The protégé turned pragmatist on a Mourne mission

THOSE who saw his performance that day will never forget it. The game itself is considered a classic. Many who were in Coalisland that afternoon would point to the 1989 MacRory Cup final between St Patrick’s Maghera and St Colman’s Newry as the best they ever witnessed.

The final score: St Patrick’s Maghera 4-10 St Colman’s Newry 4-9. Four-time All Star Anthony Tohill starred for the winners, but he was still eclipsed by James McCartan.

‘Wee James’ scored 3-1. Every time he gained possession an electric current ran through the crowd. His explosive style was predictable but unstoppable. Drawing on his searing pace and power, he simply ran in straight lines towards the goals. His cool, clinical finishing provided a striking contrast to his frightening speed.

The defeat marked a rare experience for McCartan. In his seven years as a boarder at St Colman’s Newry he lost just two games in the famous blue jersey – both were MacRory Cup finals. But spare your pity. He still managed to leave Violet Hill with two Hogan Cup medals.

Born on the 27th of October 1970, ‘wee James’ was an incredibly precocious talent.

He was just 15 when he played at corner-forward for St Colman’s when they beat St David’s Artane in the 1986 Hogan Cup final. At 16, he played alongside brother Brian on the Down team that won the All-Ireland MFC title.

At 19, he made his senior inter-county debut in a pre-Christmas League game against Cork in Newry.

Down reached that year’s NFL final, and McCartan’s contribution to that achievement earned him an All Star. In the same season, he was the star player in a Queen’s side that won the Sigerson Cup, chalking up 1-3 in the final against UCC. In 1991, he was the third prong in Down’s lethal attacking triumvirate. Greg Blaney’s wonderful vision allied with McCartan and Mickey Linden’s predatory skills spear-headed the county’s successful assault on Sam.

To fully appreciate just what a protégé James McCartan was, it’s worthwhile outlining his CV at the end of 1991. Before celebrating his 21st birthday, he had won two Hogan Cup medals, a Sigerson Cup medal, All-Ireland minor and senior medals, and an All Star.

A son of James McCartan senior, a double All-Ireland medal winner with Down in 1960 and 1961, it might be assumed that the two-time All Star was born into a cauldron of GAA activity. This wasn’t actually the case. The McCartans owned a farm and pub in the predominately Protestant village of Donaghcloney. By the 1980s they were an isolated Catholic family living on the edge of the loyalist West Down murder triangle.

Before the onset of ‘the Troubles,’ James senior had been able to integrate with his Protestant neighbours. His skills at soccer and cricket proved useful. The locals would recruit him to play in their teams then reconvene in his pub after the games. (Although good for community relations and business, McCartan was suspended by the GAA for breaching the ban on foreign games).

Despite the often strained political tensions, Marie McCartan was determined that her five sons: Brian, James, Charlie Pat, Daniel and Eoin would not live in isolation and they all played soccer and cricket – even though they sometimes were not allowed to dress in the same changing room as their Protestant team-mates.

McCartan’s upbringing in this challenging environment may have helped to nurture his tough and resilient character, but genetics have also played an obvious role in defining his personality. When compared to his incredibly forthright father, it might seem that they have little in common. In conversation ‘wee James’ is generally jocular and light-hearted. When interviewed, he steers away from any form of controversy.

But scratch the surface, and underneath lurks a hard-nosed, single-minded and ultra-competitive individual.

After Derry trounced Down in the 1993 Championship, McCartan and his cousin Greg Blaney took exception to an interview given by Pete McGrath after the game. McGrath criticised the players. McCartan and Blaney quit the squad.

They later returned and revenge was served against Derry in 1994. McCartan’s run and point despite the close scrutiny of Kieran McKeever provided one of the best moments of an epic game. His goal against Dublin in the ‘94 final was the score which allowed Down to secure their fifth All-Ireland title.

The huge success which McCartan enjoyed at the start of his career could never be sustained. Between 1994 until his retirement in 2003, McCartan failed to win another medal. Beaten by Tyrone in the replayed 2003 Ulster final, his last game for Down was the qualifier against Donegal that was staged six days later. Down were annihilated.

By this stage, McCartan has already entered management. He started with the Queen’s Freshers team which he led to the All-Ireland title. A director at the family-run Tullyraine Quarry outside Banbridge, the father-of-three was able to shift his timetable around to manage the Queen’s Sigerson team.

Due to his limited resources at Queen’s, the 39-year-old placed a huge emphasis on defence. His teams defended in numbers and scored on counter-attacks. McCartan guided Queen’s to four successive finals. Beaten in the first three finals, QUB defeated arch-rivals Jordanstown after extra-time in 2007.

Apart from his five-year stint with Queen’s, McCartan also managed his club Burren in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, he led St Gall’s to the Antrim county title and last year he managed Ballinderry.

The pragmatism which characterised his approach to management at varsity and club level has continued with the Down seniors. He has tried to remedy Down’s longstanding defensive problems by employing a sweeper. The individuals have changed but the system has remained the same. There is no doubt that Down have improved during McCartan’s reign. Progress was particularly evident following the defeats to Armagh (in the Division Two final) and Tyrone (Ulster semi-final).

Against Armagh, they were out-worked and out-fought. However, Tyrone out-thought them. By the last 10 minutes, Down had lost their shape. McCartan’s players have absorbed the necessary lessons. All that remains to be seen is whether they have learned enough to launch a meaningful challenge against the Kingdom.


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