McCartan focused on keeping up high standards in Down
MORE than two months after losing the All-Ireland football final in the cruellest terms imaginable, James McCartan still can't bring himself to watch the video.
He tried it once or twice but decided it was a chore for another day, one which he is putting off as long as he possibly can.
"I'll watch it sometime before the start of the league but it's not something I'm looking forward to. It's never easy to look back on a game you lost, especially an All-Ireland final. But I suppose I'll have to look at it some time," he said.
McCartan doesn't need the video to remind him of a day when Down came so close to completing the fairytale restoration of a season, which looked to be heading nowhere when they lost the Ulster semi-final to Tyrone. But instead of allowing that setback to derail them, they re-grouped with an admirable sense of purpose and powered their way to the All-Ireland final.
However, they came up a point short against a more experienced Cork side who, after losing two of the previous three All-Ireland finals, were living on their nerves. At times, Cork looked as if they would again be undermined by insecurity before getting their game working sufficiently well to end the 20-year wait for an All-Ireland title.
Having come so close to crowning the year with an All-Ireland win, Down were left wondering what might have been.
"We made mistakes on the day but there's nothing we can do about them now except learn from the experience and try to make it count next year," he said. "I know some people would be critical of things I did as manager but, again, that's beyond my control. I did what I thought was right. If things work out, it's great and you're praised for making the right switches but when they don't you have to take the flak. It's part of being a team manager."
His big concern now is that Down don't lose the momentum generated this year. It has happened in the past, where Down showed decent form one year, only to drop back the following season.
"We've got to make sure that doesn't happen this time," he said. "We have set certain standards for ourselves which we must build on. It will be tough, though. We're in Division 1 of the league, which will be very competitive, and then we have Armagh in the championship.
"They certainly won't need motivating for that clash. They're looking at us getting to an All-Ireland final and winning All Star awards and will be saying to themselves, 'right lads, let's see how good these boys are.' What happened this year won't count for anything when we take on Armagh."
His centre-back, Kevin McKernan, is equally aware of the pressure Down will be under next year.
"We're there to be shot at now. We made progress this year but still have a long way to go. We're looking forward to it because we honestly believe there's more to come from this squad," he said.
It's a common theme among Down people but whether the squad is good enough to advance on this year remains to be seen.
"At the end of the day, we didn't win any titles. Tyrone are disappointed with how they played in the All-Ireland quarter-final but they are still Ulster champions. They have a title to show for their efforts -- we don't," said McCartan.
The disappointment of close calls is familiar territory for Cork but they finally got things right when it mattered most this year, much to the relief of manager Conor Counihan and his players.
Now, the challenge is to build on this year's success and emulate the Cork team of 20 years ago, who retained the All-Ireland title with Counihan on the field. There's a common view that Cork won this year's title without coming anywhere near their best, a situation which carries exciting possibilities for next year.
"You'd always like to think that there's more in a team whether you're winning or losing. We didn't play as well as we can at times this year but the important thing was that, with the exception of the game against Kerry in the replay, we came out on the right side of close calls," said Counihan.
That defeat set Cork on a different route to previous years, dispatching them into Round 2 of the qualifiers, a path which Kerry and Tyrone have used to good effect previously. Question marks were raised against Cork after the defeat by Kerry but Counihan had no doubt that they would revive their All-Ireland ambitions via the qualifiers.
"We only just lost to Kerry after two games and extra-time so it wasn't as if we were playing badly," he said. "We eased ourselves back in the qualifiers and by the time we reached Croke Park, our momentum was as strong as ever."
Cork will take a two-week holiday in South Africa just after Christmas before returning to the heavy grind prior to the start of the league. They do so as the country's top football side, making them a target for all-comers.
"We'll have to deal with that. It's a different type of test for players but I'd be confident that the lads are mature enough to handle it. It's a good position to be in, certainly better than in other years when we felt we didn't quite do ourselves justice," said Counihan.
With Tyrone and Kerry losing in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, the season opened up nicely for Cork and they were eventually rewarded, albeit after desperately tight finishes against Dublin and Down. However, the manner in which they came from behind in both games underlined the new-found sense of confidence which enabled them to play their way out of trouble.
Nobody epitomised that more than Daniel Goulding, whose accuracy from frees and '45s' was crucial against Down. Like the rest of the squad, he felt an enormous sense of relief after winning the All-Ireland title.
"People were wondering would it ever come. We always believed in ourselves but we needed to win the All-Ireland to prove that we were a good team. Having done that, we're hungry for more. We'd like to think there's more to come from this team," he said.
Down are on a similar wavelength but without any titles, a situation of which they are acutely aware. "We've come a long way in a few years but we can't stop there. Having said that, 2011 will be a very tough year for us," said McCartan.
One situation in which he certainly doesn't want to find Down is as Ulster runners-up, as that would leave them facing an All-Ireland qualifier within six days. Just how tough it is to deal with that was underlined by Monaghan and Sligo, both of whom failed the six-day test last July. Down hammered Sligo in a game where Kevin Walsh's men never did themselves justice.
"In a word, it's unfair. Asking players to play a qualifier six days after losing a provincial final is too much," McCartan said. "Getting over a defeat, let alone one in a provincial final, takes time, yet teams are expected to be ready in six days. I can't understand why that hasn't been changed."