GAA Football

"I couldn't turn my county down..." James McCartan on why he returned to the red and black

"When I’ve been asked to help out my county I’ve always found it hard to say no," says James McCartan. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.
Andy Watters

SO what made him come back?

“Yeah, look… A moment of madness maybe?” answers James McCartan and a long chuckle follows.

“There's your headline!” he adds.

The truth is that when Down come calling he finds it almost impossible to say no and after seven years off the inter-county circuit and with his county in dire need of a manager, he did the admirable thing and agreed to return to the fray.

He loves football, he loves a challenge and, most of all, he loves his county. Tick, tick, tick.

“I suppose this sounds a bit corny but when I've been asked to help out my county I've always found it hard to say 'no',” said McCartan.

“That's basically it. I've been involved at numerous levels for numerous years (he was an All-Ireland minor winner in 1987) and sometimes when they come and ask me to do something I put my head in my hands and sink to my knees but I usually end up trying not to let them down so we're back to that again.”

There were moments of gallows humour from McCartan throughout his first meeting with the media since his return was confirmed on Wednesday. His first spell began in the 2010 season and ended in 2014 and during those five years he restored Down to the heavyweight status they had held during his father's playing days in the 1960s and his own in the 1990s.

His heart was a factor in his thinking but his head was too. “We're not coming back to try and lose,” he said and, among the uncertainty that surrounds Down football, there are genuine signs of hope. The Mourne U20s won this year's Ulster title (Down's first success at that grade since 2009) and Kilcoo are the reigning Ulster club champions.

“We are going to try and improve on things,” said McCartan.

“Paddy (Tally) was there for three years and he rang me yesterday to wish me well. We had a long conversation and he gave me all the information he could as regards where he thought the panel was and it was much appreciated.

“We want to build on what was a difficult time for him as regards the Covid end of things. When he was there Down had some great performances - even in defeat against Mayo a couple of years ago, a 10-point lead against Cavan (Ulster semi-final)… We've shown in patches that we can compete and we're going to have to try and build on that.

“Looking at the make-up of Division Two, it's going to be a challenge to try and stay there but we'll go out to try and win every game.”

At the minute his squad is a list of names on a piece of paper so he'll spend a lot of time on the phone over the weekend getting in touch with current, former and future players to entice them back into the squad. His name carries clout in Down and he'll need the players and supporters to get behind himself and Aidan O'Rourke from the outset.

“We don't have the luxury of running many trials because time is short,” he said.

“We're starting from a static position so we're going to have to short-circuit the trial phase and go straight to getting the players together. We'll probably pick an extended panel – there is last year's panel, you have U20s who can step up and then there are people who aren't in either of those two positions who could contribute.

“Other counties are well ahead of us in that regard so it's going to be a challenge but we'll have to do our best.”

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GAA Football