Jim McGuinness: Giving your all is all any team can do

Sport the common language at a moving event in Glasgow for a Celtic and Donegal fan

Saracens’ Brad Barritt lifts the European Champions Cup trophy after victory over Racing 92. “I have a soft spot for Saracens ever since I spent a day at the club last year.” Photograph: Adam Davy/PA

Saracens’ Brad Barritt lifts the European Champions Cup trophy after victory over Racing 92. “I have a soft spot for Saracens ever since I spent a day at the club last year.” Photograph: Adam Davy/PA

 

I found myself at a dance in Glasgow on Saturday night. It was a celebration and memorial occasion for a Donegal man, Adrian Medford, who sadly passed away last year at just 43.

Adrian was from Dungloe and I met him many times on football fields when we were growing up and playing for our clubs. What really made him stand out was that he was always beaming and really jolly any time you met him.

He was one of those people who could put you in a good mood just from being in their company for a little while. I hadn’t seen Adrian for years and years but it turned out that he had been living in Glasgow for most of his adult life.

I was home in Glenties last autumn during the international break and his friend, John, told me that he was ill and asked if I would go and meet him in Glasgow as he was a big Donegal and Celtic fan.

I was looking forward to catching up with Adrian and was actually heading across the city to meet him on the Monday after work when I got a phone call to say he had lapsed into a coma. And he never recovered. So Donegal Heart, an organisation in the city, organised this dance in the Kerrydale suite in Celtic Park. There was music and a bit of an auction and Adrian’s family and friends were there.

I was sitting with Packie Bonner and his wife, Ann. We had a good chat about Donegal and Celtic. Packie actually dropped me home afterwards but despite having lived in Glasgow for 30-odd years, he still managed to get lost – which didn’t go down well with (a) Ann, sitting in the passenger seat and (b) me, in the back.

He got us there in the end although I possibly would have been quicker if I had taken the bus. It was a nice night. What struck me was the sense of warmth and community in the room that evening.

Everyone was mucking in and wanting to help and were there with the right intentions. There was this sense of community and place and family which you probably take for granted at home.

Big city

I was thinking about the times Adrian would have played with Dungloe that evening. And at the same time, I found myself wondering why it is that we invest so much time and emotion and effort into sport.

Earlier, on Saturday afternoon, I sat down to watch Saracens playing Racing 92 in the Champions Cup. I suppose I would be classed as a casual rugby fan in that I would watch the Irish international matches and the European games when I can. My impression of the game is similar to a lot of other people’s: that the hits are frightening. It is bloody vicious! Rugby players give a huge amount of themselves.

The physical hits are ferocious but the mentality is so admirable as well. They go through one another and they hardly blink. There is a kind of mutual respect among players which is very striking.

I know this is probably considered sacrilege in Irish rugby circles but I have a soft spot for Saracens ever since I spent a day at the club last year. My overriding impression of that visit was of a club and team really desperate to win in Europe.

Second Captains

I was so impressed by their togetherness and by the atmosphere in the place.

On one level, this was a big, professional sports club. But the first thing I noticed that morning was that there was a crèche there and that quite a number of the players had their children at the club while they trained. It caught me off-guard. And that kind of set the tone. Everyone I met seemed to be on the same wavelength.

People were welcoming and the attitude was very relaxed. Everyone made it their business to come up and say hello.

We ate breakfast and there were big chats going on at several tables. I got to see the team training in its individual units and then in a 15-on-15 session. There was a real focus about them at those training sessions. In the morning, the players actually led some of the video analysis sessions before the coaches took over. That interaction really interested me.

This was a big squad of athletes and backroom staff and they seemed to be operating with absolute trust in one another. They must have been working on that for a long time and I felt that it was nice to see it come to fruition for them in the biggest club game of the season. Their win was about an absolute crystallisation of their game plan. That was obvious to see. It is a common requirement in any sport.

The pitch

The collective work rate and the appetite to get the ball back was as good as it had been all season and then once the players got on the ball, they were very creative and inventive and they ended up scoring seven goals in the process. It was like a release in a way; the culmination of the efforts and ambitions and work that had gone into the season.

So like Saracens, the focus and intensity and honesty were all there. And then they had the skill to execute the game plan, which is the parallel; a different sport but the same principles. And it was a real celebratory mood in Celtic Park on Sunday afternoon. You can’t overstate how deeply the supporters care about their club. I was watching the game and trying to figure the common themes that people should be latching onto.

Saracens became European champions. And Celtic had the league won going into the Motherwell game. But not every team can win. It isn’t possible. So what can those teams strive for?

The players and staff headed out to celebrate on Sunday evening but after the match, there was time to nip home and change. I wasn’t in the door before I had Radio One on at full blast so I could listen to the Offaly-Longford match.

It’s a very strange sensation listening to a championship game on the radio when you are in another country. For years, my involvement with championship meant being on the pitch or on the sideline or else in the stands: you were in the heart of it.

Tuning in from Glasgow is like listening to something you are very familiar with somehow taking place on a different planet. It is surreal. Maybe it is just you are used to flicking on Sky Sports and Sky News and maybe Talk Sport in the car when you are going in and out to work.

Then suddenly you have these strong Irish accents filling your living room and they are telling anecdotes relating to the teams and you can hear the excitement in their voices. And that is Ireland. It is a really priceless thing and it was a good feeling, listening to the game for those few minutes as a GAA fan and trying to imagine what was going on there, trying to picture it.

Longford were not having a good outing. And I heard the bulletins from the Fermanagh-Antrim game.

Fermanagh is a county I know well. And their performance seemed to have an element of maturity about it. You think of Antrim-Fermanagh games historically as 50-50 but they have obviously moved on from that. Fermanagh have been in a good place for quite a while. The players have bought into what Pete McGrath is about and I believe they are doing a huge amount of work.

They were All-Ireland quarter-finalists and they will prepare for Donegal next month feeling that they can beat Donegal, not merely hoping that they can. Whether they manage it is a different story but they will have real belief going into that game.

It was clear Antrim were having a rough day. They didn’t turn up just to score two frees in the first half of championship football or two find themselves down 0-9 to 0-2. And you are thinking: those boys probably started in November. They have trained as hard as anyone else. They have run the hills, done the gym sessions, done the sprints, sacrificed so much of their lives and family life; they have adhered to nutrition plans and everything else.

And then this is what happens on the big day: the date that has been in their mind’s eye all winter. And it makes you wonder what it’s about.

I think it comes down to just giving it everything in the game you are building towards. All the effort you put in throughout the season has to somehow be packed into and reflected in that performance.

That is the big thing about championship football. One of the highlights for me as Donegal manager was the evening of the Kildare match when Karl Lacey was at the point of exhaustion after extra time.

If you can get to that point where you know you have given everything of yourself, surely it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose. And I felt listening to the radio on Sunday that possibly that’s where some of the players on the sides that were struggling would have regrets. Not so much the result but knowing deep inside that they have more to give.

Something positive

On Monday, I packed up and prepared to head back for my summer break at home. I can’t wait, being honest about it.

Word was that the sun would be shining in Donegal on Monday evening. It was nice to leave Glasgow on the weekend that was in it. In the coming weeks, the football championship games will start to come hot and heavy. And I think that the common ambition for all teams, regardless of where they stand in the national rankings, is to go out on the field and represent themselves and their county as best as they can. If they do that, they will probably be happy in their own skin because they are being true to themselves.

Knowing you couldn’t have given anymore is a good place to be.

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