‘A marvellous player... a gentle giant’ - Sean O’Neill pays tribute to Down great Dan McCartan

John Murphy (second from left) with former Down team-mates Dickie Murphy, Colm McAlarney, John Harte, who sadly passed away last year, Peter Rooney, Mickey Cole, Dan McCartan, Sean O'Neill and James Milligan at one of their regular meet-ups at the Maghera Inn in 2018. Picture by Mal McCann
The late Dan McCartan (third from right) pictured with cousin Sean O'Neill (second from right) at a reunion lunch with some members of the Down All-Ireland winning side of 1968. Also pictured are Dickie Murphy, the late John Murphy, Colm McAlarney, the late John Harte, Peter Rooney, Mickey Cole and James Milligan. Picture by Mal McCann

SEAN O’Neill doesn’t have to plunder memories of magical days in Croke Park to get to the essence of his great friendship with the late Dan McCartan, who passed away on Sunday.

The pair were cornerstones of Down’s All-Ireland winning sides of the swinging Sixties – O’Neill part of a stellar forward division while McCartan and co kept the door shut at the other end. And, in doing so, they broke the mould.

The Mournemen became the first county to bring the Sam Maguire Cup across the border in 1960, before defending their crown the following September. Alongside Paddy Doherty, McCartan and O’Neill were stalwarts of the 1968 side that landed another All-Ireland title.

Yet theirs was a relationship forged far from Jones’s Road and the madness of those history-making days. As first cousins, a special bond was in place long before they took the field together in red and black.

“Dan and I were very close,” said O’Neill.

“We soldiered together through our teenage years and on after that - on the field and off the field. I spent many happy holidays in Donaghcloney, three or four weeks during the summers with Dan and my cousin Gay.

“Dan and Gay have been very close friends all my life - and I was very privileged to have them as personal friends, I’m telling you.”

It just so happened that, as their lives and careers unfolded, the pair would get to showcase their talents on the biggest stage side by side, culminating in the greatest decade of Down’s history.

McCartan initially played as centre half-back, before later moving to full-back, one of the leaders on a side stacked with big game players. Indeed, while his county days would inevitably come to an end, the fire still burned at club level where he later played alongside son Mark with Carryduff.

“Dad was around 50 then but he still would’ve done goals for us,” recalled Mark McCartan recalled in a 2020 Irish News interview.

“Even when [two time All-Ireland winning goalkeeper] Neil Collins transferred to Carryduff, Neil would’ve played outfield because dad was in nets. He played on into the 1990s as well, full-forward with the thirds.

“I think he was 59 when he played his last game. It was a great honour to be able to get to play with him, and then also to get to play alongside my own son, Dan, later on.”

Seamus McClean followed Down every step of the way in 1968 - culminating in their All-Ireland success that September
Dan McCartan was an experienced member of the Down 1968 All-Ireland winning team

Mark McCartan was part of the Down 1991 All-Ireland winning panel but, like so many others in the county, had grown up in awe of the sides his father played on.

The younger members of the 1968 team, the likes of Peter Rooney, Mickey Cole and Colm McAlarney, would talk with great fondness of the way in which Dan McCartan always had their backs on the field.

Indeed, that group still come together for lunch every couple of months, a band of brothers now mourning the loss of one of their own.

“Dan was a marvellous team-mate, a marvellous player... he played the game very simply, and he was a major force for any team he played with,” said O’Neill.

“I say that in the right way - he was not an intimidator, he wasn’t a dirty player, but it was a physical game and he played it within the rules.

“Away from football, he was a gentle giant, very good company, I’d have stood up for Dan in any company, anywhere, any time, and he would have done the same for me or any of his friends.

“He was that kind of character - a very genuine man, and he will be sadly missed.”