GAA Football

The 140-day wait: McCartan appointment ends 'frustrating' process for Down

From early July a host of names were linked with the vacant Down managerial post, before yesterday James McCartan took the reins for a second time. Neil Loughran looks at how the process played out and got the thoughts of county chairman Jack Devaney...

James McCartan was confirmed as Down's new boss yesterday, with Aidan O'Rourke coming in as head coach. Picture by Sportsfile
Neil Loughran

WHEN Paddy Tally stepped aside after three years back on July 7, the top brass in Down were in no huge hurry to appoint a successor. Nobody could have foreseen the process dragging on for over four months, until red and black smoke finally billowed yesterday and James McCartan’s name was declared.

Plenty had been disappointed to see Tally go – not least the players. Ultimately, though, it was his call after he felt his request for a one-year extension had attracted insufficient support from county board members.

Within a week a selection committee was formed, just as had been the case prior to Tally’s appointment. County chairman Jack Devaney, county secretary Sean Og McAteer, Barney McAleenan and ex-players Mark Poland and Benny McArdle left no stone unturned in identifying possible candidates.

Inevitably, the rumour mill soon started to churn. Conor Deegan, an All-Ireland winner in 1991 and ’94, was the early front-runner before it went about that Tally was considering a dramatic return.

Then Conor Laverty and Marty Clarke, the U20 management team who had delivered an Ulster title earlier in the summer, were hotly tipped for a step up. Former Westmeath boss Brendan Hackett, involved with Down during the late Eamonn Burns's time, was set to be appointed a couple of times if speculation was to be believed - which it wasn't.

Malachy O’Rourke was mentioned but soon scotched those rumours, declaring his intention to remain with Glen, Maghera.

The weeks continued to pass, and still nothing. By the time Tally was added to Jack O’Connor’s new-look backroom team in Kerry at the end of September, Peter Canavan was the latest name on the carousel. John McEntee followed suit, without any foundation.

Kilcoo assistant Conleith Gilligan saw his name do the rounds. Pete McGrath signalled his interest in a sensational return to the hot seat he had vacated in 2002, should he be approached. That was at the end of October, with the return of county training on December 14 (it has since been brought forward to December 7) closing in, and Down and Longford the only counties in Ireland still to appoint a football manager.

Yet behind the scenes, away from the rampant speculation, conversations and meticulous planning were taking place to try and secure the services of Jim McGuinness – the man who led Donegal to All-Ireland glory in 2012 – as part of a management ticket alongside Laverty and Clarke.

It would have been an incredible coup for a county in Division Two to land such a big fish, so it is not huge surprise all eggs were placed in that basket when it appeared a realistic possibility.

Yet when it fell out of bed, Down found themselves back to square one. McGuinness dismissed the link as soon as it went public.

Laverty’s full focus turned to Kilcoo’s Ulster Championship defence, which gets under way against Cavan’s Ramor United on December 4. Clarke was later announced as part of Steven Poacher’s ticket at Mayobridge. Laverty and Clarke will remain with the Down U20s next year, alongside former Meath boss Sean Boylan.

James McCartan’s name had been among those mooted at the very start of the process – and it is no wonder, considering the job he did during his first stint in charge. An incredible run to the All-Ireland final in his first year, an Ulster final shot at McGuinness’s Donegal on their way to the ultimate prize two years later, and a sense of stability and progress.

After weeks of talk, his return was finally confirmed last night, with Armagh All-Ireland winner Aidan O’Rourke as head coach – the pair having worked together for a year, in 2012, during McCartan’s first spell at the helm.

Down County Board chairman Devaney was unwilling to go back over the McGuinness pursuit, and the impact that had on the longevity of the recruitment process. Instead, after months of uncertainty, he was delighted to have a man and a plan in place ahead of the 2022 campaign.

“It would’ve taken some persuasion,” he said of McCartan yesterday, “James has done a lot for Down, on and off the field.

“The process took much longer than we had ever anticipated, for obvious reasons. It has been frustrating, but we are fortunate that we’ve ended up with a strong management team at the end of it all.

“We would have encountered challenges along the way – we knew the job we had to do, we wanted to be ambitious about what we were looking to achieve here.

“I don’t want to go into any real detail because some of it has played out itself, but we’re in a position now where you can either dwell on that or appreciate what you have and plan forward from here.

“James and Aidan are a strong team, they have proven experience and the right credentials in terms of the type of people you would want to put into the role. But they have a big challenge ahead of them and I think they understand that.

“There’s a body of work and any expectation that it’s suddenly going to change overnight is unrealistic. The key thing now is to get the buy-in and support of everyone, and that’s not just the players - it’s clubs, supporters… everyone really.”


Declan Bonner (Donegal)

IT was only four weeks after retiring from inter-county football before Bonner was named Tir Chonaill manager in 1997.

However, with the 1998 Ulster final defeat to Derry the closest they came to landing silverware, Bonner stepped down at the end of the 2000 campaign.

However after a number of years working with Donegal age teams, culminating in a successful stint with the U21s, he returned back up to the senior role in September 2017.

Bonner subsequently led Donegal to back-to-back Ulster crowns in 2018 and 2019 before losing out to Cavan in the 2020 decider. He remains at the helm for 2022.

His fellow county man Brian McEniff went even better still, of course, managing the Tir Chonaill on five different occasions.

James Horan (Mayo)

THE Ballintubber man led Mayo to four successive Connacht titles during his first spell in charge between 2011 and 2014 – leading them to All-Ireland finals in 2012 and 2013 where the county’s heartache continued at the hands of Donegal and Dublin.

Horan eventually called time after the All-Ireland semi-final replay loss to Kerry in 2014, eventually becoming an engaging and articulate pundit on Sky Sports.

However, perhaps with a sense of unfinished business, he returned to the role after Stephen Rochford’s 2019 exit – winning the National League in his first year back before All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin.

They have gone one further in the two years since, but are yet to land the big one after All-Ireland final defeats to the Dubs and then Tyrone back in September.

Jack O'Connor (Kerry)

O’CONNOR is now in his third spell in charge of Kerry after being chosen to replace the departing Peter Keane.

During his first stint O’Connor led the Kingdom to All-Ireland glory in 2004 and 2006. He left at the end of that year, only to return for the 2009 season. They claimed League and All-Ireland crowns, but the years that followed proved frustrating as Kerry found themselves in transition.

O’Connor quit at the end of 2012 but, after managing Kerry at underage level, is back for another crack at the big one.

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