GAA Football

Time Out: Down lucky to have landed a man of James McCartan's calibre

Former Donegal boss Jim McGuinness was linked with a possible role in a Down management team involving Conor Laverty and Marty Clarke. Picture by Colm O'Reilly

AT long last, the late night texts have stopped. Everything has suddenly gone quiet. I remember sitting watching the penalty shootout that settled the Euro 2020 final and receiving a message claiming Brendan Hackett, the former Westmeath manager and part of the late Eamonn Burns's backroom team at a time, was a shoo-in for the Down job that had been recently vacated by Paddy Tally.

Over four months on, the Euros and the summer sun feel like a lifetime ago now as winter descends. WhatsApp groups across the county whirred themselves into a frenzy on many occasions thereafter until, on Wednesday, confirmation of James McCartan's return to the hot-seat brought closure to what appeared a never-ending saga.

With counties allowed to resume training on December 7 - and talk that plenty have already been back for some time - there were genuine fears about not only how far behind Down might be once they eventually got going, but that the date could even pass without a manager in place.

After all, this is the time of year when the club merry-go-round is in full spin, with potential contenders falling by the wayside in every direction. At times, and particularly in the past fortnight, the selection committee must have felt the walls were closing in around them.

Coming off the back of a 16-point Ulster Championship hiding at the hands of Donegal, and narrowly escaping the drop from a truncated Division Two, expectations were realistic as the process got under way.

But still there was surprise at how difficult it proved to attract quality candidates. Names came and went. Some were spoken to, others weren't. Chit-chat of so and so being seen with selection committee members in the Canal Court did the rounds, often with more mischief than meaning behind it.

The pursuit of Jim McGuinness proved there was still space for sky high ambition in the midst of it all, and at several points the selection committee believed they had succeeded where other counties had previously failed by securing his services on a ticket that would also include the U20 management of Conor Laverty and Marty Clarke.

That pair had originally been sounded out in early summer, but the inclusion of the man who led Donegal to the 2012 All-Ireland title was a game-changer. It is understood those discussions went on for 10 weeks, possibly more.

Nothing worth having ever came easy but, the longer it went on, the more doubt began to creep in. McGuinness's determination to further his career in the world of soccer, rather than returning to GAA, was always going to be an issue.

It was even suggested that while the Glenties man might be part of the management team, his name would be kept out of it altogether, so as not to give an impression of unavailability to any potential suitors.

I'm not quite sure I'm buying that. If Jim McGuinness is involved in anything, people are going to find out about it. That's a fact.

Yet as soon as word got out - and it is a credit to the selection committee that they managed to keep it quiet for so long - the jig was up.

“Over the course of the winter months a number of county teams have been in contact with me with a view to manager's jobs and coaching roles,” McGuinness told the Irish Times the following day.

“I spoke with all of them because I do love coaching and out of respect, really. You are going to listen to what someone has to say. And I told them all the same story - that I am very much focused on soccer at the moment and waiting to see what might happen or not happen at the end of the season.”

Was Jim McGuinness really what Down needed at this stage? Had that coup come off, how does it play out?

It is well documented that McGuinness helped pick Donegal off the floor after their Championship humbling at the hands of a weakened Armagh in 2011. But Donegal had also been National League champions in 2007, their U21s – under McGuinness – had reached the 2010 All-Ireland final, just coming up short against Dublin.

They had a young lad called Michael Murphy coming into his own, and several other big, strong athletic footballers who, when moulded into the kind of machines he envisaged, would prove unstoppable.

The raw materials were there, the secret of his success was bringing everybody along with him. Gone was the apparent ‘party boy' culture, lads opting in and out of the panel.

Alongside Rory Gallagher he helped change the culture of a county and - with the likes of Murphy still in situ - that remains in place today, seven years after McGuinness called time.

Some of the issues that historically affected Donegal are not unfamiliar to Down, in particular the continuity of selection for managers going back to James McCartan's first stint in charge and beyond.

Indeed, when the Mournemen came up against Cork in a National League semi-final two years after facing off in the 2010 All-Ireland final, the Rebels had 11 of the same starters. Down had seven.

Paddy Tally felt those same frustrations during his three year stint.

“If you look at the last couple of years the amount of players that have had their opportunities,” said the Galbally man after a Division Two defeat to Meath back in May.

“What you'd love in Down is for boys to commit themselves to being county players for, say, 10 years, whereas players stick at it for two years or four years and are gone.

“There's just a high turnover and if you look at the top teams in the country that doesn't happen… this is something Down and the players need to think about.”

There's little doubt lads who might have been uncertain about putting their hand up for county consideration would have been falling over themselves to get to training had Jim McGuinness been involved.

But, with his soccer ambitions always the elephant in the room, was it really realistic to expect that arrangement to be anything more than a short-term thing? And how damaging might it have been for Down to lose such a key member of the management team should an opportunity have presented itself elsewhere?

It's difficult to impact meaningful change with one eye on the door. Bringing in Jim McGuinness, for all the obvious reward, would have been a high-risk strategy.

With the appointment of James McCartan, the old shtick about Down always looking to the past will be pulled out again. That is to do the man a considerable disservice.

McCartan - who only finished up with the county minors earlier this year - has proved himself wherever he has been he has been and, having accepted what many considered a poisoned chalice, his sole aim will be to restore pride to the jersey he once graced so magnificently.

Rather than rolling out lazy tropes or pondering what might have been, Down supporters should count themselves lucky that a man - and a manager - of James McCartan's calibre has stepped up to the plate when they needed him most.

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