LOSING any game by a point hurts something rotten. Losing an All-Ireland in that way just sucks.
When your name is James McCartan, you are manager of Down and all year the county has been feting the Golden Jubilee anniversary of the first team from the county to win an All-Ireland – a team that included your father James and Uncle Dan – that just accentuates that dreadful sting.
To cap it off, baby brother Daniel is on your team.
So much aching at the loss of something so personal, it’s amazing that the man could put any order on his words at all.
It is only sport, of course, but put yourself in his shoes and those of his vanquished players and you would never say that. Not after a year of undocumented sacrifice and incalculable dedication. This is the All-Ireland final.
And losing that was the worst. The fall of the unbeaten record was a poor second after that.
“On a personal level, it wasn’t so much six out of six (motivating me), it was just trying to pay tribute to the 1960 team,” he said.
“Obviously I had strong family ties to that team so that was a wee personal thing that was probably in my head and driving me. But losing an All-Ireland final – as regards it being a sixth one was irrelevant to me and I think it was irrelevant to the players as well.”
Eating at him too was the thought that maybe he could have brought Dan Gordon out from full-back – where he struggled to blunt the threat of the outstanding Donncha O’Connor – to midfield earlier. That was the area that cost Down the ultimate honours as Aidan Walsh and later Nicholas Murphy dominated the skies, while Ciarán Sheehan and Paudie Kissane mopped up so many breaks.
“I did feel the midfield sector was a problem. Ambrose (Rogers) wasn’t available. I thought the guys that were in there were the best for the job but it was a problem. Primary possession was a problem… but our options were limited.
“(Dan) was there for the last few minutes. We didn’t want to do it but we felt we needed it. Maybe it should have been done earlier and I hold my hands up. We had problems there and maybe Benny McArdle should have slotted in (at full-back).”
And yet there were many consolations. How often have we seen a team pull away in the final minutes when the force is with them to win by a flattering margin?
No less a group than Kilkenny, perhaps the best hurling team ever, fell foul to Tipperary momentum at Croke Park just two weeks ago.
Not Down though. Even with the manager fearing the worst, they knuckled down and instead of being overrun, chalked back a couple of points to leave just one in it at the death.
And then too, there is the fact that Down were pretty much unheralded at the beginning of the season, even though knowledgeable observers noted McCartan’s pedigree and expected improvement. Nobody would have seen them in an All-Ireland final though.
There was no consolation in that last night but McCartan relented that it might be the case in time. “We think we have a squad that can compete year-in, year-out. It’s easy saying that, it’s doing it is another thing, especially when you have to come through the Ulster championship again next year and you’ll be in some very difficult game. Getting back to Croke Park seems a million miles away. But it’s the target that we’ll be setting.”
As befitting a man of such GAA lineage, McCartan paid tribute to Cork for overcoming their demons and ignoring persistent criticism over the past number of years.
“We tried the best we could. With 10 minutes ago it looked like Cork were going to win comfortably and I’m just delighted that our guys dug in, showed a bit of spirit and dragged it back.
“Maybe a draw would been an unfair result but it’s one we’d have taken. Maybe on the two halves we might have, but certainly in the second half Cork were deserving winners. They’ve been criticised, and as I said in their dressing room, they’ll probably still be criticised because they beat Down but that’s the reality of it.”
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