DOWN’S infamous pre-championship breach of discipline happened because the county’s management team were “swinging a carrot” in front of the players by not explicitly telling them not to drink, says Caolan Mooney.
James McCartan had to be talked into staying just weeks before their Ulster Championship opener against Monaghan earlier this year, in which Down were well beaten, after a number of players were drinking on a training weekend in Malahide.
They had played Westmeath on the Saturday morning before going into the hotel bar, where Mooney says “boys had a couple of beers” after he had failed to get an answer from James McCartan over whether they were allowed to.
“It sorta started that morning, we put into the group we were gonna do a sweepstake for the Grand National,” Mooney told Colm Parkinson’s Smaller Fish podcast yesterday.
“We’d played our match, we had a challenge match against Westmeath, the injured boys had done their rehab session that morning.
“After the match nothing was said, boys ended up going down. We were staying in Malahide and we were watching the National in the bar in the hotel. Boys had a couple of beers.
“You were sorta swinging that carrot in front of boys, can we, can’t we? If you’re [not] told not to, you’re in a group of grown men, you’re gonna have a couple of beers.
“If anything, I know it looks bad, but the group actually bonded better after it. Before it, everything was in a dire state, the amount of boys that walked away and morale was low after getting relegated. It did take it.
“I know people aren’t happy about it. Some of the stories that came out were complete bullshit.
“Yes, boys had a couple of beers sitting watching the National, but nobody had went into Dublin city centre, nobody had left the hotel, we were all sitting there and had our dinner and the meeting. It obviously added fuel to the fire to the management.”
Mooney said he had attempted to ring McCartan on the Friday but that “he didn’t take my call and didn’t get back to me.
“If he would have said no, I’d have said not a problem. Nothing was said,” he added.
Now playing his club football for RGU Downpatrick having transferred last year from native Rostrevor, Mooney left the Down panel ahead of their Tailteann Cup campaign which was equally short-lived, ending in a first-round defeat by Cavan.
He told Parkinson that he’d left after being refused permission to play in a club game the night before Down were due to have a challenge game that he would have missed due to a funeral.
“I would have thought that man-management would have been the way to go there, let [me] have 60 minutes instead of missing football altogether and not getting any game time between then and the Tailteann Cup.
“It is what it is, I just decided enough was enough and I just had to step away,” he said.
Mooney, who admits that it looks as though his Down career could be over, was highly critical of the standard of training across the year, claiming that the management team’s late start had led to a decision not to push players too hard for fear of causing injuries.
“Our sessions weren’t anywhere near the level they should be to play inter-county football.
“Compared to years gone by when you had the legs run off you, coming out of training and you were shattered, I wasn’t sort of feeling it this year.
“We did have a meeting early in the year and I did say training needs to be harder. They were a wee bit apprehensive, saying ‘we don’t want boys getting injured’, but boys were getting injured anyway so it’s probably better to put boys through some stress early and get injuries, then their bodies get used it feeling a wee bit of stress and grow.”
He also pointed to the examples of All-Ireland semi-finalists Derry and beaten quarter-finalists Armagh as teams that Down had beaten in recent years, but whose consistency had seen them pull away from the Mournemen.
“We’re just maybe lagging behind every other county. We beat Armagh in 2017. We beat Derry in the league that year, we beat Derry in the league in 2020 before Covid kicked in.
“I know Conor Glass and a few came in but they had a core group of players that they just built through. It’s the same with Armagh.
“We’ve just been lacking that, and the structure off-field in terms of strength and conditioning, getting fellas ready to play senior football…
“We’re just maybe a few years behind everyone at this stage. I think things are being put in place to try and rectify that. It’s good to see, but it’s not gonna affect me I don’t think.”