'We haven't won anything. We have to make our own mark'
He's a reluctant leader but James McCartan is coping admirably in the Down hot seat, writes Damian Lawlor
J AMES McCARTAN never intended to become a manager but the odds were always stacked against him staying away from the sideline.
For a start, there was a strong family pedigree, a footballing dynasty that has been part of every one of Down's five All-Ireland senior titles. Then there was his father, James senior, who managed the Down team to the 1983 National League title. Then there was his potential.
Recognising that young James had similar leadership qualities to his father, his alma mater, Queen's University, pressed him for help. For years he kicked to touch but eventually succumbed and led their Freshers team to the 2002 title. Five years later, he guided their senior team to Sigerson Cup honours.
"I certainly had no intentions of managing teams but it's funny where I've ended up," says McCartan.
After the Sigerson success, clubs started to take notice. McCartan, suddenly, was in demand. He took his own side, Burren, to a county league title before delivering an Antrim title for St Gall's in 2008 and more recently taking charge of Ballinderry. Not bad going for one seemingly so reluctant.
"Honestly, I had no interest in managing because I thought I'd play for Down until I was 50," he smiles. "Then injuries started kicking in and I started to get slower. Still, I had no intention of quitting. I was always able to put Queen's off because I was playing inter-county football. Then Pete McGrath decided one year that I wasn't going to be playing inter-county anymore. I had no more excuses for when they called."
Today, his Down team tackle Armagh in the Division 2 league final but, with their championship opener against Donegal only weeks away, McCartan says their unbeaten league run thus far won't matter a jot if they lose that game. There's a fine line between a happy camp and a disgruntled one.
He thought long and hard before taking this position last September. Ross Carr, his old team-mate, had completed three years at the helm but wanted to stay on. The board, however, wanted change and McCartan was their man.
To add to his uncertainty at the time, McCartan's old manager, Pete McGrath, who guided him to double All-Ireland glory in 1991 and 1994, also fancied another crack at the job.
"I stewed over it," he recalls. "I wrote down reasons to take the job but the opposite list was much longer. Initially, I wasn't interested but something inside me said that I might be able to turn things around. There were a lot of complications. A bit of me didn't want to stand in Pete's way and I wondered if I was being disloyal to him. Gradually, I managed get over that, although I'm not sure if Pete did. I haven't spoken to him."
Even now, McGrath is clearly still stung by his treatment at the hands of the county board. After leading the U21s to an All-Ireland final earlier in the year, he felt he was worthy of another stint. The board overlooked him and only last week McGrath stayed away from a function honouring the heroes of Down's All-Ireland breakthrough 1960 and '61 teams, indicating that he would be uncomfortable there after his public falling out with board officials.
The two go back a long way, to 1986 in fact, when a 15-year-old McCartan won the first of two Hogan Cup medals for St Colman's under McGrath's watch. "There's no doubt that Pete's situation was a stumbling block," says McCartan. "I'd have preferred if he'd taken the Armagh job; that would have paved the way for me. I was thinking, 'did I let him down?' I'd be disappointed if he thinks like that, but at the same time I'd understand it as well."
Ultimately, he told himself the opportunity might never arise again and decided to give it a go. He surrounded himself with a proven backroom team and they hit the ground running. "Would it ever have come around again?" he muses. "I took it and realised that I had my own deficiencies so I surrounded myself with good people."
Even after all his success on and off the pitch, he felt there were aspects of the game he still didn't fully appreciate. Other voices were crucial to the set-up. He called in former Donegal manager Brian McIvor, highly-rated coach Paddy Tally and another selector, Jerome Johnson, each man an outsider to Down.
It's all been smiles thus far; they are unbeaten and boast the best defensive record in the division. McCartan's trying to put his stamp on affairs and has challenged his team to prove themselves. Over the years, there's been great romance attached to Down teams stemming from their dramatic breakthrough in the 1960s and their subsequent resurgence in the 1990s.
The current boss feels it's time to break new ground; they haven't won an Ulster title since 1994 and haven't contested the provincial final for six years. "I sometimes think that when Down won their first All-Ireland there was this romantic thing throughout the country. But we don't really feel that. We haven't won anything. We have to make our own mark. For a certain generation, Down would be people's second team. They'd support us if their own county was knocked out but I don't know if that applies now."
If this team is to make its mark, it will need Martin Clarke firing on all cylinders. That's easier said than done with constant speculation about an imminent return to the AFL.
Only last week, Collingwood CEO, Gary Pert, linked Clarke with a shock return to the club he left after 46 games. Still only 22, the player is under scrutiny once again and the constant speculation hasn't helped either him or McCartan.
But dealing with such issues is all part of a manager's life. McCartan has got used to it. Throw into the mix the fact that he and his wife have three young sons, aged six, three and 10 months, and it's easy to see his time is in big demand.
"I'm the opposite to most people," he laughs. "Most lads wouldn't take a job with those family commitments but when I heard we were expecting the last little fellow, I took on the job straight away. Anything to get me out of the house!"
If his team maintains its current impressive form, the next generation of McCartans could have even more feats and exploits to live up to. Just like their father did.