James McCartan says that a good barometer of how his teams were doing at the end of the match was where he was to be found on the field. He recalls how when Down manager Peter McGrath switched him in 1994 from corner forward, where he'd won both an All-Ireland and an All Star, to the wing, the move made sense given his instincts.
"I had a tendency when playing corner forward to go deep – especially when we were winning. Eamonn Connolly, who was sub-keeper in '91 and who played minor and under-21 with me, once said that when he saw me standing beside him on the goal-line, he always knew we were in front."
Later he would be informed that his manager had an ulterior motive.
“I heard retrospectively – and didn’t know this at the time – that Pete moved me because I’d got no change out of Kieran McKeever on a couple of occasions and he seemingly made the move to free me up a bit. I can’t even remember if that was true!”
For Down, 1994 was about re-arranging the ground-breaking team of three years previously into a revived force. There were some new faces but also a bit of feng shui with the established players, including Conor Deegan going from full back to centrefield, current manager Eamon Burns dropping from the middle to wing back and McCartan swapping on the left side of the attack with Gary Mason.
The Ulster final that year was against Tyrone, as it will be again for Down on Sunday. In McCartan's career he can recall significant engagements with the Red Hand jerseys. That Ulster final 23 years ago set Down on their way to a fifth and most recent All-Ireland and nine years later they would return the favour.
The 2003 provincial final went to a replay but the drawn match had looked to be well within Down’s grasp even though they were reduced to 14 men for the entire second half after a controversial incident with Brian McGuigan saw centrefielder Gregory McCartan (no relation) sent off.
“At one stage we were nine points up,” remembers his namesake James who was corner forward that day, “and I wouldn’t like to say that we were coasting but we were going relatively well. He ankle tapped Gregory who threw the ball at him, which I thought was a minor indiscretion but he got sent off. Funny, I was talking to Brian in New York at the weekend and he said, ‘what I did was wrong and what Gregory did was wrong but I didn’t send him off’.”
Peter Canavan engineered a comeback that took the match to a replay, in which Tyrone, then en route to a first All-Ireland in Mickey Harte's first season, made no mistake.
“We never got going and it was an embarrassing day all around,” says McCartan. The match had enduring significance as the first day Harte asked the late Cormac McAnallen to play full back – a role he discharged so well in the remainder of the All-Ireland campaign.
Seven years later McCartan was manager of the most recent Down team to reach an All-Ireland final. It was a journey conducted through the qualifiers, once the team had lost to Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final, a match the then manager recalls with frustration.
“We were leading by four (0-8 to 0-4) in the first half, playing into the wind and I think we probably played the best football we’d played all year, which would include Croke Park. We played exhibition stuff but hit a brick wall before half-time and we were terrible in the second half; they just won pulling up.
“We at one stage tried to play a blanket defence but weren’t very good at it!”
Turning the team around for the qualifiers was a challenge; Down weren’t then and haven’t really been since a qualifier county but even years ago they launched a remarkable campaign that would see them along the way maintain their 100 per cent championship record against Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
“It was difficult but we had a bit of time,” says McCartan about the task of getting ready for the back door. “There wasn’t a six-day turnaround. We were able to have that traditional meeting that you only seem to have after you’re beaten in the championship. You sit down and the senior members and boys who haven’t got on get to vent their anger and we were able to manage that meeting so that we didn’t self-destruct, which can happen at those things.
"During the Tyrone game I took Mark Poland off at half-time and at the meeting I put my hand up and said that I'd made a mistake, which I'd say is unusual enough to hear from an inter-county manager so the players could see there was a management team prepared to admit we hadn't got everything right.
“Our progress through the qualifiers I think I described at the time as, ‘the right teams at the right time’.”