Jim McGuinness returns in supporting role for Donegal

Former manager looking forward to some time out from his role with Celtic

Donegal manager and Celtic performance consultant Jim McGuinness. Photograph: Inpho Donegal manager and Celtic performance consultant Jim McGuinness. Photograph: Inpho

Donegal manager and Celtic performance consultant Jim McGuinness. Photograph: Inpho Donegal manager and Celtic performance consultant Jim McGuinness. Photograph: Inpho


On a wintry Sunday in March, Jim McGuinness found himself back in the old familiar place but looking on from somewhere entirely new. Ballybofey: Tyrone and Donegal mixing it and nothing much beyond two National League points and a bitter-keen rivalry to put some colour into the afternoon.

He walked through the turnstile and took his place on the terrace on the hill end. “I brought the two wee fellas with me and they had a ball so they picked up a few wee friends at the ground and were kicking away. I’m not sure if they saw more than five minutes of it.”

McGuinness couldn’t take his eyes of it. The last time he had seen Donegal playing was in the All-Ireland final of last September, when he was slightly closer to the action. His former team was on song, posting an 1-13 to 0-6 win over the Red Hand in what was probably their most complete league performance.

“It was strange watching it and being among the crowd, yeah. Because things would be happening and you’d be wondering: well, why is Frank not going there now. Then Neil McGee came up and kicked a point and Michael was doing his thing. So you are aware that you are spectator in the crowd but you also recognise why a lot of the things on the pitch are happening.

“And it was interesting for me to hear what people around me were saying as well. It was nothing but a positive experience for me. It was what I wanted when I went into the job: to do my bit for the county and when I got the chance, I just wanted to take it.”

He stepped down as Donegal manager last October, ending what was an intense four years of communication between a re-imagined team and its followers throughout the county.

There was no grand speech or prolonged will -he-stay-or-will-he-go debates. Instead, confirmation came on a Friday night text sent out to each of the players, thanking them and wishing them well and then the news was released through the county board.

The reaction of Donegal people lay somewhere between mourning and a wistful acknowledgement of how precious the previous four years were.

McGuinness and his family were on holiday during the week that followed and straight after that he was in Glasgow immersing himself into Celtic’s bid to retain the Scottish Premier League and Cup. Ronnie Deila, Celtic’s unflappable manager, brought with him from Norway a set of values which are in harmony with those which McGuinness believes in, placing a strong emphasis on player wellbeing and on the psychological side of his teams’ development.

From the winter of 2012, McGuinness was shuttling back and forth between Glasgow and Donegal working primarily with the Celtic underage players as well as managing Donegal. This season, Deila has asked him to work with the first team. The immersion from the demands of the Donegal set-up to his role with Celtic was instant and complete. There hasn’t been much time for a backwards glance, even if he is aware that for the first time in his adult life, his year is being shaped by a different football calendar.

“I went into the Donegal set-up at 19 years of age and was involved from 1992 until 2004. So I was a lot of years there and I went from that to club management and then back into the under-21s and Donegal seniors. So this is the first time I have been out of Gaelic football for the first time in my life. And it is a bit strange. But at the same time, the last five years were so intensive that it is nice to be out of that for a period. The same pressure isn’t there – you have different pressures now but in terms of running that group and planning things, I have found it refreshing.”

If anything, the travel demands have increased, revolving around Celtic’s domestic and European schedule as well as regular trips home and occasional visits to other sports clubs. Before last month’s European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final, Saracens coach Mark McCall invited McGuinness to spend a day with the team, observing their regime and giving a talk in the afternoon. Just as Neil Lennon had done when he was manager of Celtic, McCall had observed the transformation which Donegal underwent during McGuinness’s tenure and it intrigued him. He said afterwards McGuinness’s talk had “captivated the group for an hour”.

The appeal of the story to members of a London rugby club wasn’t so much about Gaelic games or the All-Ireland championship so much as the transformation of a team and about how they set about doing that.

For McGuinness, the exposure to the mechanisms and planning that goes into making an elite sports team work is endlessly fascinating. He has started acquiring his football badges now, travelling across Ireland for courses that deal with the very fundamentals of how to kick or trap or pass a football. At Celtic, the under-14 kids have technique nailed. At Donegal, he was coaching instinctively and taking those skill sets for granted. So on one level, he is learning about football from the very beginning while on the other, he is working closely with the first team of a club that is a cultural institution and a name that still resonates throughout Europe. In some ways, it is utter change. And yet within the overall approach, there are broad similarities.

“There are two aspects to that. On one hand the principles are the same. It is an invasion game. It is about defence and attack and the transition in between. It is about set plays and preparation for games and recovery and overall goals and objectives. So the principles are the same but the details are, of course, very different. In terms of the detail, I would be picking up a lot. But the principles are something you see and relate to and could have conversations about with the staff every day of the week.”

After a faltering start, Deila’s first season has been strong: the Scottish League Cup has already been claimed and they are closing in on the Premier league title. An extra-time defeat by Inverness in the cup semi-final has been the glaring disappointment of a season in which Celtic hoped to claim a domestic treble for the just the third time in their history. It would have been the perfect way to mark the reappearance of their city side animus, Glasgow Rangers.

But Celtic are in a good place. Just recently, Deila spoke of how thrilled he was about the spirit within the senior dressingroom, which is an elemental part of McGuinness’s role. The Scottish Premier League is nothing like the perpetual, worldwide circus of media attention and money which the top flight of English football has become but McGuinness is acutely sympathetic to the variety of demands and pressures with which all professional footballers must cope.

“It is very full-on for them, yeah. You have to go out and perform all the time. There will be three weeks off this year out of 52 because we have three rounds of qualifying for the Champions League. We are back on June 22nd. So it is a four-week split and then they face into another 11-month season. That is a serious physical and mental demand. Then there is the fame aspect which means they can’t really just go out and live a normal life. And players want to play. If you aren’t making the first 11 or even the squad, that can bring pressures and have an impact on future contracts.

“An injury can have a big impact on a player. Everybody wants to be the best you can be. So there is a lot in the mix. You have to try and manage that within the climate you create and I think that the gaffer is doing a really good job on that.”

There hasn’t been too much time to miss Donegal and when he stepped down, he says he felt fortunate with the opportunity afforded to him by Celtic and says that fatigue is rarely an issue because he finds what he is doing so fulfilling.

“Working with Ronny and the two Johns ( assistant coach Collins and first-team coach Kennedy) has been so enjoyable and it has made leaving Gaelic football easier. And you do get the rush and excitement in terms of games. Our cup game in Aberdeen, when Virgil van Dyke scored in the last minutes was a hugely important night and the 3-3 draw against Inter Milan in Celtic Park was just one of those occasions; two teams playing expansive, high-pace football. We looked them in the eye and took them on.”

That also serves as an accurate summary of what McGuinness asked his Donegal players to do. After he stepped down, there was a quick assumption several of the senior players would leave with him and that the ferocious combination of will and ambition would effectively leave the squad with him. McGuinness never saw it that way and points to the consistent run of form by the county under-21 teams over the past three years and Declan Bonner’s minor team, which foretold the senior occasion by losing to Kerry in the All-Ireland final last year. In a roundabout way, there has been a degree of continuity in the appointment of Rory Gallagher, who served as McGuinness’s selector until the end of the 2013 season. As a supporter now, the Glenties man is optimistic.

“There is a lot of talent in the county. Michael Murphy is 25 and hitting his prime. Patrick McBrearty is becoming more central to the attack. Ryan McHugh has added a lot in terms of his legs and energy and intelligence. Odhran (MacNiallais) came in too and gave a big lift to the players there. The mix is good and there isn’t a huge amount of change in personnel or style. The players are comfortable and there is continuity there and Rory and the management team are putting their own take on what they want to do and how they want to do it moving into the season.

“I think it has been fairly smooth up to this point and for me, they are one of two or three teams that can win the All-Ireland. And obviously I’d love to see Donegal win it. Obviously I’m still very emotionally attached to the county and when you spend so much time with players, you get to know them at a deep level. And you know the sacrifice that they are putting in. Not that I’m suggesting that that isn’t happening in other counties too. “

He name checks Dublin and Kerry as the leading contenders and feels that Mayo, too, are still in the mix. One of the reasons he has taken up the invitation to become a columnist for The Irish Times over the championship season is that it will help him to do what he has been doing all of his life: watching and talking about Gaelic football.

When McGuinness set out with Donegal, his primary intention was to make his squad feel as if they were involved in a professional set-up and that everything revolved around them. Now that he is involved with a professional club, he believes that the essential difference comes down to constancy.

“The resources are here,” he says of life at Celtic. “Everything is under the one roof and people have access to coaches, masseurs, the medical team and they eat there. It is broken in Gaelic football and you are trying to just keep a grip on team in between times. We tried to put as many systems in place as we possibly could but the way that Celtic is run, the players are protected to an extent so that they can focus on the football side of things. We tried to do that.”

The Scottish season ends in May but the off-season is mercilessly brief.

McGuinness is looking forward to an unbroken spell of time in Donegal – and to the novelty of watching the All-Ireland championship as a supporter again. He is optimistic his former team can go far in this year’s competition but has no bias beyond them.

“If Donegal were knocked out . . . what intrigues me more is the make-up of teams and how they go about their business and set out to win. There is always a story within the championship and championship games ask questions of you and demand a lot of things. And you have to find a way to win and that is the challenge. So I don’t just want to see a particular team win, it is more about seeing who has got what it takes to come and bring whatever is required to put themselves in a position to challenge for provincial titles and then the All-Ireland.”

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