McCartan must mourn for what might have been

The sun was shining, the pitch was in pristine shape, and conditions were perfect for Championship football — yet an unmistakable air of melancholy hung around Celtic Park on Sunday.

While the warm weather was welcomed, it also brought back memories of the epic encounter in 1994. In ’94 the game between Derry and Down was effectively the All-Ireland final. Rarely has a first- round game had such significance.

However, no one was under any illusions about Sunday’s fixture. Everyone understood perfectly where this game stood in the bigger picture and this perhaps explained the lack of simmering tension that accompanies Championship games of real importance.

This was a first-round match in which the winners would progress to a semi-final against Donegal where they would probably get beaten.

In the end, it was Down who secured a date with the green and gold machine. The Mournemen have already been universally written off. No one is giving them a chance. Down manager James McCartan will relish the role of outsider. But unlike most managers who tacitly accept their team is not as good as the opposition, McCartan is old school Down. An inferiority complex is not part of his makeup. Despite the fact Down lost last year’s Ulster final to Donegal by 11 points (2-18 to 0-13), and this year’s league encounter by five points (0-12 to 0-7), McCartan will be convinced they can prevail.

His dogged faith and perseverance are admirable, yet in his quieter hours, he must curse the hand fate has dealt him. Consider the Down team that is outlined on this page. Nine players from this side didn’t feature against Derry at the weekend. Imagine if those 15 were lining out against Donegal on June 23.

This is ‘The Team That Never Was’ and it must break McCartan’s heart when he thinks of the players unavailable.

When Down qualified for the All-Ireland final in 2010, Damian Rafferty was one of their best players. A debilitating knee injury forced him to retire. Liam Doyle, the captain of the All-Ireland winning minor team in 1999, was also forced to quit early due to a recurring knee problem. Dan Gordon (broken bone in foot) and Conor Garvey (damaged eye) are expected to miss the season. Former All Star Danny Hughes never kicked a ball during the league. A sub in Celtic Park, he might be fit to play some part in the Ulster semi-final. After two seasons with Down, Marty Clarke returned to the Australian Football League.

Having nursed and developed a series of prodigious underage talents, Down’s senior team has not reaped the rewards of their conveyor belt.

Niall McParland, a Hogan Cup-winning captain with St Colman’s, has been sidelined with a serious hip problem. Caolan Mooney, the star of that side, has joined Marty Clarke in Collingwood. Shea McCartan, who scored a hat-trick against Armagh in the Ulster Championship, was signed by English Championship side Burnley FC two years ago.

Travel and emigration has also reduced McCartan’s options as Peter Fitzpatrick (Australia) and Paul McComiskey (America) opted to leave the country. Both started the 2010 All-Ireland final.

Bearing in mind the serious haemorrhaging of talent McCartan has been forced to endure, the Down man has done a commendable job. Despite the absence of Gordon, Ambrose Rogers and Danny Hughes, Down still secured two wins in Division 1 against Mayo and Kildare and should have beaten Cork.

In the face of severe adversity, McCartan revealed a talent for identifying and developing players who can play county football. Captain Mark Poland is the best example.

Previous incumbents of the bainisteoir’s bib concluded the Longstone man wasn’t county material. McCartan saw a diamond in the rough. Poland kicked 1-2 on Sunday.

The question now is whether McCartan can get his players to bridge the chasm which lay between them and Donegal in last year’s Ulster final. On that occasion naïve defending cost them dearly. While other teams mastered the tactical foul, Down paid for their innocence. Unaccustomed to nipping counter-attacks in the bud, their failure to commit routine fouls resulted in Donegal ripping them apart and scoring two goals.

Down also failed to cope with Donegal’s raw, physical strength. By the last quarter, they had run out of steam. Repeatedly running into Donegal’s battering ram defence takes its toll. By the 50th minute, Down were spent. It was one-way traffic in the last quarter as a stronger and fitter Donegal romped to victory.

In a bid to improve Down’s fitness levels, McCartan recruited Professor Niall Moyna from Dublin City University. In the aftermath of his team’s win against Derry, it was notable that Mark Poland acknowledged the contribution made by the new trainer admitting “I’m sure we could have gone on for another 10 or 15 minutes.”

The Down players will need every ounce of that extra energy. When they met Donegal in the league, the benefits of Moyna’s regime weren’t evident. Leading by a point at half-time, Down were ruthlessly brushed aside as Donegal kicked seven unanswered points. That was four months ago.

It will be interesting to see what progress Down have made since last year. Having played on a Down side that came out of nowhere to win an All-Ireland title in 1991, McCartan will not pay any heed to outside opinions.

But in 1991, Down’s best players were all fit — and they all played for Down. He will need no reminding that he has never enjoyed that luxury.

Now in his fourth year as manager, one thought must dog McCartan’s mind: What could Down have achieved if he had got the chance to pick the team that never was? Sadly for James, he’ll never know.

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