Jim McGuinness: ‘Immersed in this world of sport and that is your job . . . it is fascinating’

The Donegal manager on All-Ireland hopes, working at Celtic, and coaching and coaxing young players into touching the apex of their sporting potential

The journey started with Antrim. It was four short years and a sporting lifetime ago when Jim McGuinness sent his Donegal team out with the relatively modest intention of merely winning an Ulster championship match in Ballybofey. The world wasn't listening then. In 2011, Donegal were an afterthought in the national football conversation. They were written off as half football team, half late bar. They beat Antrim that day using the old-fashioned - and unfashionable - principal of giving nothing away in defence.

That night they watched their reviews on television. The Sunday Game panel was sniffy and dismissive. And a few weeks later, McGuinness retorted in a way that novice managers rarely did.

"You can eulogise about Dublin and maybe talk about Dublin and then Donegal, poke fun at them and . . . that's not us" he said that day and the sparks began to fly. That was the beginning. Two Ulster championships, a notorious semi-final afternoon against Dublin, an All-Ireland title, an appointment with Celtic and a spectacular hammering by Mayo in Croke Park last summer is the abbreviated version of a managerial period which seems allergic to dull moments.

The public judgement was swift after that collapse against Mayo last August: the regime was too tough, the players were washed out and you could only get away with it for so long. McGuinness, they said knowingly, had burnt the clutch out. The sudden departure of Rory Gallagher, who had held a highly prominent role as selector, seemed to confirm that as usual in Donegal, the story was ending in tears.


Except here is McGuinness now and don't have to look that hard to see that he is smiling. This is on a peach of a June Wednesday where the streets of Letterkenny are baked and sleepy in the afternoon, as if everyone has skived off and gone to the beach. McGuinness is in a function room in the Radisson hotel presenting certificates to children with autism who have just completed a water skills course. He has been involved in Liquid Therapy, a not-for-profit venture designed to help autistic youngsters match their sensory needs through water sports, since it started less than a year ago.

When McGuinness heard about the idea, he loved the synchronicity and the effectiveness and, most of all, the passionate commitment of Tom Losey, the founder. McGuinness has young children. So he meets parents for whom these simple lessons are opening up new possibilities and he is fascinated and enthused by it. For the past six weeks, he has been on holiday from his job at Celtic and the rest period has been blissful. Next week, he goes back to Glasgow. By then, Donegal will either be preparing for the All-Ireland qualifiers or for their fourth consecutive Ulster final.

All of last winter, he was moving between Glenties and Glasgow, home from home, between Lennoxtown and MacCumhaill Park, Paradise and Ballybofey. The trail was hewn by the generations of Donegal emigrants who wintered in Scotland but McGuinness’s role and opportunity is like a contemporary salute to Peader O’Donnell’s generation of transient workers. He knows he is blessed. “Like a day dream, almost,” is how he describes the twin duties of Celtic youth development and Donegal football. “You are immersed in this world of sport and that is your job. Dealing with staff, players, tactics. Everything about it is fascinating.”

Some weeks, he moved between Champions League nights in Glasgow and the relative desolation of pulling out through the narrow gables of MacCumhaill Park when the entire county was cowering under wind and black skies. The European nights in Glasgow were as thrilling as the championship but in a different way.

“It does come to a fever pitch,” he says of those evenings when the continental teams visit the East End of the city.

“When the Champions League music comes through the tannoy there is this sense of: this is our rightful place. There is a great surge of energy. It is similar to a big championship game but different in terms of the atmosphere . . . a Gaelic match can be slow burning some times. It is hard to compare but it is marvellous to soak it up and see the connection between players and fans. And the noise they make. We don’t have that singing and chanting tradition. And we don’t have segregation. So it is different.”

Lives overlap. One night in Glasgow, he was introduced to Ronnie Deila by Fergal Harkin, the former Finn Harps midfielder who is now the scouting and operations recruitment manager at Manchester City. Part of Harkin’s brief is to place City players on loan at clubs which reflect the City way. He visits Celtic regularly and also Stromgødset, the Norwegian club Deila managed until his appointment as the new Celtic manager a few weeks ago. Harkin introduced them started riffing about the Donegal project and the Norwegian nodded and became interested and they chatted. None had any idea then that they would meet again, let alone work together.

“I got a good feel for him that evening,” he says now of Deila. “We had a good chat . . . he is very driven and forward thinking. He will take no prisoners. You’d find yourself agreeing with his approach to things. And then when he was leaving, he said: I must go now and Google Donegal. I will check this Donegal out! So it was good fun.”

For McGuinness, working with Celtic and Donegal is complementary. Both roles involve coaching and coaxing young men reaching their athletic potential. In professional football, youngsters face the crossing point of their lives at a precocious age and difficult age. Just to put yourself in with a chance of making it as a professional means being very, very good at a young age. It takes a kind of fanaticism.

“It is a very high level. Talent is one thing but the discipline has to be there. There is this preconceived idea that soccer kids are spoilt brats. But there is more to it. Just to put themselves in the position to maybe make a living from the game means they have brought an unbelievable degree of discipline to their lives. The money they may earn is a by-product. They want to play football. They love it. That is how they reach that point. There is a moment in most people’s lives where they decide to do something and there are sparks that ignite that.”

He had that experience himself. The story is celebrated now: applying for the Donegal senior post three times, almost refusing to take no for an answer and then guiding Michael Murphy’s generation of U-21 players to an unexpected All-Ireland final. Losing that game in Breffni Park to Jim Gavin’s Dublin side after Murphy thumped a high velocity, last minute penalty off the cross bar. Then he was given his chance, inheriting a senior squad bereft of any belief or direction. When McGuinness took the Donegal post, you could have gotten any odds you wanted on his team winning the All-Ireland. Any odds. But he looked around at Karl Lacey, at little heralded journeymen like Anthony Thompson and Frank McGlynn, at the McGee brothers and at Murphy and Mark McHugh and saw sparks. Off they went, purging themselves all winter.

Fanning those is part of his job, in Glasgow and Donegal. Leave nothing in reserve is his constant advice, the same advice he has been giving to Donegal players since day one. He asks the Celtic kids how much they reckon they have given after a training session. Eighty per cent is a figure they often offer. “And I’d say to them: I have to ask you why are you holding back that twenty per cent which could be the difference in you getting a contract and not? That could be the difference between you playing football for a living and not? What is the point?” It was the same question the Donegal lads answered for themselves in that first season. But they move through different worlds, with the Donegal lads holding down jobs or studying and revving into the training ground from all around the county, getting home in the wee hours. There is an element of vocation about the amateur game: the effort it takes just to be at training is its own way a spur to leave everything on the training field. The world of professional sport is different.

“Sometimes the system itself doesn’t facilitate that,” he says.

“The club is so well run . . . the boys are picked up in the morning, they are taken to training, their gear is laid out, they train, their food is laid out, the gym programmes are there, they instructors are there, and they are brought home in the evening. You can see how that can become automated and people don’t stop and think of where they are at. They do clean the first team boots. And they work hard. They are good lads.”

Donegal’s radical reinvention as a rigorously organised and conditioned force has been loosely termed as “the system”, a phrase which denotes a narrow and faintly robotic approach to the game. The term doesn’t bother him but he believes that it is attributable now across the board.

"No, I think it is right in many respects. But look at Kerry, particularly under Jack O'Connor and what Eamonn Fitzmaurice is doing now . . . it is very systematic. Now, they have a style to what they do. But in terms of how they're doing things, there is a system. My point is that there is also a style about how Donegal do things. Dublin are unbelievably systematic: how they position their full forwards, their centre forward role . . . they churn these things out on the training ground. I firmly believe that the top, top teams are so good at what they do that they actually give other teams an opportunity to beat them. They are so good at what they do, their patterns become clear. Whereas if you have a team that plays off the cuff, it is difficult. Donegal were like that when I was playing: a lot of talented players but you wouldn't know that the hell would happen. And that old line about you wouldn't know what Donegal will turn up was trotted out. Look at Barcelona . . . the best club side in the world, unbelievably flamboyant players . . . but their system is unbelievably rigid. So I think that is true of all top sports teams."

And he knows too that he is often portrayed as the austere figurehead of a moulded team whose approach to the game has deeply divided opinion. He knows the highly publicised showdown with Kevin Cassidy in the autumn of 2011 and the decision to drop the Gweedore man from the panel left him appearing ruthless and intransigent. The old cliché: a control freak. He kept an absolute silence on the matter during the months when the whispers were flying, half laughing now as he recalled a public function when he was asked a question about Cassidy.

“No comment” was his reply: a day later, a newspaper headline declared that he had broken his silence. If Donegal had had a poor season in 2012, the Cassidy matter would have been dragged up again and again. But it evaporated in the heat of Ulster and All-Ireland wins. There was something of a fabulous contradiction about Donegal in the summer of 2012: their form and intention was plain to see and yet they made it past all the fancied teams as if by stealth. Rory Gallagher’s role was regarded as critical: he was a highly visible figure on the sideline and at press nights and they were sometimes portrayed almost as a double act. McGuinness never minded that.

In the autumn of 2013, initial reports that Gallagher and the backroom staff had walked out were clarified and the Donegal county board made it clear that McGuinness had decided to go with a new backroom team. It was clear too that the departure was not a happy one. Again, McGuinness kept silent as the dissolution of what had been a formidable alliance was depicted as a grave blow to Donegal’s future prospects. McGuinness might have pointed out that he had had some managerial success before he invited Rory Gallagher onto the squad, leading his home club Glenties to an unprecedented senior county title by devising the framework he would later employ with Donegal and by later moulding the Donegal U-21 team into a highly effective force, characterised by the manically bright and unorthodox use of Mark McHugh as an end-to-end sweeper and ball carrier. But he said nothing. He didn’t feel it was right and knows how the game goes and because his primary concern is with the team.

“You can’t be lighting a fire on those issues when you are trying to prepare a team. In the cold light of day, it was what it was and decisions were made. It interferes with focus. You move on. You can’t dwell on it. Not when you have players to look after.”

That doesn’t mean he is indifferent, though. When asked if the manner of the split has affected the way he recalls the splendour of 2012, he thinks hard before replying.

“That’s probably something for another day,” he says carefully and finally.

As a football year, 2013 was impossible for Donegal. The popular notion that the players were burnt out amused him. It was the opposite: injuries meant they couldn’t get the training done. Deep down, he knew what was coming. Even if things had happened differently and they had miraculously scraped by Monaghan in the Ulster final with two divine late goals, the trajectory could not have been altered.

“Nah, not in Croke Park in the quarter-finals against the best teams in the country. There is no hiding place. You are hoping against hope. You are in denial! You just hope things will turn and that injuries will clear and you will get a run at it.”

That is what beating Derry in Celtic Park has given them: a passage to four weeks of uninterrupted training. This week, they had all players fit and available for the first time all season. Training nights were dry and warm. The mood is brilliant. McGuinness is enjoying coaching Donegal more than ever. Antrim is, he claims, a “massive game for us. Because there is an opportunity to reach an Ulster final, a blue riband event.” Four years on and not so much has changed. Maybe the world is listening now but either way, he isn’t too bothered about the general view of Donegal football.

“No, it’s not important to me. It is one of the least things. The only thing I ever wanted was medals for the boys. We have been successful and are vying to try and put ourselves in that position again. That is all it is about. And the people of Donegal. Because when the county is going well, the people are in a good place.

“That is all I have ever cared about.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times