Every day is a school day
GAELIC GAMES:Two years into the job as manager and Jim McGuinness has transformed Donegal from a wounded animal into the talk of the town, all the while learning as he goes. Now he’s ready to hand out his biggest lesson of all, writes KEITH DUGGAN
THE LEAN man from Glenties forgets nothing. It is well after 11 o’clock on a balmy Tuesday night in Ballybofey (and there aren’t too many of those) where the main street is – like every main street in Donegal – laden with green and yellow flags and bunting.
Strange days: Tír Conaill has forgotten itself: the county has become euphoric and uncharacteristically noisy at the prospect of winning an All-Ireland title. Many telegraph poles are dressed with the by now celebrated mural where the Donegal man’s face is transposed onto the immortal image of Che Guevara, beret pulled low and gazing out over the message Until Victory Always.
Is it a revolution?
Well, in just two years, McGuinness has transformed the county football team from what it was – a wounded thing – into what it has become: the talk of the town. And for a few hours, McGuinness has been talking – to television broadcasters, radio interviewers and newspaper people.
By now most people have departed and after draining the last few drops of tea from a metal dispenser, he settles back into a chair and answers the questions of about 20 newspaper people, cordially and at length. It is late and the town feels sleepy and McGuinness gives the impression that he is in no rush: Jackson’s Hotel Midnight court. Here he is now explaining why he loves coaching the game tonight and his mind projects an instant not from Donegal’s recent hair-raising adventures in Croke Park but to his days with Limavady College.
Gaelic football tradition hardly formed a central part of the college charter: there had never been a team before McGuinness arrived there. So he formed a club and begged, borrowed and stole from the soccer club, the cricket club, the debating club. Whoever.
They won the league in their first year of existence and the championship the year after that.
“There was a young lad that never played the game before and he came on in the final of the second year for about five minutes,” McGuinness recalls with enthusiasm.
“And he won the ball. And he slipped the ball and about a couple of minutes after that, he won the ball and slipped the ball and somebody else kicked it over the bar. And that was the best buzz I ever got out of football coaching. Because this young fella had never set foot on a pitch before and all of a sudden, at a very small level, he was part of a winning team. And his face and his team-mates’ faces looking at him was unbelievable.
“So it is not all about the pomp of it. This is a huge game we have coming up. It is the All-Ireland final. But it is the small things – sometimes you see something at training and you think you are in a very privileged position. You see someone in full flight kicking a point and it is like a snapshot. And you think that you are privileged to be there.”
Being there was all McGuinness ever wanted. There is an element of star-dusted fate to the way his intercounty career bloomed, with Brian McEniff noticing something in the lanky, curly-haired teenager from Glenties in a trial game in the winter of 1991.
McGuinness was just home from Boston for Christmas. He stayed and by the following September, he had yet to play a championship match, but had an Ulster and All-Ireland medal.
He played for Donegal for 14 years, a light, skilful midfielder on a team that managed to pack entire suitcases of sporting heartbreak into their seasons.
McGuinness and his family suffered genuine tragedy in the same period: his brother Mark was killed in a car accident shortly after the Ulster final [which Donegal lost to Derry] in 1998. Mark was driving Jim to Dublin airport. It was the second family bereavement: they lost their oldest boy Charles to a heart condition in 1986.
Four years later, Jim told this newspaper of trying to play football through the haze of pain he was going through. This was early in the Ulster championship of 2002: he had just played a fine game against Cavan, which established his form for the season.
“I think fellas knew I was going through a wild bad time of it. But only the likes of a best friend will say anything to you about it. You have to do a lot of soldiering on your own in a situation like that. And you know, some people just break and away you go. So this year, I just said to myself it had to change. For Mark’s sake and for my sake.”
And so he persevered, still kicking ball for Donegal until a broken leg finished his career, then coaching his club Glenties – Naomh Conaill – to its first ever intermediate title and then to its first ever senior title.
He bid for the Donegal senior job three times and was told thanks but no thanks. So he took the Donegal under-21s where he built a team around the abundant gifts of Michael Murphy. It was then people took notice.
The common phrase in Donegal was that the Big Jim had the youngsters “eating out of his hand”. They hung on his every word. They were fliers and they were organised. They kept winning. Murphy had a penalty to win the All-Ireland final against Jim Gavin’s Dublin team in 2010. Murphy hammered a ferocious shot square off the crossbar and that was it. Gavin was still registering his delight when McGuinness was over beside him, congratulating him.
A few months later McGuinness was the Donegal senior manager and he inherited a team whose morale had been crushed. He had to glue the separate entities into the team they have become.
“I had been with the under-21s the year before and they were like a blank canvas. A Red Setter I would call them. You’d say: ‘We are gonna win the Ulster!’ And they’d say ‘Okay. We are gonna win the Ulster!’ Everything was buzzing. ‘This is brilliant! Gimme that pro-weights programme! What do we need to do?’ Torturing you on the phone. Looking for information. Phenomenal energy.
“The seniors when I met them were beating themselves up because they were on the back of a lot of major disappointments and hammerings in big games.
“So trying to get them to realise that they were good enough to win an Ulster championship . . . never mind an All-Ireland, because I don’t believe we would have been in this position without winning Ulster. When they won Ulster the first year, I think they felt it was unbelievable but I don’t think they felt they were the best in Ulster, maybe. I think it was only this year they thought: maybe we are not too bad.”
For a while, it was a view that few shared. Just over a year ago, McGuinness was portrayed as the architect of anti-football. The lava of critical comment poured over his team after last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin – “Football was the winner today” – ignored just how tactically fascinating that game was.
Donegal still play a high-octane defensive style but have begun to develop a sweeping counter-instinct that has corner backs popping up in traditional corner-forward roles.
Successive wins over Kerry and Cork has led to quick revisionism and a rush of compliments that are as exaggerated as the original criticism. McGuinness was largely unbothered by the criticism and he hasn’t paid much heed to the praise either. Instead, he just concentrates on improving himself as a coach and his analysis of Mayo’s semi-final win over Dublin offers a glimpse into how he sees and reads the game.
“Mayo moved the ball very early into the full-forward line. They seemed to play on the shoulder of the full backs. They delivered a lot of ball in over the top of the full backs into the corners. It was a different thing for Dublin. Rory O’Carroll and Michael Fitzsimons and these boys would normally play on the front foot: they deny the ball.
“But the quality of the ball in over the top meant they were caught a few times. Mayo were very big and strong around the middle of the park. They’ve good kickers. Even when the game was tight, they didn’t go lateral: they continued to look for that 40-yard pass, so they are coached to be positive.
“And you’d have to give James Horan a lot of credit as well: he took Dublin on. He took them on in the kick outs. The full backs took the Dublin forwards on. It was three versus three a lot of the time. He showed faith in his men to do that job and they didn’t shirk that responsibility.
“There were one or two goal chances for Dublin but for 70 minutes, they eyeballed them and got over the line. For me, in an apprehensive way, I was watching in the first half and I was thinking: Jesus, these boys are unplayable. Because there was a period there and it didn’t matter if it was Donegal or Cork or Dublin or Kerry: Mayo were unplayable in the way they moved the ball early and direct and the accuracy of their shooting from outside the scoring range.
“So I was glad to see a drop off for a period because if that was over 70 minutes I think it would have been one of the greatest ever performances in Croke Park, being honest with you.”
But by then, optimism in Donegal was tilting towards outright delirium.
The nonsense row about the homecoming parade illustrated just how feverish the expectation had become. People were talking about the All-Ireland final as if it was a formality: they had begun to absorb and believe the line that Donegal were ‘unbeatable’. McGuinness knows that this loose talk is out there but he believes it is irrelevant.
“You can’t control that. People in Donegal are on a high and you can’t control that. You can’t control that everyone thinks we are going to win the All-Ireland and Mayo hasn’t a chance. The same in Mayo: you can’t control that everyone there thinks Mayo will win and Donegal hasn’t a chance. That is the job of a supporter, almost.
“For us, it is a different job. I don’t know what James Horan is thinking at this moment in time and I’m hoping he doesn’t know what I’m thinking. I don’t believe our fellas will be apprehensive. Their focus is on tasks and goals.
“I think where you would get nervous would be if, as a player, you removed yourself from that and you put yourself in a situation where you are thinking: ‘This is an All-Ireland final! I’ve never played in an All-Ireland before. I would love an All-Ireland medal! Jesus, the homecoming’s going to be great if we can win it! Can you imagine Donegal Town? And I’ve got me cousin coming from America and it is going to be great to see him after the game!’ . . . these are all things that mean nothing. Nothing!
“But if you hadn’t got the other things to drive you and focus you, they could come into your thinking. But for us, the only thing our boys are focusing on is what we are coaching and working on and for that reason I have good faith that they will stick to the tried and tested. We have done that for two years and I don’t see us changing for the final. I’m hoping!”
And he laughs.
See, this is new territory for McGuinness too. He has this saying: Every day is a school day. That was his message after the late goal the team conceded against Cork in the closing minutes of the All-Ireland semi-final and it was his lesson after he recorded his very first championship win over Antrim – Donegal’s first Ulster win in four seasons. You learn as you go.
“We deserved that goal against Cork to happen to us. I don’t believe you can play out three minutes of a game by keeping possession. I believe someone is going to get their gander up and put in a tackle and that will result in a turnover because a referee is not going to have any sympathy for a team that’s showboating and retaining possession for the sake of retaining possession. Cork were good enough to punish it.
“I have said that all along. We are by no means the finished article. And if it had been a two point game, it would be a very tough thing to live with.”
He knows there are no guarantees. He has lost enough games to know that.
But he knows too that this is a week to be savoured. There is no point in living through an All-Ireland final if you don’t actually live it. For Donegal footballers and for the county in general, it is rare air. So he talks on, bright and loquacious, warming to the latest theme, which is the novelty of the All-Ireland final and rejecting the idea that it doesn’t contain a “big hitter”.
“I would consider Mayo to be a big hitter . . . They have been there or thereabouts for the last few years. There was no apprehension in Mayo going into that Dublin game. No fear of the Hill or championship football. They went and delivered because they are comfortable with what they are doing. There aren’t many teams that can do that. They aren’t fazed by not winning an All-Ireland in X amount of years.
“They are a very driven group and they feel they are on a mission. We feel we are on a mission. And only one team will get over the line. So it will make for a very interesting match.”
Regardless of what happens, where Jim McGuinness has taken Donegal is one of the more remarkable GAA stories of this or any time.
Two years ago, the only one who believed that any of this was possible was him. Two years ago, in fact, most people would have told him he was mad. But here is : back in September and one game away.
“All I want is a big performance. And if you get that, you have to make peace with the result. My passion – all I ever wanted to do was play for Donegal. And when that moment was over, my next thing was to go and coach them. And I will be very proud to be a Donegal man if we win the All-Ireland. Being the manager would be an added bonus.”