McCartan raising expectations of Down resurgence
AMONG those feted at last night's 50th commemoration of Down's 1960 All-Ireland breakthrough at annual GAA Congress in the Slieve Donard Hotel, Newcastle, was one of Gaelic football's seminal half-forward lines.
It included James McCartan. He was the second generation of the legendary football clan to play for the Mournemen and his own sons soon followed in the family footsteps.
One of them became an equally renowned figure, a quicksilver forward who slotted that famous goal under Hill 16 in 1994 that clinched Down's second All-Ireland of the '90s.
'Wee James' McCartan continued the family dynasty by winning two All-Irelands and two All Stars in the '90s, yet it is his new role as Down senior football manager that has lifted hopes and hearts around the Mournes this spring.
McCartan was a schoolboy star with St Colman's, Newry, and, by coincidence, the Violet Hill gang have just won the Hogan Cup for the first time in 15 years.
When McCartan got the Down job last winter, he faced plenty of sceptics. A couple of his iconic All-Ireland winning team-mates -- first Paddy O'Rourke (now managing Armagh), then Ross Carr (with DJ Kane as his right-hand man) -- have had the job since Pete McGrath's departure, but Down still haven't won an Ulster title since 1994 and haven't even contested the provincial final for six years.
The county won an All-Ireland minor title in 2005, when they also contested the U-21 final, and were desperately unlucky to be pipped by Cork in last year's U-21 decider.
The fact that McGrath led them to that U-21 final and was then overlooked for the senior job didn't help McCartan's cause.
Under McGrath's tutelage, McCartan was only 15 when he won the first of two Hogan Cup medals in 1986 and '88. St Colman's also lost the 1989 MacRory Cup (Ulster schools) final, despite his 3-2 contribution.
The only blemish in McCartan's career was a serious one, when he was convicted of assaulting a Westmeath player during a challenge match in 2003, an embittering experience that would have seen many walk away from their sport. Yet McCartan, who manages the family quarry business, stayed immersed in it.
A former Sigerson winner with Queens, he managed the university to a freshers title in 2002 and four subsequent Sigerson Cup finals, including the third-level league and championship double in 2007.
He has also managed some high-profile Ulster clubs such as Burren, Antrim kingpins St Gall's and, most recently, Derry's Ballinderry.
For some, the image endures of a feisty, impish individual, not least thanks to his natural swagger as a player and a club transfer wrangle in the '90s when he moved from his home Division 3 side Tullylish to Division 1 kingpins Burren and reportedly lived in a caravan to meet the necessary residency rule.
Yet his methodical approach in managing Down has already proven that image to be a myth.
Those who expected McCartan to ride in shooting all six-guns and shouting 'my way or the highway!' were totally wrong.
Before convening extensive trials, he first held what has been described as a Barack Obama-like 'town hall' meeting with all the managers of the county's Division 3 and Division 4 clubs in Newry. He is reportedly about to hold another one.
As well as canvassing their opinion on players, he also wanted people "to see that we (management) are human, and that we are not these aloof people working in ivory towers".
As one insider says: "James is very good at managing people, not just players. The way he has dealt with clubs has been exemplary and he is a very deep thinker about football."
His choice of selectors bears that out. Brian McIver led Ballinderry to an All-Ireland club title and, more recently, managed Donegal. Paddy Tally was the fitness expert behind Tyrone's breakthrough and also worked with McIver in managing St Mary's College.
They provide the 'outsiders' view,' while Jerome Johnson, of current county senior and minor champions Kilcoo, provides the opposite.
McCartan and Tally may be the ones prowling the sidelines, but it is believed to be a very collaborative process.
And they're already being credited with producing a firm gameplan to which the players have responded; direct, fast, low ball to the forwards and then everyone funnelling back to defend.
Defence has been Down's Achilles heel for some time, but Benny McArdle, previously a forward, is now playing full-back and, while Daniel Hughes starts in the half-forwards, he now operates as a sweeper.
Kalum King has been called up to bolster midfield and Ambrose Rodgers, who ruptured his spleen in a life-threatening playing injury two years ago, is playing a real captain's part.
Up front, the return home from Australia of Marty Clarke is undoubtedly a huge boost, as is the burgeoning talent of the 2009 U-21s such as Conor Maginn, Paul McComiskey, Peter Fitzpatrick and Timmy Hanna.
The performances of Clarke's older brother, John, not on the panel last year, have also been a big factor and the only problem McCartan has now is controlling the county's rising expectations.