Cracks beginning to show as strict Donegal regime takes toll
Nobody should be the least bit surprised that there has been a bust-up in the Donegal football camp. In a set-up which promotes an amateur sport like Gaelic football there is bound to be friction when things do not work out as people expect.
Donegal were wonderful All-Ireland winners one year ago and dazzled the football cognoscenti with the unusual style which Jim McGuinness invented and then carried out with total ruthlessness in every aspect of the game.
For two years the Donegal players, the usual mixture in a Gaelic team of people from various walks of life, different skill levels and varying intensities of personal motivation, responded to the strict lifestyle required by McGuinness and his management.
All-Ireland success last year seemed to indicate that this approach could continue indefinitely. It never does and it didn't in Donegal either. Euphoria is never a companion of common sense in sport.
The cracks started shortly after the 2012 triumph when the Donegal county championship had to be squeezed into a few weeks because the manager had urged the county board not to play any games during the county's All-Ireland run.
When the county championship was eventually played, the team's most valuable player – Karl Lacey – suffered an injury which lingered all the way to this summer. The loss in form that led to Division 1 relegation was crucial and when McGuinness dismissed the league as a waste of time he was shooting himself in the foot. Teams lower than Division 1 rarely win All-Irelands nowadays.
McGuinness had a huge hold on the lives of the Donegal players and all aspects of the preparation of the team and related county board matters – to an extent rarely, if ever, seen before.
The ruthless manner in which he disposed of former All Star Kevin Cassidy was a typical example of the manager's control – it appears that it is 'my way or the highway' with him.
You can get away with this form of player-control if the team is winning, or likely to win soon as in Cassidy's case. But when you do achieve the ultimate victory, as in 2012, attitudes start to change in the playing group and soon we see signs of fraying at the edges, first outlined by me when writing on the narrow victory over Down in the Ulster SFC. It was downhill all the way from there, culminating in the 16-point humiliation by Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
There have been many people in charge of county teams who were control freaks to an extent but never, in my time at least, to the extent that McGuinness operates.
Kevin Heffernan certainly took no prisoners when dealing with a varied collection of Dublin footballers and there are many anecdotes to prove it. His record as a manager proves his worth in that area and even more so in the case of Mick O'Dwyer.
Some present-day managers do not seem to want anything other than total control and that will simply not work with GAA players all the time.
For a start, modern players are much more independent and ready to stand up against managers who they feel are demanding too much for too long. From the reports seeping through from Donegal, it appears that McGuinness' fellow management colleagues are the ones revolting – which is very serious for him because some like Rory Gallagher were said to have played key roles in the manager's modus operandi.
Many Donegal people I know are very unhappy with the way their county championship is being hijacked – next year no games will be played until Donegal are out of the All-Ireland race.
Clearly, political diplomacy is running short in Donegal GAA circles and this largely explains these current cracks in the system.
Maybe if less draconian rules and regulations than recently were to be applied to affairs of the county team, and the clubs were happier with their lot, eventually a more productive period would follow.