McCartan, James

27 September 1991

James McCartan
King James 11 no longer
pretender to the throne

By Francis Mooney

A new monarch has been crowned in the Kingdom of Mourne.
King James 11, no longer a pretender to the throne since he set Croke Park alight on All-lreland final day, looks set for a lengthy reign in the majestic hills where flags of red and black fly proudly.

The heir apparent has come of age, his crowning glory a dazzling display in the triumphant Battle of Croke against the mighty Royals.

The masterly exploits of King James I on that same battlefield thirty years before flashed before the eyes of thousands of Down supporters as that Prince of footballers James Og McCartan turned on an electrifying display of skill, accuracy and breathtaking speed.

Jinking James was a man apart as he tore the heart out of the Meath defence with explosive bursts of acceleration, uncanny reaction, telepathic understanding and unerring accuracy.

It was his finest hour. The 20 year-old student had no equals on that sunny September afternoon when the Sam Maguire Cup finally prepared for a long-awaited return journey across the border.

Twenty-three long and hungry years had elapsed since an Ulster team last savoured the joy of winning Gaelic football’s greatest prize. Then too it was Down who found the magic touch, just as they had on two previous occasions in the sixties, carrying off the Sam Maguire Cup with their own particular brand of fullblooded fluency.

No one epitomised that quality more than James McCartan senior, a fearsome figure who tormented defences as a bustling, battling centre forward who never knew the meaning of defeat.

The pride he felt at winning All-lreland medals was surpassed only by the pride that burned in his heart as he watched his son join him on that exclusive list of footballing immortals on All-lreland final day 1991.

What a game this was - a final to end all finals - and what a performance was required of he who would be worthy of the coveted Telecom Eireann Man of the Match Award.

It was a game of many heroes. but it was James McCartan who set himself apart as a rare talent indeed, a man for the big occasion and a sporting legend in his own lifetime.

Already an All-Star at the age of 19, already an All-lreland medal winner with Down minors while still only 16, here was one boy wonder who had fully realised his early promise.

As he crawled into bed at 4.00 pm on Tuesday September 17th, exhausted and hoping for his first taste of sleep for three days, the reality was just beginning to sink in.

Down really had won the All-lreland Championship and James McCartan was a very important part of it all.

"If anyone had told me six months ago this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have believed it" he said.

James had become used to jersey tugging as a top class footballer, but he never expected to lose three shirts among his own, as frantic supporters dragged him this way and that during a four day carnival of celebration.

’My clothes took quite a battering, but I didn’t mind. The fans were wonderful, they really got behind us and they deserve their day just as much as we do."

And the pressure of fulfilling endless engagements was much more demanding than the big match itself, as the Down squad look everything in their stride.

"We were so relaxed, I didn’t feel any nerves at all before or during the All-lreland final" said James.

"I felt more nervous in the build-up to the semi-final against Kerry, but I think before the final we managed to mentally prepare ourselves perfectly. We all felt so relaxed, I don’t know why but I think it was because we had nothing to lose. We were going out against Meath, who in everyone’s eyes were unbeatable. So we gave it our best shot, and it turned out to be enough."

The little corner forward confounded all his critics with his dazzling display against the Leinster champions, but he feels some of the criticism levelled against him was unfounded.

"I thought the best game I had this year was the Ulster final, and where people have been criticising me, perhaps they should give some credit to the likes of Kieran McKeever of Derry and John Raffery of Armagh, because they did exceptional jobs when I played against them. But in the All-lreland final the ball seemed to come down my wing a lot more. In other games I had to go looking for possession but this time everything seemed to come my direction, so it made things an awful lot easier.~ He also feels the wide open spaces of Croke Park suited his game more than some of the more confined grounds he is used to in Ulster.

"Some of the pitches in Ulster are that bit smaller and tighter, and that gives defenders a better chance of closing forwards down. But Croke Park gives you much more space, and when you get to the All-lreland stage, while teams will hit you harder, there’s less pulling and hauling than there is in Ulster."

It is now an accepted fact that no side can ever assume victory over a Meath team until the final whistle is blown, such has been their extraordinary sequence of comebacks this season.
Even when Down opened up an eleven point lead, James McCartan remained anxious and fearful.

"When we went eight, nine, ten and then eleven points in front, I started to think to myself this is great. But at the same time I became wary of losing my concentration, because I found that I had done that in other games.

"So I tried to an extent to put it out of my head we were getting so far in front, and tried to keep going.’

He recalled: "Against Donegal in the Ulster Final, when we had started to open up a lead, I felt we had to keep going, we had to keep scoring, for I always felt Donegal might come back at us. And so it was against Meath. They are probably the greatest comeback team of all time, so I always felt that we had to keep getting another point, and another point, to put them away. So it wasn’t until the final whistle that I felt certain we were going to win. In fact I thought we were going to let it slip when they got to within three point of us.

"Meath have a knack of getting a goal just when they need it, so I thought that three-point gap was just tailor made for another great escape.

"I honestly didn’t know whether to stay up in the corner forward position or drop back or help out in defence. A lot of people feel that is where Roscommon made a major mistake in the semi~final. When they got so far in front Paul Earley dropped a lot deeper and left Derek Duggan up front on his own.’

But now McCartan was torn by uncertainty, between wanting to go back to get involved in the play, and not wanting to pull his marker Brendan Reilly upfield, where he had played so well in previous games. "If I had pulled him out of his corner back position he could well have set up a winning score for we all know what Kevin Foley did to Dublin.

"At the end of the day I made the right decision, but if they had grabbed a goal at the end we would have felt very sick. During the last 10 or 15 minutes it was very hard to get involved in the game because it was concentrated very much in our half of the field. But the defenders did their job magnificently and it was marvellous to hold out for victory."

But can Down repeat that victory and bring the Sam Maguire back to the Mournes for a second successive time just as they did in the glorious sixties?
"It’s one thing getting to the top. but it’s going to be twice as hard to stay there" said McCartan.

"We have to try to beat Armagh in next year’s Ulster championship, and All-lreland champions or not, I think we have only a 50/50 chance.

"We all know that Armagh are very well equipped to beat us, and I’m sure they will not forget that they had their chances to beat us this year in the Marshes in Newry.

"They were quite unlucky on a couple of occasions and at the end of the day we just managed to scape through. I think they will lift their game simply because they are meeting the Al~lreland champions. They will be jumping out of their skins. If Armagh were the All~lreland champions, I think we would be going into the game with every confidence of toppling them."

And what of Meath’s future? McCartan is sure they will be back.
"Of course Dublin will be out to take their scalps again next year, but they have got great resilience. Everyone is now talking of Meath players retiring. But why should they retire? It was the likes of Gerry McEntee, Colm O’Rourke and Mick Lyons, the elder statesmen, who were their best players in the final. They still have so much to offer and it would be very sad if any of them decided to retire.

"I have great admiration for Meath. They have done so much for football, this year especially. Those comebacks will never be forgotten by Gaelic football fans, but I think they left it just a little bit late against us.

"When we were four or five points up they probably felt they had plenty of time to come back. But then we hit a purple patch, and went 11 points ahead.

"It was only then that they woke up and realised they had a lot to do. They really were caught out by what they themselves had achieved in the past. Then they could not do enough and time just beat them in the end."


Taken from Hogan Stand
27th September 1991