In sport and in life, everybody wants to be like Eddy Merckx – the outrageously gifted Belgian cyclist whose natural talent and extra-terrestrial strength allowed him to brush aside his rivals with contemptuous ease.
In reality, the vast majority of us have a lot more in common with Joop Zoetemelk. ‘And who the hell is Joop Zoetemelk?’ I hear you ask. It’s a perfectly valid question, but if you bear with me, I’ll explain.
Zoetemelk was actually a very successful cyclist. It’s just he spent most of his career chasing men who were slightly better than him.
Unlike Merckx, success didn’t come very quickly to Zoetemelk. Merckx was a phenomenon. He was only 24-years-old when he won the Tour de France at his first attempt. Throughout his professional career ‘The Cannibal’ claimed a remarkable 445 victories. (The drug-fuelled Lance Armstrong managed fewer than 100).
In contrast, Zoetemelk had to bide his time. In the Tour de France, he was second on a record-breaking six occasions (1970, 1971, 1976, 1978, 1979 and 1982). He was fifth in ’72, fourth in ’73 and eighth in ’77.
But Zoetmelk’s greatest strength was arguably his perseverance. Routinely mocked for his lack of adventure, he was criticised for his tendency to follow Merckx rather than attack him. Because he was fair-skinned, it was said Zoetemelk never developed a tan during the Tour because he was always in Merckx’s shadow.
Then, in 1980 it happened. Joop Zoetemelk won the Tour de France. Having outlasted Merckx, he was the strongest man in the race after Bernard Hinault was forced to retire with a knee injury.
Zoetemelk the plodder. Zoetemelk the grinder. Zoetemelk, the perennial runner-up finally took the top prize. Like a prisoner with a file, he just persisted until he broke through.
When I learned on Sunday that James McCartan had retired as Down manager, I thought about Eddy Merckx and Joop Zoetemelk.
The odd dichotomy of McCartan’s sporting career means he actually captures the qualities of both men.
As a footballer, McCartan was like Merckx. Quickly identified as a protégé, he made good on his early promise. A prodigiously talented footballer, he was a compact, 5ft 8in medal-making factory. By the time he was 21-years-old, ‘wee’ James had won all the game’s greatest accolades. In the space of four seasons, he played on teams that won the Hogan Cup, the Sigerson Cup, the Tom Markham Cup and the Sam Maguire Cup.
And let’s not forget that All Star in 1990. So far, so Merckx.
But when he donned the bainisteoir’s bib, it was an altogether different story for James McCartan. Like Zoetemelk, McCartan the manager was better than most of his peers. But while his results were good, the big prizes proved to be extremely elusive.
Take his experience in the Sigerson Cup. After taking charge at Queen’s University Belfast, he led them to the final in 2004. Queen’s were beaten by Sligo IT.
The following year, McCartan steered his alma mater to a second successive decider and a second successive defeat. This story was repeated in 2005 as Queen’s lost their third final on the trot. So far, so Zoetemelk.
By this stage, most managers would haveconcluded that the gods were aligned against their team. But McCartans don’t think like that. James returned for a fourth year. Just to add some extra pressure, Queen’s hosted the tournament in 2006. The tension was raised a notch further when Queen’s and their arch-rivals Jordanstown qualified for the final. The game went to extra-time. Queen’s won by a point.
When McCartan was appointed Down manager, the old routine continued. In his first year, he guided the Mournemen to the All-Ireland final. But it was second place again. Cork won by a point.
For the next four seasons, McCartan was unable to replicate the achievements of 2010. But that’s not to say he was a failure.
Plagued by injuries and the lure of professional sports, Down remained competitive. They stayed in Division One for three years. Ulster finalists in 2012, they were beaten by Donegal, the eventual All-Ireland champions. With the exception of the current season, McCartan’s team played in Croke Park every year.
And anyone who thinks the comparison with Joop Zoetemelk is an insult is mistaken. It’s a compliment.
Exceptionally gifted footballers like McCartan are usually a disaster in management. Unable to empathise with the limitations of lesser-talented individuals, they quickly become exasperated.
First, they get annoyed with their players’ shortcomings. The tailspin towards disaster is then accelerated when they realise they have no idea how to impart their God-given ability to the changing room.
As a player, winning came quickly and easily to McCartan. But as a manager, he showed real character. When the silverware didn’t fall into his lap, he didn’t throw up his head and quit. With Queen’s and Down, he went into the trenches and stayed with his men.
As a member of the famous McCartan dynasty, and as someone who maintained Down’s rich tradition, one of ‘wee’ James’s most admirable traits was that he never used his county’s history to put extra pressure on his players.
An interview McCartan gave when Down lost to Tyrone in this year’s Ulster Championship was a great example. Even though his team lost by eight points, McCartan said he was extremely proud of his players. He praised them for the way they competed until the final whistle. More importantly again, McCartan said he played on plenty of Down teams that just folded whenever a game was out of reach.
As a schoolboy I had the great pleasure of watching the teenaged James McCartan in action. A spectator at the 1989 MacRory Cup final, I watched the boy wonder score 3-1 yet end up on the losing team as St Patrick’s Maghera beat St Colman’s by 4-10 to 4-9.
Yet, my enduring image of McCartan that day comes from an incident that happened after the final whistle. Having gone onto the pitch for the celebrations, I remember watching McCartan taking the time to congratulate and shake hands with Maghera’s players. I was stunned at his sportsmanship. In 2010, when Down lost the All-Ireland final, he encouraged his players to do likewise.
In sport and in life, everybody likes to be judged on their successes. However, the true measure of man tends to be revealed when things don’t go his way.
In victory and defeat, James McCartan’s conduct was impeccable. As a footballer, he showed us his style. As a manager, he proved he had substance. He was like Merckx. He was like Zoetemelk.
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