Q: You’re back in for your second stint as Down manager, you’ve obviously been involved with the underage as well, what was your thought process for coming back in?
James McCartan: Look, a moment of madness maybe – that’s the headline.
My thought process is, and I suppose this is going to sound a bit corny, but when you’re asked to help out your county I’ve always found it hard to say no.
That’s basically it. I’ve been involved at various levels for numerous years. 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 in some manner so we’re back to that again. Q: Is it a case of, I don’t want to say taking the job for emotional ties, but is that something, to come in and do the best for your county. JMcC: It’s certainly part of the thinking.
We’re not coming back to try and fail or to try to lose, we do intend to try and see if we can improve on things.
Paddy (Tally) was there for three years, probably three difficult years with the fact that Covid kicked in.
In fairness, he rang me yesterday to wish me well and we had a long conversation. He gave me all the information that he could with regards to where he felt the panel was. It was certainly much appreciated.
We’re obviously trying to build on what was a difficult time for him with regards the Covid end of things.
Whenever he was there, there were some great performances, even in defeat. Against Mayo (a 2019 All-Ireland Qualifier) a couple of years ago in Newry, a 10-point lead against Cavan (2020 Ulster SFC semi-final) that didn’t work out in the end.
We’ve shown in patches that we can compete and we’re going to have to try and build on that.
Now to put that in perspective, 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 and try and win every game.
It’s never straight forward, you don’t make predictions of relegation and promotion, you play a couple of games and see where you are at and take it from there.
Q: What’s the initial goal? What’s the starting point?
JMcC: First things first, it’s about trying to get a panel of players together.
We probably don’t have the luxury of being able to run many trials because time is short. We’re starting from a static position so we’re going to have to try and short circuit the trial season and go straight to trying to get the players together. We’ll probably pick some sort of extended panel.
We’ve last year’s panel, you have u-20s who can step up and then you have players who maybe aren’t in either of those two positions, who are outside the panel and who you think might contribute.
We’re going to have quite a big panel to start with and, yeah, it’s not ideal and we’re well aware that a lot of other counties are well ahead of us in this regard. It’s going to be a challenge, but we just have to do our best.
Q: There is a consensus, rightly or wrongly, that the best players in Down haven’t always been playing for Down. Are you going to try and get them to commit to the red and black jersey?
JMcC: You’re asking me a question that’s out of my control.
I would like to be able to turn round and say that everybody that should be available for you is playing. In this day and age, people have their personal lives and their own commitments.
Some like the travelling, some just don’t want to give the commitment. It’s a huge commitment, certainly initially in pre-season.
Q: When did you and Aidan (O’Rourke) come into the process when there had been such chat about Conor Laverty, Jim McGuinness and Martin Clarke and, secondly, is there any updates on the backroom team?
JMcC: We were approached months ago about this and we’re just delighted to be the county’s number one pick. I was on holiday for two months there and they couldn’t get in contact with me for a while.
Look, it’s fairly obvious that James McCartan and Aidan O’Rourke, we weren’t the first port of call.
It’s neither here nor there for us. We were asked and we were fully aware of what was done before. The decision was there for whether we wanted to take the job or not. We decided to take the lead.
We haven’t had much time to put anything together. We are in the process of talking to people so it’s too early to give an update on that.
Q: It’s been over 10 years since you got to the All-Ireland final where you came so close against Cork. What have you learned from that?
JMcC: What did we learn? We learned to enjoy it because it doesn’t come around very often. Maybe not the answer you wanted.
Look if I knew the secret of getting to All-Ireland finals I would be in my 13th year of the job at this stage but that’s not the way it works unfortunately.
Obviously we’ll be delighted if we can bring some sort of success back to the county. Silverware is something we have been missing for a long, long time and we’d like to be able to promise the people of county Down and deliver it but it’s not the way it works. It’ll be hard work, sweat and tears to see if we can move the thing in the right direction.
Q: Just back on the panel of players, Paddy Tally had spoken about the big turnover in Down – that’s something you’ll hope to change I’m sure.
JMcC: Life goes on, people have other commitments. Obviously when you’re Tyrone, Donegal, Dublin it’s easier to hang onto your players because of your success. No one wants to leave and they want to hang onto that.
It’s harder to keep coming back to the table whenever it’s a team that isn’t getting silverware. It’s a massive commitment and if you’re not getting your rewards you’d consider your position.
But, look, we’ve had lots of boys who have played for a long time, Benny McArdle, Caolan Mooney has played for a long time. You can through the team, Johnny Flynn, lots of guys have put in a lot.
It is a huge commitment and I think we should commend players who have stayed for a long time rather than criticising when they leave.
Q: Do you feel the game has changed much since your first spell?
JMcC: Yeah, the game has definitely changed and you’re always looking to work at improving and seeing what’s going on. Kick-out strategies and so on and so forth and goalkeepers are coming more to the forefront. (Stephen) Cluxton set a trend.
Things have changed but I have gone to a few matches here and there along the way.
Q: On goalkeepers, Charlie Smyth is one example of a modern goalkeeper. How do you view the overall talent in the county?
JMcC: I think there are footballers there and we just have to try and improve. There’s maybe one or two outside of the panel, [because of] work or whatever, [we can] try and squeeze them in.
The u-20s, some of those can step up so it’s our job to try and gel that all together. We will try and see if we can start winning a game or two.
Q: The u-20s, Kilcoo – there are a lot of positive factors there. Did that play into your decision?
JMcC: Kilcoo, yes, and hopefully we have access to the players like the rest of the county, Burren, Clonduff, Bryansford. We always think there are good footballers in Down and I think there are tonnes of good footballers in Down.
In the past we could have done with a couple of big, broad midfielders, a couple Darragh Ó Sés, but I think when we get the ball in our hands we’re quite able to compete but it’s trying to string that all together to make it work.
Q: When you came in first Down were in Division Two and it’s the same now, is it a bigger challenge now?
JMcC: There was probably a better lead-in time last time, time is short here. Things have to be ready for the McKenna Cup so the task is probably a wee bit bigger.
During the summer previously you would have been watching championship games, taking notes, preparing with a view to picking a panel. That wasn’t the case. I was watching games on TV sitting there not taking notes and just enjoying the game as a spectator.
We’re probably a wee bit behind the black ball with regards that but everyone loves a challenge.
Q: Do you think it’s become structurally more difficulty for a county like Down to make an impact compared to when you finished your first time in charge? JMcC: That’s a big question that could go so many different ways.
The championship is probably unfair the way it’s loaded in Ulster. It’s very difficult for any team in Ulster. There are three or four teams in Division One from Ulster so it’s very hard to go back-to-back in Ulster.
Q: The gap that you and your team bridged in the 1990s and your dad’s team in the 1960s. Those intervals have been exceeded so how much pressure is there to come up with something?
JMcC: I’m not sure there is pressure there because the expectation isn’t there really. The public in Down know where we are at. They know where out stature is in Ulster and it’s not where we want to be so we’re going to have to try and put the shoulder to the wheel and try and change that expectation.
There are a lot of teams ahead of us, a lot of teams with a lot more work done not just for this year but for previous years, and we feel that we need to do a bit more with our development squads and underage, etc.
We have do something, no doubt, but, look, we’re here to try and do it.
Q: Four teams from Ulster in Division One and Down backed Proposal B at Congress. Had it passed do you think you would have had a better chance as a team in Division Two playing for three play-off spots in the All-Ireland?
JMcC: I’m not exactly up to speed on how the new proposals were. I could give you 10 minutes on what I think about how the championship should be laid out. How you fix it would be a very long conversation.
Q: You would have obviously been watching the appointment process, were you intrigued when you heard Jim McGuinness was linked to it.
JMcC: I was excited that someone of that stature (was linked) and without going into the details of it, I know Jim was talking to them and giving them a lot of time.
It didn’t work out in the end and that’s unfortunate, but the fact that somebody was taking the time to speak to Down excited me.
Q: Do you think it’s become a tougher task to sign up for county jobs these days?
JMcC: There’s no doubt that managing an inter-county team takes up a lot of time. I left this morning at 10am and I’ll not be back to late.
You need to go in with your eyes open and I’m doing that. I’ve been here before, I’d like to think I’m close to the people on the county board. I know the task ahead.
Q: Did Down answer your call or did you answer Down’s call?
JMcC: I was going to talk about the Monty Python sketch where nobody steps forward but everyone else steps back.
Whenever you’re born and bred and brought up in red and black, and I suppose the history my family has, there’s no doubt that there are a lot of things they could ask you to do and you’d find it difficult to say no to.
8 September 2010; Down’s James McCartan during a media day ahead of GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final 2010 against Cork. Canal Court Hotel, Newry, Co. Down. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh SPORTSFILE
22 January 2012; Down manager James McCartan, right, along with his assistant manager Aidan O’Rourke. Power NI Dr. McKenna Cup Semi-Final, Derry v Down, Morgan Athletic Grounds, Armagh. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh SPORTSFILE
15 November 2020; Gerard Smith of Cavan in action against Daniel McGuinness of Down during the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Cavan and Down at Athletic Grounds in Armagh. PPhoto by D·ire BrennanSportsfileD·ire Brennan SPORTSFILE