It’s exactly 50 years since his father and namesake played in the side that defeated the Kingdom in the All-Ireland final. James senior was named Texaco Footballer of the Year in 1960, and scooped the award again the following season when Down retained the Sam Maguire.
Old James knows a thing or two about a thing or two. When I interviewed him recently I was keen to find out as much as I could about Down’s tactical approach to those era-defining games.
By this stage everyone knows how McCartan, Paddy Doherty and Sean O’Neill terrorised defences. But what about the other side of the game? Did they have a specific plan for stopping their opponents?
McCartan’s response was instructive. While insisting that there was no particular defensive system, he admitted that he always made a conscious effort to study the referee.
“In the first few minutes, I always tried to work out what the referee would let go. If he turned a blind eye to this and that, then you played accordingly. By the same token, if he was strict about certain things, then you knew not to cross the line,” he said.
McCartan’s reply reveals the ringcraft and streetwise intelligence of a successful Championship footballer.
These are qualities that have been notably absent in Down’s teams for the past few years. Blessed with good forwards, Down have suffered a shortage of quality defenders. But rather than employ the zone systems required to compensate for this rearguard vulnerability, the county’s fabled culture has continually acted like a ball and chain.
The Mournemen are aclassic example of how tradition isn’t always a virtue. Managers who have tried to get half-forwards to filter back have met outright resistance. One player once stood up at a meeting and declared: “We are Down and Down forwards don’t do that.”
At the wonderful 50th anniversary dinner that was held before this year’s annual congress, the venerable Maurice Hayes spoke with pride about ‘The Down Way’.
Hayes was county secretary in 1960. The author of the famous five-year plan and the architect of the entire project, Hayes expressed his hope that future Down teams would continue to honour the traditions of the past.
Wee James was among the crowd that day and he is clearly determined to steadfastly ignore the wishes of Hayes, who is a loyal family friend.
And McCartan is right to do so. Any manager who sends his full-back into battle without protection is committing football suicide. Under McCartan, Down’s defence has improved considerably. The Mourne men conceded fewer scores than any other team across the four divisions of this year’s NFL.
The deployment of a sweeper has provided extra cover to the full-back line. More importantly, Martin Clarke’s willingness to work like a Trojan has set a great example to any attacker who think such endeavours are somehow ‘beneath’ a Down forward.
‘The Down Way’ was fine and dandy when the game was less tactical. In a straight-out gunfight, the Down trio of McCartan, O’Neill, and Doherty tended to provide superior firepower. The same conditions also applied when thetriumvirate of Greg Blaney, wee James, and Mickey Linden supplied the attacking impetus as Down lifted Sam in 1991.
It’s worth noting that Meath’s tally of 1-14 in ‘91 is the largest sum that a winning team has conceded in an All-Ireland final since 1982 when Offaly shipped 0-17 against Kerry.
To find a tally greater than 0-17 you have to go back 37 years, when Galway scored 2-13 but lost to Cork in 1973.
Furthermore, this romantic notion of ‘The Down Way’ is somewhat misleading. If the blanket defence initially outraged the Kerry idealists, they were equally livid in 1960 when Down’s midfielders broke the ball away from Mick O’Connell. In 1960, many Kerry men considered this to be an impure act which required absolution and penance. The idea Down are somehow the custodians of pure football is totally untrue.
Just like 50 years ago, there is one thing about Gaelic football which remains unchanged. It’s all about winning, and winning by whatever means are necessary, whether it’s breaking the ball or putting 13 men behind it.
James McCartan will be delighted with the draw. There is absolutely no shame in losing to Kerry. But he is meeting a Kerry side that will be without the suspended Tomás Ó Sé and Paul Galvin. The Munster champions have also been out of action for four weeks.
And like 1991, when all the focus was on Meath and Dublin, this year’s Championship is ripe for an upset. Kerry, Cork, and Tyrone have all looked more formidable in previous years.
If the Mournemen have shown one great strength in the past, then it’s their refusal to be cowed by reputations. This is certainly something which the current team should adopt from ‘The Down Way’.
When the ball is thrown in at 2pm in Croke Park on Saturday, they have nothing to lose and the world to gain. A victory would launch them into the stars. And in this year when all Down men are gazing nostalgically into the past, they might for a brief spell at least, turn their attentions to the team of the present day.