Saturday 24 February 2018

McCartan's football pedigree a cut above the rest

Manager's deep roots run through Down's glory years

Down manager James McCartan
Down manager James McCartan
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

To get a proper appreciation of James McCartan's status in his own county, it is best to explore the rich lineage he enjoys, a lineage that weaves its way through some of the most celebrated names Down football has known.

The McCartan name has a special hum to it in Ulster. Connect all the strands and you have a dynasty that maybe no other county can measure up to. The term 'first family' comes to mind.

A McCartan has featured on every one of Down's five All-Ireland titles. Should they prevail on Sunday, that will extend to six with the presence of Daniel McCartan, the manager's much younger brother, at corner-back.

'Wee' James as he is known to distinguish him from his father, also James, has had other brothers to follow on to Down teams over the last 20 years since he made his own debut.

Charlie Pat had a spell in the late 1990s, Eoin might still be there if it wasn't for serious injury and Brian was also a peripheral figure at an early stage in James' career having won an All-Ireland minor medal in 1987.


Their father was of course Down's powerfully built centre-forward on the team that made the breakthrough in 1960 and followed up with a second title 12 months later. In both years James Snr was 'Footballer of the Year.'

James Snr's brother is Dan McCartan, centre-back in '60 and '61 and full-back in '68. Their father 'Briney' was also a Down footballer of some repute in the 1930s and early 1940s when Cavan were in their pomp.

The connections don't end there. If anything they weave further into Down's rich heritage.

Through their mother, James Snr and Dan were first cousins of the great Sean O'Neill and his brother Kevin, a substitute in the 1961 final and father of the Gaelic Players Association founder Donal.

Still following it? Well it becomes even more complicated. Seamus McCartan, a first cousin of Dan and James Snr, married a sister of Greg Blaney's father Sean, captain of the Armagh minor team in 1947, creating a further link with the renowned centre-forward of 1991 and '94. John and Jim McCartan, sons of Seamus, are also Down players of the recent past, John the captain of the 1977 All-Ireland winning minor team.

DJ Kane, captain of the 1994 All-Ireland winning team, is also brought into the mix. His mother and James Snr were also first cousins, making 'Wee' James and DJ second cousins.

The tree extends further, winding its way -- through marriage -- to George Glynn, another former Down All-Ireland medal winner and the McKnights of Armagh.

The strength of the blood lines always gave 'Wee' James more than a fighting chance to make it as a player. It was, essentially, a privileged position in football terms that he enjoyed.

Mickey Linden remembers McCartan and a number of others graduating from the '87 minor team and the lift they provided to a flagging senior set-up in the late 1980s. He was effectively the catalyst for that revival.

Linden took oxygen from his arrival in much the same way as Benny Coulter may be drawing it from Martin Clarke's establishment now.

What 'Wee' James lacked in inches as a player he made up for in almost every other facet. Those short, explosive steps carried him quickly into positions that instantly hurt opposing defences and that tank-like frame allowed him to guard possession jealously. When he had it, he always kept it and made it count.

Above all, he oozed confidence. He was sure of himself. He dispatched his answers in much the same manner as he played his football, fast and sharp.

An All-Ireland colleges medal winner with St Colman's in the same year that he was part of the All-Ireland winning minor team, his quick elevation was inevitable.

At Queen's he mixed it with some of the best in Ulster of his generation. Armagh's Paul McGrane remembers his great ability to bend and block a ball as much as the more aesthetic parts of his game. He had a great gift, but he saw the importance of labour too.

By the age of 23 he had two All-Ireland medals, but it was downhill after that. Down didn't make another Ulster final for five years and by then he was struggling with serious injury.

He dabbled with rugby at one stage and spent two years playing soccer with Glenavon in the Irish League.

Not all of his playing colleagues saw him as management material down the road, but Conor Deegan, the former full-back, always felt his strong opinions on matters could take him that way.

"James is James. He always had strong opinions," recalls Deegan.

"He was a very strong guy, very strong willed, extremely talented footballer. He obviously wanted to do it, so I suppose if you were asked about any of the players he would have been up there."

Queen's spotted his managerial capacity early, however, and by 2002 he had taken them to a freshers' title.

For four successive years he managed the senior team. Each year they reached the final, losing three before eventually pulling off the league and Sigerson Cup double in 2007. That was the green light for his departure and a different challenge.

His career has followed some controversial pathways too.

In 2003, just as his Down career was beginning to peter out, he found himself the focus of an investigation into how Westmeath player Kenny Larkin sustained a broken jaw in a challenge match against Down prior to the commencement of the championship.

The matter dragged on for months, extending into the following year, when a GAC investigation into the incident collapsed because proper procedures weren't followed.

However, Larkin pursued the legal route and in November 2004 McCartan, who had strenuously denied assaulting the 20-year-old defender, was found guilty of the charge in a Dublin District Court. He was ordered to pay a large sum of money to a charity nominated by Larkin.


His transfer from his home club Tullylish to Burren was also bathed in controversy, but any fallout from that didn't diminish his candidacy for the Down job 12 months ago.

Ross Carr and DJ Kane were the incumbents and his old minor and senior boss Pete McGrath had designs on it, but the committee opted for youthful exuberance and they have been rewarded handsomely.

The involvement of Brian McIver and Paddy Tally have been important from a technical point of view, helping to structure the defensive alignments they have taken up.

But the character of this emerging team is taking its cue from the personality of its manager. McCartan can be relaxed and light-hearted in his own way.

"He is not too serious," says Coulter. "You can have a laugh and a joke with the lads. He's not a man to come in and say you are doing this and that wrong. He has the craic when he chats with you. Sometimes he is just like one of the lads, but when he has to, he puts the serious face on as well."

Throughout his career McCartan has always had the capacity to rise to any challenge to him. The name is good, you see.

Irish Independent

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