Celtic role is final vindication of McGuinness's vision
SIDELINE CUT:The lure of the Bhoys! It is nothing new in Donegal.
If there is a slightly miraculous lustre to the story of Donegal and Jim McGuinness, yesterday’s confirmation that the Glenties man has joined the coaching staff at Glasgow Celtic deepened it. If McGuinness was to join any club, then Celtic was the perfect place and his appointment to the coaching staff at Parkhead should be celebrated not just by the Donegal fans but by GAA people in general. It is due recognition of the level of coaching and conditioning in the current game.
For the past few weeks, McGuinness has been wrestling with the dilemma of which road to take. Clearing his mind can’t have been easy. McGuinness came from nowhere, shaping his local club team into county senior championship contenders for the first time ever by using the same game plan he would later employ with the county.
When he was given the county under-21 job, he framed his game around the peerless gifts of Michael Murphy and the irrepressible athleticism of Mark McHugh. There was something fated in the aftermath of that final, when the cameras caught McGuinness congratulating Jim Gavin, the ecstatic Dublin manager: a sense that here were two smart lads on the rise. Now, Gavin is drafting his plans for the Dublin senior team while McGuinness has become the talk of the town.
It is worth remembering just how hapless and hopeless the cause of Donegal football seemed when McGuinness took over in the autumn of 2010. His ability to convince a senior team which was directionless and empty of all morale that they could become the best Donegal side ever was achieved with such smoothness that it still seems inexplicable.
All through this summer, the critics who heaped scorn on McGuinness’s innovations waited for its limitations to become apparent. There was an unspoken sense that a lot of commentators wished that Donegal would just vanish and reappear as the shambolic and harmlessly skilful bystanders of yesteryear.
Even as they tore into Kerry and Cork this summer, there was an expectation that they would stumble . . . that the shape-shifting would end and order would be restored. Instead, Donegal became a living nightmare for the establishment.
They won the All-Ireland final comfortably despite not playing particularly well. Even as the players continued to celebrate in a near deserted Croke Park an hour after the final whistle, it was obvious that McGuinness had engineered one of the greatest managerial feats in GAA history. Ever since Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, was spotted at the match and at the Donegal banquet afterwards, rumours of McGuinness’s links to Celtic would not go away. It helped that Lennon was an Armagh kid who kicked minor football for the Orchard men: he understands the depth and importance of the All-Ireland championship.
It helps also that majority shareholder Dermot Desmond is an Irishman. It is less likely that Celtic’s heads would have turned had an Englishman or some fabled son of Scottish football been in charge.
The Celtic appointment of McGuinness is bold and slightly leftfield. Already the basic question has been asked: what has Gaelic football got in common with association football? But athletes are athletes and sport is sport.
There was an almost comical serendipity about McGuinness’s attendance at Celtic’s fabulous triumph over Barcelona. Lennon may be convinced that the Glenties man is some kind of talisman now . . . if that happens when he is sitting in the stand, what will happen when he actually starts working with players?
But the brilliant triumph couldn’t disguise the chasm that exists between the Scottish and Spanish giants. The most telling statistic of that match was that Celtic won despite having only 16.4 per cent possession. Xavi made 166 passes; Kris Commons completed the most passes for Celtic with 22. Clubs like Celtic will never compete with Barca for transfers so the graduation of local players coached through a house system and to a cohesive style has become more important than ever. This, presumably, is where McGuinness comes in.
It will be heartbreaking for McGuinness if he had to quit Donegal to join Celtic. While he owes Donegal nothing, it would have been tortuous to walk away from a group of players who, after years of being written off as a boozy joke, revealed themselves to be a deep and special crew.
So the part-time solution is perfect: it gives McGuinness a chance to defend the All-Ireland with Donegal while exploring what is, unquestionably, a rare talent for coaching sportsmen.
He follows a well-worn trail: many a young man has gone from the Glen of Glenties to Glasgow for work, including Patrick MacGill, who chronicled the fate of the Irish emigrants in Children of the Dead End and The Rat Pit.
Anyone who has spent any time in Donegal will pick up on an undiluted strain of Scottishness in parts of the county. The closer you get to Malin, the greater the love for Celtic FC. It remains to be seen if McGuinness and Donegal can better their marvellous summer and the task of defending the title is daunting even without the complication of the Celtic assignment.
But yesterday’s appointment was an acknowledgement of a remarkable story and the final vindication of McGuinness’s vision.