He’s man well known for not holding back on his opinions, and former Down star Greg McCartan spoke to Gaelic Life’s Niall McCoy about his memories of his career on and off the pitch
Niall McCoy: You’ve been based in London for a while now but for those that don’t know, can you just give a run down of what you’re at over there these days in terms of GAA?
Greg McCartan: Up until recently I was the manager of Fulham Irish but Owen Mulligan has taken them over now. I’m going to be busy with work right up to the middle of the summer but I hope to get out and see Fulham Irish. It was a really enjoyable three years with them and we won the championship (2017) and lost to the eventual All-Ireland champions Corofin. That was a great day in London. Everything comes to an end now and with Owen retiring the club probably thought that rather than letting him step away, it would be good to offer him the job.
N McC: You mention the Corofin match there and the All-Ireland quarter-final is often seen as an easy touch for Irish sides, but you really put it up to them for long periods didn’t you? Was it annoying that there was that focus on British GAA in the lead up to that game and then it disappears?
G McC: It’s understandable. Once you’re away, you’re away. Some players do make the effort to travel home but it’s just not feasible for other guys due to long hours or working weekends or whatever. A lot of boys had to cut their ties with home, I don’t mean their families but their clubs. We had a tremendous batch of players but I don’t think people just catch on to how massive London really is. If you were in Belfast or Dublin you’re not that far from anywhere but here it’s all public transport. Nobody drives and any train journey worth its salt is at least an hour. You work a nine- or 10-hour day then you have an hour’s journey to training, then you listen to me shouting and roaring on the field and then there’s another hour on the way home. It was absolutely brilliant when Kevin O’Brien, the Corofin manager, came into the changing rooms after to chat to us. I think we were four or five up, hit the post a couple of times and definitely gave them a good shake. The first game, the postponed game, he hadn’t Daithi Burke and a few others, and he said that sometimes you come to London and it’s a case of just getting it done. He said that this time was different and that he was really glad that they hadn’t played us a few weeks earlier in the one postponed for the snow. We weren’t going to win an All-Ireland or anything but I loved that he realised our talent and he said that he would love to see us play in better weather because we had good footballers. Everyone took great heart from that.
N McC: When you do make it back home do you get out to see Castlewellan much?
G McC: I do, ai. Any time I get home I try to get up to the game and it’s very nice to get up to the pitch to watch a match. If there’s a home game on a Friday night when you’re back you can’t beat going up there and seeing friends and watching the game. Castlewellan is a great spot to watch a game with the mountains and the scenery. It’s always great to get home and there’s nothing better than taking the dog down to the Newcastle promenade and then going on to a game.
N McC: You transferred from Ballymartin to Castlewellan to finish out your playing days?
G McG: I played until I was 28 with Ballymartin but then I moved to Castlewellan. I had family growing up there and I was involved with the club at underage level so I ended up playing for a few years. They did me quite well too, we got to a couple of championship finals or semi-final but we ran into a Mayobridge team that was just at the height of their powers. They beat us in two or three semi-finals and a final. That was the time they were challenging Crossmaglen for Ulster so we just hit them at the wrong time. The day they beat us in the final (2001), we probably should have won that looking back now.
N McC: Was there much fall-out from your transfer?
G McC: Jesus, I got plenty of stick from a lot of people. At the end of the day I was just back from a cruciate operation and I was 29 years of age. I had played with Ballymartin since I was seven so it was a bit of a wretch to leave surely. I just decided that I wanted to do it, you thought you might have a chance of winning a championship and that was the selfish side of it. I think it was good for my county career too because you were getting the best of things, the best of facilities, the best of training. The fact that they were a senior club helped me along.
N McC: Pete McGrath helped you along too, he took you in at minor level.
G McG: He did, yeah. I was with Pete at minors, u-21s and seniors so I spent a lot of time with him. There wasn’t much of him you didn’t see over those years. I was straight from minor into senior, October 1990 right through to 2000-whatever it was when he stepped away. A great man, a brilliant GAA man.
N McC: You know him inside, out and it’s hard to think of anyone more deserving of the word legend when it comes to Down football.
G McC: You hit the nail on the head, he’s a complete legend. I know for a fact that for all the guff you hear about managers getting this and managers getting that, he never took a ha’penny off anybody. He did it all completely for the love of the game and boys like that are few and far between now. I was actually very disappointed to see a few boys slabbering there after Fermanagh saying “Pete McGrath this, Pete McGrath that” and “Fermanagh were right to get a new man in.” What a load of frigging tosh. Fermanagh were nothing before he arrived and he took them on. A few boys were having a go on Twitter about it and I made sure they knew I wasn’t having it.
N McC: You’re quite the entertainer, shall we say, on Twitter.
G McC: There’s no point not doing that, it’s all a bit of craic and messing.
N McC: A messer has been one way you’ve been described, did you always have that reputation?
G McC: I don’t know if I always did or not, maybe other people will judge that. I always enjoyed a bit of craic. I was a bit of a mad man for drinking and carrying on and I never took myself too seriously. Still, nobody would have trained harder than I did and I would never have missed football that often or anything like that. But, as the man says, you’re a bit of a buck eejit at times with the messing and doing things that others wouldn’t. I don’t think I’ve changed too much in that regard.
N McC: Coming into that 1991 squad must have been daunting enough, how was that for you.
G McC: The guys in that group had been around a few years, your Greg Blayneys, you Ross Carrs, your DJ Kanes. I went to matches to watch those men. You’re 14, 15 years of age watching these guys and then all of a sudden you’re in with them. I didn’t play championship until 1994 but I played 80 percent of the National League matches up to then. I just couldn’t break into the championship team. I think maybe Pete for a couple of years was a bit loyal to some of his players. That was one of Pete’s biggest faults, his loyalty to his players, but it was also one of his best sides. Because you had done something in the past he’d back you to pull it out of the fire again. I took my time to get in there and obviously Down had a great midfield at the time with Liam Austin, Ambrose (Rogers), Lord have mercy on him, Eamonn Burns, Barry Breen, it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to get into that position. Do you go with this buck eejit from Ballymartin or do you go with the tried and tested? Eventually he must have run out of options because he gave me a go.
N McC: We’ll talk about the 1994 All-Ireland but what was it like being involved in 1991 as a fringe player? Did you feel detached at all because you weren’t playing?
G McC: When the celebrations are going then you’re right in the middle of it, where else would you be as a 20 year old? The training and the whole National League, you were really, really part of it. On championship day you just wanted those boys to do well. There only was six or seven matches on that run, a game once every three or four weeks or so. Those other three weeks, you were training as hard as they were. You couldn’t stand back and say ‘well I’m not going to play in three weeks so I can’t run.’ Pete McGrath would have gotten rid of you. You had to be pushing these boys. We had an A and B matches and they were brilliant and you were playing against some of your idols. You didn’t want to let yourself down. You were also playing against some of the best players in the game during training and there were players right across the country that didn’t have that chance. I was doing it two or three times a week and playing against them in club games. You were getting to challenge yourself against them all the time so what could be wrong with that? People talk about squads and whose playing, it’s not about that it’s about getting your finger out and concentrating on what you’re supposed to be doing. My job was to be there to try and help that team in any way I could. Pete McGrath didn’t need 15 players, he needed a panel of 30 and I was lucky enough to be part of it.
N McC: You left the panel in 1993 didn’t you?
G McC: My younger brother (Ronan) took leukemia. It was a very bad time for the family and I went off the rails a bit. I did a lot of drinking and I put on a lot of weight and I was badly out of shape. Liam McGreevy came to train Ballymartin and he got he got me absolutely super fit. I came back on the scene absolutely flying and we were playing the likes of Carryduff, Mayobridge and boys were obviously reporting back to McGrath telling him he had to take another look at McCartan. I walked back in and played five National League games and I think I got five Man of the Match awards. That was all at right half-back but then he put me into midfield against (Brian) McGilligan for the Derry game in Ulster and I stayed midfield for the rest of my career.
N McC: I’m sure there were a few eyebrows when you were put into midfield with Conor Deegan for that Derry game. Once you beat them did you think the All-Ireland was possible?
G McC: I don’t think that was ever in the equation because Derry had given Down such an annihilation the year before (3-11 to 0-9) at the Marshes. Everyone said we were going there on a hiding to nothing and Derry were going to teach us another lesson. For some of the players on our squad it could have been the death knell. I’ll not mention names but some of the older men on the squad probably would have called time if we were hammered that day. Pete, in his wisdom, probably thought they have Anthony Tohill in the middle of the field and at that time Conor Deegan was a pure athlete, a big tall man with defensive qualities too having played full-back. Pete probably thought Deegan could nullify Tohill, well he nullified him that day and he played out of his skin going forward too. I don’t know why he put me in midfield but he probably thought who could try and contain this big lad McGilligan. We fell out the week before because I thought I was being dropped because Pete played me midfield in a challenge match. As it transpired he told me I was going against McGilligan and that was the way it worked out.
N McC: You scored in every round en-route to the Sam Maguire, you brought the All-Ireland back home, won an All-Star – but looking back now what stands out from 1994?
G McC: It’s our jubilee back in Croke Park now, time frigging moves on. I just think back to the year before and what a terrible time we had with my brother being sick. To see him there the following year meant so much to the family, that will always stick with me. I’ll never be too presumptuous or selfish to think that it’s all about the man. Any awards or anything, it’s very rare in a good team or a successful team that it comes down to one man. If you’re going to win something then you need a lot more men behind you. It’s 25 years since we won it and I don’t know when we will win it again. I remember when we won it in ’91 and some of the ’68 team coming up and you’re thinking they’re old men, but what the frig are we going to look like this year? It’s amazing how quickly time passes. 1968 seemed a long time ago to me back in 1991, but now I’m the same age as those ’68 boys were back then.
N McC: You played right up to 2004 and officially retired the year after, how was it playing in a lean period for Down?
G McC: It was tough but at the end of the day we probably didn’t realise how lucky we had it. Some people say if I wasn’t such an eejit I would have won more. No I wouldn’t, I couldn’t have played much better when we were winning so that’s bullshit. Looking back now I just think ‘weren’t we lucky? Weren’t we lucky to be the best team in Ireland for two individual days?’ The bad days you take on the chin, there’s no point lying on the ground crying about it. Teams wanted to beat us, people calling us the aristocrats or whatever. Teams would beat us and you’d think they’d won the All-Ireland. You’d get clapped onto the field and get kicked right off it again. As the boys says that made the good days even better.
N McC: I know that it’s a bit of an on-going joke, but are you a bit disappointed that the Down GAA Twitter account has you blocked after you gave so much service to the county?
G McC: It’s more of a laugh than anything else, it doesn’t annoy me I can assure you. I always winded them up asking how they were going because the updates weren’t always there, I’d ask them to put the battery in the phone. I knew exactly how they were going but it was just to get the shit and the craic going. I’m just keeping them on their toes.
N McC: Lastly Greg, you enjoy the craic, you’ve won so much, you’re managed too – but what else would you like to do?
G McC: I can’t see myself sticking in London for too long, a couple of years will do me. I’m starting to miss home so I’d like to go home, get back into Castlewellan and get involved at underage and you hope that some players remember who you are. I would give everything because I always have. I know I was a bit of a messer and everything else, but I gave everything and that included when it came to drinking. There were no half measures but that was the same on the pitch too. I have two All-Ireland’s, two Ulster’s, three Railway Cups, an All-Star, a couple of Irish News All-Stars. What more would you want? There are players twice as good as me never got any of that so I’m very happy with my lot. I also just enjoy the memories of playing with my teammates. The players I played with and against, we can all have a laugh now and enjoy looking back on those good times.