Attention to detail has been the hallmark of Jim McGuinness' Donegal masterplan, writes Damian Lawlor
LAST January, golfer Paul McGinley gave a wide-ranging interview on his life and times. Both of the Ryder Cup hero's parents hail from Donegal and the conversation soon drifted to an evening McGinley had spent in the company of Jim McGuinness.
Donegal were facing into their second season with McGuinness at the helm and recounting their meeting McGinley sensed something special was in the air.
"I just think there are good days ahead for Donegal," he said in that January 6 interview. "I spent a few hours with Jim and it was enlightening. He's groundbreaking, he's innovative. Having listened to a lot of sportspeople over the years, Jim was particularly impressive. One of the standout guys that I have met. I came away thinking I would absolutely love to play for this guy. The passion he has for Donegal, the absolute clarity of where he was going with the team. His outlook is inspirational."
Back then, even in the early days of McGuinness's tenure, there were genuine doubts about the side. People forget that after the arrival of the new manager Donegal lost their first three McKenna Cup games and their opening two league fixtures. And he had taken over a team which had lost horribly in the qualifiers to Armagh in 2010.
"The worst possible start," former manager Brian McEniff acknowledges.
"But we had injuries; Michael Murphy in particular. Then he came back for the game against Cork and had the ball in the net before you could say 'Jack Robinson'. It sparked from there. We got better as we went along -- I think we only lost to Kerry and Dublin after that in 2011. The squad bought into Jim's system."
Here they are now -- All-Ireland champions within 20 months of his appointment.
They've played 13 championship games and won 12 of them. They have two Ulster titles as well. Not only did they gun down three of the last four champions this season, but they beat five Division 1 teams along the way.
Five-year plans are usually reserved for indecisive Governments, but McGuinness saw nothing wrong in drawing up one of his own. With another three years to run on his ticket he has already reached the final destination.
If he keeps impressing, other codes will surely come looking for him. Soccer is an obvious port of call in the years ahead -- he has already coached at Limavady, Finn Harps and Derry City. And if accomplished sportspeople like McGinley and Neil Lennon are singing his praises, imagine the knock-on effect we'll see in the coming months.
Lest we forget, the players were ultimately the ones who made it all happen. They met the targets McGuinness set down.
For Ryan Bradley that meant pounding the roads around Buncrana for the entire winter of 2010 before he could be deemed fit enough for team selection. McGuinness likes the 12km mark as a stamina gauge for his players and Bradley had to reach that level within a certain time before he even got to play a McKenna Cup game.
"When Jim gave me the opportunity, I got back into hard training," Bradley recalls. "It was tough over those winter months, out on the roads, in the gym, but I got myself into shape again. I was running three or four times a week. When I lost a bit of weight and got myself into better condition then I started playing McKenna Cup and league games again." By the time he was in the starting fold, Bradley simply had too great an appreciation for his position to ever relinquish it easily again.
Rory Kavanagh faced a different quandary.
Weighing in at 12 stone, he was told to add 24 pounds of muscle. To get there, Kavanagh rose at 6.0am for gym sessions with triathlete and full-time coach Adam Speer. He also followed a diet which required him to eat six to eight times a day.
Every other player on the team hit the gym at least three times a week, all of them following individual programmes.
The manager frequently organised weekend sessions when the players would train twice on Saturdays and Sundays. Those mini camps were not just about stamina and fitness -- they practised their movement and perfected their defending and attacking systems. They practised and they practised which is why, on match days, they have withstood every test.
"All those boys know what they are doing and they have their own way of communicating on the field; it's not unlike the NFL," McEniff adds. "You can be unlucky to lose a player through injury but the boy coming in will know his exact role to a T. There is serious solace in that."
There is no confusion either because McGuinness likes to illustrate his points and tactics before asking his players to enforce them. He often starts a session with diagrams that inform his players
exactly where he wants them to be. Then they take to the pitch to simulate those plays.
Much has been made of the manager's first group meeting with the squad at Rosapenna Golf Club on November 6, 2010, where he held up an Irish News article rating Donegal as the 19th best team in the land. He broke the squad into groups of six and seven, spent 20 minutes working out why they were graded so low, and came back bursting with home truths. The players reported that they were cutting corners in the gym, afraid of the hard graft and conceded that they weren't putting in the hard yards. They broke for lunch and the next session was a simple one -- how would they get to number one?
While the players pondered the road ahead, McGuinness sought the counsel of an old ally and called to McEniff's house one evening to outline a presentation of his short- to medium-term goals.
Year one illustrations showed the team shutting up shop and placing an emphasis on mass defence. The boss was as good as his word -- in their six championship outings they conceded only 1-54, an average of 0-9 per game.
The second year graphs depicted an evolution and progression. The sketches McEniff saw showed Donegal embracing a more expansive system where players' fitness levels would rise dramatically from season one. Again it came to pass -- their 2012 championship statistics show how they averaged a score of 0-17 per game, while at the same time ultimately stifling a Mayo team that was scoring 0-22 per match. McEniff won't get into what the rest of the projections look like but admits he was blown away when McGuinness pointed the way forward.
"I had never seen anything like it in Gaelic games," he says. "I also have experience coaching Irish teams in Australia and dealing with situations where there are full-time professionals. But this was unreal.
"Don't get me wrong, in those early stages of his reign I wasn't that happy about the football we were playing. Donegal have always played an extroverted style of football, an expansive game, but Jim realised that to win anything we needed to create a very solid defence.
"When we didn't score enough against Dublin last year, the knives came out but Jim said all along -- though very few believed him -- that they were only a work in progress. There was more to come. By the start of the league, he had our team like an Aussie Rules outfit in that they could run forever, defend like demons and then attack en masse.
"People probably believe him now."
They are still not at the peak of their powers. They actually played poorly at times last Sunday. McGuinness reckons there could be another 10 per cent improvement to come.
"We've added a right bit this year, maybe 40 or 45 per cent to our game plan," he notes. "So we're probably up at 90 per cent and if you can get that other five or seven, eight per cent it would be a lot. The other side of the coin is you could regress, you could go back to 80 or 75 per cent so it's all work in progress and nothing is neutral."
The unbending desire of 2012 might wilt slightly next season, but the likelihood of their tactical systems dipping is low. Against Mayo, they got their match-ups spot on.
While Mayo were bracing themselves for Michael Murphy to roam out the field, Donegal were instead pumping long, diagonal balls into him on the edge of the square for the past three weeks. His marker Kevin Keane had a nightmare opening quarter before regaining his composure. By then, however, the damage was done.
It's widely anticipated now that the Donegal players will ease off until next spring but tremendous demands have been made on their time and lives and they won't want to stunt their progress for long. McGuinness created a cocoon around them but now they'll face a potentially lethal cocktail of celebration and celebrity.
You sense, though, that they'll handle the attention well. They are a solid bunch.
Before accepting Sam Maguire from Liam O'Neill, Michael Murphy expressed his sympathies on the death of the GAA president's sister the day before. An hour after the game they were getting ice baths and rubs back in the dressing room. There was unbridled joy but not in an abrasive way.
On Thursday night, Mark McHugh appeared on RTE's Championship Matters alongside Mayo's injured captain Andy Moran. McHugh, only 22, was acutely aware of the disappointment that Moran must be feeling. There wasn't an ounce of triumphalism.
"We've Jim McGuinness in charge so don't worry we'll be back on track fairly shortly, don't worry about that," Neil McGee says. "Good teams win one All-Ireland. Great teams win two or three. That's the next challenge for us now -- to push on and maybe win another one or two in the next few years."
Still, only three teams have put back-to-back titles together in the past quarter-century, although McEniff has no doubt Donegal will be right up there in 2013.
"Our club championship is running late and only starts today," McEniff says. "That will keep boys busy, while a very competitive and important league is still waiting to be played out. So clubs will be looking to their county players for inspiration. I certainly don't see a man like Frank McGlynn having any difficulty coming back down to earth."
The players have a special bond and want to keep that.
On the way home from Dublin there was a seriously poignant moment when the bus stopped at the spot where McGuinness's brother, Mark, lost his life in a road accident in 1998. Big Jim had been travelling to Dublin with Mark when the accident occurred. He laid the Sam Maguire Cup at Mark's memorial near Lisnaskea.
Maybe it was destiny that he would one day become manager of Donegal and bring the cup to his brother. Certainly, for the past three weeks, McGuinness visualised the journey home almost every morning.
Each time he closed his eyes Sam was with them.
"I said to the boys over the past few weeks that I could see the cup in the front of the bus," he admitted.
Michael Murphy must have been listening. Two weeks before the final, he sat down to write the winning captain's speech. It wasn't arrogance. It was just part of the plan.