Down clubs on eight occasions. From Castlewellan to Bryansford, Longstone to the current champions Clonduff, 'sevens' football is a way of life for them, a possession game that breeds patience and ultimately confidence.
This will be Coulter's first time at an All-Ireland final since 1999, when he was there to win a minor title. Watching others in their glory hasn't interested him. They don't get hang-ups in Down about what others are doing.
They have faith in their own systems, their own styles, even when they're pulling away defeated from counties that could never aspire to where they are now.