Until Victory Always: A Memoir: Jim McGuinness is more than a football man

The former Donegal manager’s memoir, co-written with Keith Duggan, is a powerful blend of defiance and vulnerability, writes Diarmaid Ferriter

Until Victory Always: A Memoir
Author: Jim McGuinness, with Keith Duggan
ISBN-13: 9780717169375
Publisher: Gill and Macmillan
Guideline Price: €24.99

I remember falling out of the Abbey Hotel bar in Donegal town towards dawn at the end of a long night in 1992 in the company of a college girlfriend, a local who was well used to such marathons. There was an intense Donegal mix that night of heavy drinking, sparkling wit, big heartedness, wide beautiful eyes and Ulster edginess. Yet there was also an air of satisfaction as the drinkers basked in the afterglow of winning their first All-Ireland football championship and teased me, the sole Dub. It was especially pleasing for them to be able to taunt, not just because of the long wait for victory, but for other, deeper reasons that have to do with Ulster identity, the legacy of the partition of Ireland and the difficulties of being from a county that felt that partition deeply; that has often felt neglected and ignored, in but not quite of the Republic.

Those memories came back to me while reading former Donegal Gaelic football manager Jim McGuinness's memoir. It is a powerful book; enlightening, infuriating and emotional. Powerful because the drama of it all exerts a certain hypnotic hold as Keith Duggan, chief sports writer for The Irish Times, shapes an absorbing, rhythmic prose around the thoughts of McGuinness; enlightening because the reader learns much about the interior of the Donegal GAA and the reaction McGuinness's team generated; infuriating because a persecution complex permeates so many pages; emotional because of the raw, moving honesty of McGuinness in relation to his personal and professional crises.

The prose is woven around the sporting events of the years 2011-14, but interspersed with memories of his childhood, adolescence and life outside the GAA cauldron, including his accomplished journey through adult education, which took him to postgraduate level.

McGuinness personifies both the edginess and the warmth I remember from trips to Donegal. He is a hell of an angry man but also a clever, empathetic and fatherly one who can look at other hard men in the eyes and tell them he loves them. The youngest of five children, he grew up in council house in Glenties that “wasn’t really a football house”. His brother Charles died in 1985 when Jim was 12; suffused with grief, he took it as his mission to fill Charles’s football boots, frequently practising alone: “the wind and the rain were like a protection, a disguise because you know the whole town is hunkered away indoors . . . this was where I got to be with Charles.” McGuinness also experienced terrible tragedy in 1998 when his brother Mark, affectionately known as “Giant”, was driving Jim to Dublin airport and the car was hit by a lorry. Mark was killed and the account of the crashis moving and heartbreaking, as Jim begged Mark not to die. The shock was “just a huge wave pounding down and down on me. My brother. My best friend. Giant. I was fragile and I was broken from that moment. I will have that vulnerability inside me until the day I die.”

Conversation McGuinness won his All-Ireland medal in 1992, managed the county’s under-21 team and then, in 2012, found himself roaring at his new, out-of-shape charges

: “Can I trust you?” he asked them “I need to know that I can fucking trust you . . . what is holding you back?” He was in no doubt as to what was holding them back. It was an inferiority complex, the “culture of mediocrity” which he set out to overturn; to stop them respecting other teams so much “that you can’t play football against them”. It is a theme he returns to repeatedly: “The national conversation about Donegal wasn’t really about football. It was about people. It was about us, and it was about our character. The implicit message contained in the general opinion about Donegal was this: you don’t have the fire.”

The idea that there is a “national conversation” about Donegal can of course be disputed, but for McGuinness to build his project he needed to be convinced there was, and it worked. It was this mentality that gave his team the edge and, by extension, it also gives this memoir the edge, allowing feeling rather than match statistics, laboured psychobabble or indulgent sentimentality to dominate.

McGuinness made his players swear confidentiality about their approach to winning the All-Ireland in 2012. In order to transform them psychologically and physically, he pushed them beyond the beyonds to create a “purity of intent”; indeed, “purity” is a word he repeatedly uses. He is also keen to dispute the idea that he was an austere, control freak, and rejects the perception of the team “as almost socialist in its beliefs; that we were purely functional and joyless”. Fun-loving lefties will not like that sentence.

Lodge in your soul

His approach to his players’ autonomy was selective. He insists he was adamant “they had to feel as if they owned their lives”; the bus journeys back to Donegal after victories down south were boozy and those that desired could puff on a fag. With success – the first Ulster title in 2011, the All-Ireland victory in 2012 – such imbibing was “a new sensation; drinking to celebrate achievement and not to feel less crushed”. But he was ruthless too and meted out unnecessarily cruel treatment to player Kevin Cassidy, banishing him after Cassidy gave an interview McGuinness did not like. As befits a smart psychologist, the book is powerful in underlining the euphoria but also the despair that comes with the GAA county territory; soccer players play so many matches they can more effectively compartmentalise losses, but a defeat in the championship “can lodge in your soul”.

His approach to styling the team’s play was controversial for the simple reason it was revolutionary, though it was not as one-dimensional as some of its critics maintain. His initial aim was to stop naturally running teams at source; to force a team like Dublin “to think their way through us rather than merely play through us”; bringing “every single player into our half to lure them out . . . we knew it would cause outrage”. He says he didn’t care about that outrage, but such nonchalance is challenged by his own words as he settles various scores. He frequently asserts that he did not read or listen to sports news, but he did, and he reacted angrily when he saw and heard what he did not like. He also found “a nugget of gold” in a newspaper interview with one of the Cork players before the semi-final in 2012 and was thrilled that “everything in the article was what we had been planning for”.

He thrashes the Donegal County Board for its lack of support; for its stupidity in setting dates for club championships in 2013 to the detriment of properly preparing for defence of the All-Ireland. Inevitably, injuries resulted: “and it destroyed us. They destroyed us . . . there were people on the county board who wanted me to fail.” He gives full vent to his persecution complex; castigating TG4 for setting him up in an interview alongside Kevin Cassidy, Dublin players in 2013 who were “stupid and spiteful” and “nasty and petty” Laois. He can be conveniently blind too, to the obvious; he fell out badly in 2013 with his assistant manager Rory Gallagher because he gave an interview McGuinness did not like – “I had to assume absolute control” – and he did not understand why Gallagher had to think about McGuinness’s insistence that there would be no more joint decisions, even though McGuinness himself is at pains to emphasise how previously, they had shared so many decisions and lengthy debates.

The book is also a reminder that for all the expertise, skill and sacrifice that goes into building a supremely fit team and various game plans, those orchestrating the deconstruction of opponents are inevitably deconstructed themselves, as McGuinness was to discover in 2014. It also appeared there was an ominous dilution of the purity: "I didn't sense any belief in the room"; the old question was coming back: "Why did nobody fear us?" He discussed with his players a Derry Journal article to the effect that the Derry players "are walking around the place calling you cowards". Nonetheless, McGuinness brought Donegal to the brink of another All-Ireland title; huge effort went into beating Dublin in the 2014 semi-final to try to create a more even battle for possession; these are fascinating pages about tactics and patterns of play that should be read by managers of teams facing Dublin next year.

Floundered But Donegal floundered in the subsequent final against Kerry, a reminder that sometimes there are no answers, even for psychologist Jim. All he could keep saying was “I don’t know what happened”, but “I was the manager and I was responsible”. His final assessment is that he and his team “created something out of nothing”. No mean claim, and no mean achievement. It was not to everybody’s taste, but it was a daring and winning formula, underpinned by the same mix of defiance, vulnerability, talent and emotion that has been carried into this memorable and distinctive book.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD. His book, A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913-23 (Profile Books), just published in paperback, has been shortlisted for this year's Irish Book Awards