Jim McGuinness lit the way for Donegal and its people

Remains to be seen if momentum can stay fired after McGuinness’s departure

There are two indivisible elements to Jim McGuinness's impact over the past four years. The record shows, to echo Sinatra, his success in transforming a football culture that seemed broken. The Donegal football project can be measured in terms of the startling win/loss ratio. But coursing beneath those games was the huge emotional surge of pride that his team and attitude inculcated.

Most of the iconic GAA managers leave an indelible impression on the landscape through their longevity as well as their track record. Kevin Heffernan’s lifelong relationship with St Vincent’s and Dublin had, at its core, a steely ambition to win and then win better. Mick O’Dwyer coached his last All-Ireland winning team in 1986 but in the decades afterwards his role as a figurehead in Gaelic football continued to broaden. Mickey Harte will next season attempt to leave his stamp on an entirely new generation of Tyrone footballers. These men are like oak trees in their longevity.

McGuinness and Donegal has been the opposite: their story has been like a comet across the sky, blazing and in full view before anybody had time to comprehend it and gone while Donegal supporters are still dazzled by the afterglow.

In retrospect, it wasn't just that McGuinness successfully convinced his dressingroom that they could break a 20 year cycle of disappointment that was so incredible. It was the fact that the metamorphosis took shape so quickly. It is impossible to put the McGuinness era in perspective without referencing the Sunday Game interview he gave after his second championship victory, against Cavan in 2011. He responded to what he felt was a derisory comment about one of his players, Ryan Bradley, who received man of the match after the win against Antrim a full month earlier.

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At the time, McGuinness’s admonishment might have appeared sensitive but it served to make a point about how he wouldn’t be letting the old stereotypes about Donegal football slide. The closing phrase, “And then Donegal, just poke fun at them . . . and that’s not us,” said everything about the new order. It was the first indication that he meant business with Donegal. It is important to remember that the on-field transformation had yet to occur: the raging self-belief was still in chrysalis.

Someone different

Donegal were still Ulster’s soft touch and in nobody’s head as potential All-Ireland champions. That win against Cavan was in June: by August, McGuinness had set out his stall against Dublin in that notorious 0-8 to 0-6 defeat with an unapologetic emphasis on perfect defence. That day, more than any since, distinguished McGuinness as someone different: a football coach with a radical view of the strategic possibilities of the game and with the nerve to see them through.

It is important to remember, too, just how rampantly hostile much of the comment was to the Donegal style after McGuinness’s first year. It softened when his team returned in 2012 to win the Ulster and All-Ireland titles in rampaging style, cutting through opponents.

The belief that Donegal and McGuinness were somehow ‘bad’ for football persists. It is a valid opinion, as McGuinness pointed out in that first interview. Perhaps the best response is to point to the number of outstanding and truly memorable championship matches involving his Donegal team: Kildare in 2011, the infamous semi-final with Dublin, Kerry in the 2012 quarter-final and that spectacular shoot out against Cork in the 2012 semi-final.

At their best, McGuinness’s Donegal were to football what Ayrton Senna was to racing: when the machine was right, they simply drove faster than the others. They couldn’t be caught. Even the implosion against Mayo in 2013 made for vivid theatre.

This year, their All-Ireland quarter-final win over Armagh was one of the most intense and exciting championship matches of the summer and the coup over Dublin, the most extravagant feather in McGuinness’s cap, was simply one of the great championship shocks of modern times. It hasn’t been dull, in other words.

Within Donegal, McGuinness’s swift and total recalibration of the Donegal playing style also caused unease among former players and managers but after 2012, everyone was on board. The miraculous resurgence of a team had a strange effect of making a big and fractured county feel more unified and confident.

It remains to be seen if the momentum can stay fired after McGuinness’s departure or if those few years will prove to be a chimera. The long list of candidates for the vacant post makes for a promising start. In truth, nobody is really expected to follow McGuinness. It was a special moment precisely because it was unique.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times