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.