Jim McGuinness: Memoir was part therapy and part torture

Mary Hannigan talks to the former Donegal manager about the highs and the lows

GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin 21/9/2014Donegal vs KerryDonegal’s manager Jim McGuinnessMandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin 21/9/2014Donegal vs KerryDonegal’s manager Jim McGuinnessMandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

 

It was near four in the morning when he got back to Glasgow after Celtic’s trip to Norway for their Europa League game with Molde, and then there was an early start with the development squad a few hours later. Back home and you ask Jim McGuinness how he unwinds after a shift like that. It’s Friday and it’s close to 7.30, so . . .

“You know, Coronation Street and that sort of stuff?”

Yes.

“That’s a moment in my life that is lost forever. That I’ll never get back. Even though it’s only to relax, it depresses me. I. Just. Could. Not. Sit. Down. And. Watch. A. Soap. Opera. I just don’t understand the concept.”

He’s oblivious, then, to the fate of Callum, buried under Gail’s garage after being clobbered by Kylie. How about EastEnders?

“Na! Something interesting!”

Like?

“I would never watch a series. I’d never watch drama. Documentaries or sport, that’s it. The boys in Celtic ask me, ‘do you watch The Wire, do you watch this or that?’, and I’m saying ‘no, I don’t even know what that is’, and they’re ‘Whaaaaat?’ Them and all the staff, with their iPads or whatever, they’d be watching Netflix. I wouldn’t have a clue.”

So, what do you do to unwind?

“I like reading – if there’s something in it that can move you forward. Even when I’m in the car I very rarely put on the radio. I could drive to Dublin and never put it on.”

You wouldn’t even listen to music?

“No. I’m processing. I’m almost uneasy if I don’t get that period. I’m always thinking about the future and what needs to be done and how I need to go about it. If I don’t have things that are driving me I do get uneasy. But sometimes to get away from that I will switch on the TV.”

No soaps, though?

“No. Sky News, probably.” The book. Until Victory Always. A sweeping cast of characters, but none features so prominently as the two brothers he lost.

“Mark and Charles: I carry them with me, inside me, and the way I feel about it is that whatever I see, they see. Whatever I experience, they experience.”

Charles died from a heart condition in 1986 when he was just 16. McGuinness, then 12, was in the same bedroom when he slipped away.

Mark died in a car crash in 1998 when he was 27. McGuinness, then 25, was in the seat beside him when he slipped away.

“I was fragile and I was broken . . . I went from a happy-go-lucky child . . . to a very, very vulnerable person in the blink of an eye . . . you feel lost and isolated and helpless . . . I still have that feeling. I have never lost it. I have carried that with me every moment of my life.”

The accounts of both events are harrowing, McGuinness’s pain so searing you wonder if reliving them for the book was therapy or torture. A little of both, as it proved, but it was important for him that he did it, he says. The family had questions he couldn’t bring himself to answer about Mark’s last moments. Just as he had done with Charles’s death, he “bottled it up”.

“I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get it out. So I’m hoping some of the blanks will be filled in now. It was hard, really hard, but yes, therapeutic. It gave me the opportunity to do them proud, if that makes sense. And I suppose to honour their names. It was all in the mist of unbelievable pain and anguish. It’s only now, as an adult, you can reflect, go back there.”

You kept them alive through the book, they’re there every step of your journey?

“And they always will be. And for everybody who reads it, they’ll get to know them. And my children will too. That’s very important. They don’t know who Charles and Mark are. They ask about them sometimes, they’ll question things, you end up in conversations that are deep for small children, in terms of bereavement, and that’s probably not what they should be filling their heads with. But when they’re older, the book is there, they’ll get to know Charles and Mark, and that means everything.”

The defining moment in his life, he says, occurred when friends of Charles visited his home after his death. “Ah, it’s a wild pity,” said one, “he was guaranteed to be a county minor.” There and then, McGuinness vowed to himself that he would become a county minor.

“I remember that moment as if I’m sitting here now. I never took my eyes off the telly. I didn’t want anyone to know what I was thinking, but I resolved to do that.”

To do him proud?

“To do it for him, I think. To do it for him. And myself. It was an opportunity for me to be really, really, really true to myself – and by doing that, be really true to him. That felt good. So, when you’re on the pitch, and it’s bucketing rain, or it’s snowing, or whatever it is, you’re not thinking about any of that, you’re driven.”

“I was with the under-16s and I didn’t make the team. That was a very lonely moment, nobody on the face of this earth knew that this commitment had been made, only myself, so to my mother and my father and brothers and sisters and friends you’re a sub for the divisional team. ‘Ah God, isn’t that great?’ But for me, making the team was everything in my life. Absolutely everything. So when you didn’t make it, you just couldn’t allow this happen. And then you’ve got to go deeper.”

A lot of resolve from a fella so young?

“But I think anybody would have that resolve for somebody who they loved so much. He was such a beautiful person, and such a role model for me. So it wasn’t difficult for me to make the commitment I made. I needed to give it my best shot. You need that, you need the way cleared.”

One year later, four years after his brother’s death, in MacCumhaill Park. The jersey is thrown across the dressing room to him. He puts it on. He’s a county minor.

Second Captains

“I just slipped into the cubicle in the toilets and I got down on my knees and said a prayer to Charles . . . It was the first time I had felt good, genuinely content and at ease in my own skin since the night Charles died.”

A promise kept?

“Aye,” he says.

Like most Donegal men, Mark had often wondered before his death if the county would ever win the Ulster title again. In 2011, after a gap of 19 years, they finally did, under the guidance of his little brother. The bus left Clones for the celebrations back home, stopping along the way in Fermanagh. McGuinness got out and tied the ribbons from the Anglo-Celt Cup around the headstone marking the spot where his brother had died.

Another promise kept.

Was sport your refuge?

“It has been, it’s shaped me into the person I am today.”

All those nights training as a young fella on your own in Glenties, in the wildest of weather?

“With a feeling that I was doing it for something bigger. I’d made that promise. And the Donegal players needed to be doing it for something bigger as well – their families, their clubs, the county that they come from. Why are you here? Why are you doing it? Because if you’re going to push yourself to the physical and mental edge, you need to know why you’re doing it, and I probably had that subliminally from a very young age.

“I loved the elements, loved them. I’d be out on the pitch and it would be bucketing down, massive puddles all over the place, and I would slide through the puddles to pick up the ball, turn around and kick it over the bar. I loved the winter because nobody would be there. I loved the wind swirling around me, and the rain hitting my face and forehead. I knew why I was there.

“I think of that ball spinning out of the sky, coming at me, and what I was carrying inside me. That never, ever leaves you, that pain, that vulnerability.”

A friend tells a story about his father spotting you training on your own one night, “alone on the field, head thrown back and howling up at the sky”.

Releasing it all. His conclusion?

He laughs.

“That young fella’s mental.” Alex Ferguson’s latest book sits on the table beside him. We talk about how he used to pump into his players the notion that the whole world was out to get them – opponents, the media, officials, the lot – when that wasn’t true.

Some say you used a similar device with your players?

“But they were all out to get us!”

He laughs. Hard. But there are moments in the book when he feels that way. A touch of the Millwalls – “We know the world hates it and we don’t care. It is working” – during the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, one of those days when the pundits concluded Donegal were strangling the life out of Gaelic football.

Moments of “disrespect” towards him and his team that left him seething.

TG4 asking him for a quick on-the-pitch interview before a league game against Laois, and discovering Kevin Cassidy – who he had dropped from the panel after his contribution to the book This Is Our Year – standing there when he arrived. Awkward? Excruciating. Would they have done the same to a Dublin or Kerry manager? He didn’t believe so. Why did it happen? “Because we were nobody.”

And an attitude towards the players, in their struggling days, that he believed mirrored a wider disrespect for his county.

“Their character was doubted every time. Their hunger. Their honesty. They were regarded as some kind of collective joke. And by inference, the character of everybody in the county was regarded as suspect or unreliable.”

Did you always have that sense of disrespect towards Donegal as a county, outsiders in your own country?

“No, not necessarily, I don’t think you’re aware of stuff like that when you’re younger, maybe politically when you get older you become more aware that you’re geographically cut off. But in terms of the team, we were definitely not taken seriously. There was a strong sense of ‘it’s only ourselves here and nobody’s going to be going out of their way to do anything for us’. Don’t expect any credit and don’t expect any positivity. As a group we had to try and create something that could bring our own supporters with us, we had to do that as well. We only had 7,000 at our first championship game in 2011, a home match in MacCumhaill Park. So we had to try and build that with our own people.

“We weren’t perfect in everything we did, but we were trying our best and when people saw how much we were prepared to give out on the pitch they began thinking ‘they’re going very, very deep inside themselves to try and get over the line – for us, as a county’.

Karl Lacey nearly collapsed with exhaustion at the end of that Kildare match [2011 All-Ireland quarter-final] – and that’s not lost on people. Whether you win or whether you lose, that’s a very, very noble place to be. So the relationship between the players and the people of Donegal became tighter and tighter. And then when the criticism came towards the team it became county versus everybody else. We had gained the respect of our own people, they had our backs. And that’s all that mattered to us, the rest of it was just noise.

“The ironic twist is that this ended up being the team that has probably given more to Donegal in terms of their heart and their soul, which I find fascinating. That people can be written off to such an extent and then prove the character and qualities that they really have.”

And the criticism of you, Dictator Jim?

“Aye, they thought it was like a concentration camp,” he laughs. “Because the players bought in so early to what we were trying to do, people on the outside wondered ‘how can he do that without complete control of them?’ But it was the culture of the group. The accusation was that I drove them – I did drive them, as hard as I could. But in a manner where we were trying to get the very best out of them. And they bought in to that.

“Nobody knows what goes on behind a family door, nobody knows what goes on behind a dressingroom door. The exact same thing. And that used to drive the journalists who were negative on us mad.”

And now you work in the media, as a pundit with Sky Sports – are you hesitant, then, about being too critical?

“I am because I don’t like sensationalism. And sensationalism followed me around when I was manager. I don’t like it. I like balance, I like good strong opinion – but there’s a difference between a good strong opinion and just abuse.”

Jimmy’s winning matches?

“I was lying on the bed one night with Toni-Marie, Mark Anthony and wee Jimmy. Trying to get them to sleep. Next thing Mark Anthony goes ‘Jimmy’s winning matches, Jimmy’s winning games’. I looked at Toni and said ‘d’you know who that’s about?’ And she goes ‘yep’. I say ‘who?’ And she looked over at wee Jimmy and pointed at him. Priceless. They knew there was something big happening, they were excited, but they hadn’t a clue what was going on.”

He lost count, he says, of the number of people who told him the tune was lodged in their brains, even if they didn’t necessarily want it to be. On the drive through Donegal after they won the All-Ireland it was the entrance and exit music for every village and town they passed through. By the time they got to Muff, they weren’t sure they could take much more.

He is a meticulous planner, but insists the one thing he doesn’t attempt to plan is his own life.

“Because you can’t. You can’t plan the future, you can’t plan free will, you can’t plan what other people are going to think of you, and you never know when opportunities arise.”

Since joining Celtic as a performance consultant in 2012 his role there has expanded under Ronny Deila who succeeded Neil Lennon two years later, McGuinness working with the first team as well as the club’s younger players.

“I’m just very, very fortunate. At Celtic you’re part of something, big games and big stadiums, good competition. When the teams are walking out from the tunnel on to the pitch I always position myself five or six metres back, watching the jerseys head out, and I always think to myself I’m very lucky to be in this position.”

“You see what goes on in training, you hear what goes on in the team meetings, you hear what goes on in the management meetings, the video analysis, what they’re going to do, what we expect them to do, you’re in the dressingroom, the team talks, the players, how they’re engaging, are they connected? And that all culminates with standing in the tunnel getting ready to go out on to the pitch and you get to experience that maybe 55, 60 times a year. That’s a very high-level life experience.”

Ambitions, though? He’s taking his coaching badges, so?

“Other than being the best I can be, whatever comes.”

He smiles. Blood from a stone, this.

Happy with the journey so far?

“Well, you can’t start tapping yourself on the back halfway through a journey. I do sometimes stop and think it’s all a bit surreal, that I’ve been very fortunate. How the hell has this happened? Did it actually happen?

“One of the most rewarding periods was going back in to education. It wasn’t easy, I have to say. I was playing for Donegal so you’re on a pedestal within your county – and you’re back doing your Leaving Cert. So that was tough in terms of how you’re perceived, but you just have to get over those things and get at it.

“And education is such a powerful thing, it’s incredible how important it is for people in their lives in terms of confidence, belief, in terms of understanding the world. I don’t think there’s anything more important. to be honest with you. I’ve said it all along, whenever I’ve done a talk, if I can do it anyone can. And that is the truth of it.”

Do you drive that into your kids?

“Well, I only ask two things of them – number one is that they enjoy whatever they do, and number two is that they give it absolutely everything. So I’ll say ‘what’s the two things?’ and Toni Marie will say: ‘Dad, we’ve had this conversation, let’s just move on. Yeah, yeah, do your best.’

“But the fact that she can fire it back at me is a good thing,” he laughs.

“How’d you find the language in the book?”

Fine.

“There’s the odd f*** in there.”

It was grand.

“I hope my mother agrees, but I’m not sure she will.”

A slap on the wrist?

“Aye, I think even when you’re 42 you fear that.”

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