THE journey began 23 years ago, but took perhaps its most significant turn on a frosty February morning in 2010. Jim McGuinness had just taken over the Donegal under 21s and before their first training session he called the squad into a huddle and told them they would be celebrating an Ulster title within a few weeks.
One player burst out laughing in front of him. It wasn't out of ignorance or insolence; the youngster giggled aloud almost before even realising. But McGuinness pounced on him. "Do you see that?" he asked the others. "This is where we were at. This is what Donegal football has become. No belief." Eight weeks later, they were crowned provincial champions.
They lost the All-Ireland to Dublin in the most dramatic of finales but a few days before the final two-thirds of the team caught a viral infection which sapped their energy. And yet, with only seconds remaining in a compelling encounter, they were bang in contention. Indeed, had Michael Murphy's last-minute penalty hit the back of the net instead of the crossbar they, not Dublin, could have raised the cup. It was an agonising defeat but for McGuinness it was only part of the journey.
"I never look back," he says. "I have a very simple philosophy. You work extremely hard; do everything to prepare the team. Try to educate them in relation to what you want to achieve and trust them to go do it. On the week of that final we got a virus but they still played to a very high level. They didn't play as if they were sick. I'm very pragmatic in that sense -- if you are not good enough you are not good enough. And we weren't good enough to beat Dublin; we hadn't enough to our game to get over the line."
Later that summer, he headed to Crossmaglen to watch the Donegal senior team lose to Armagh in the qualifiers. Near the end the players looked almost disinterested and few outside the camp seemed all that pushed that either.
McGuinness cared deeply, though. Within a couple of weeks he applied to replace John Joe Doherty as senior manager. It was his third time looking for the job. On a previous occasion he had attended an interview armed with a PowerPoint display but there was no plug socket in the room for the projector. His presentation remained a well-kept secret. And with it his abilities.
When Doherty tendered his resignation after the Armagh fiasco, McGuinness's name was the only one in the hat. But still the Glenties man feared he could lose out.
"I was the only candidate and I struggled to get it," he smiles wryly as he sits down to chat.
What was the problem? Was he not taken seriously?
"I don't know. I don't know," he sighs, sipping his tea. "Maybe my face didn't fit."
* * * * *
DAY was gently ambling into night when Columba McDyer strode purposefully across the dewy Carrickbrack pitch and summoned McGuinness, like a headmaster about to scorn a pupil. Big Jim was only 18 at the time and in the middle of giving an underage coaching session. But when someone of McDyer's stature wanted a word everything else could wait.
A Glenties man whose work as a schoolteacher had taken him around the country, McDyer was an All-Ireland winner with Cavan in the Polo Grounds in 1947 before coming back to live on home soil and later manage the Donegal team. It wasn't long after he returned to the warm bosom of the glens, north-west of the Blue Stack Mountains, that he saw the cut in McGuinness.
"Me and Columbia would have been fairly close," McGuinness states. "He was an absolute gentleman to the fingertips, very well-educated. He went on his travels when he was young, played with Cavan and then Sligo before returning to Donegal, playing first and then managing the team. He came down to the field one night with his wife Peggy. I was out with the young fellas when he called me aside. He handed over a whistle, a blue and white whistle (the club colours) and said: 'I think you are going to be a coach. I want you to have this whistle'.
"Jesus, that's at least 21 years ago but I have never lost that whistle. Oil has been spilled on it. The pea is probably gone in it, and the boys slag me about it. But there would be panic in the dressing room if I mislaid it. It actually happened one day. All the boys could hear was, 'where's the whistle? Where's the whistle?' Now they know the full significance of it."
Maybe it's a lucky charm. It's certainly of sentimental value. McDyer has since passed away but he's never far from McGuinness's mind. "Columba was a legend around the area and the club. Sure he was the only person in Donegal to have an All-Ireland medal prior to 1992. To have that in your own club was very
unique and he was a very gentle, bubbly person. I know he would be enjoying all this."
McDyer was also on the money in his early assessment of the 18-year-old he called aside. Although McGuinness was a fine player, hindsight paints a picture of a managerial career that was always destined to be leading Donegal out in an All-Ireland final. Not that it was always obvious to the general public. Many in the GAA world had him down as a good-time Charlie who gave the bones of a decade enjoying the quirks of third-level education. With his scraggy hair, dark curls he let run wild and beard, the conclusion was drawn that he skipped happily from course to course, enjoying rock 'n' roll status along the way.
But sometimes what you see and hear depends on where you are standing.
Adrian McGuckian, McGuinness' former coach at University of Ulster, Jordanstown, admitted once that he didn't know what to expect when this long-haired guy walked into his dressing room. By the time McGuinness finished in the college, however, McGuckian knew he was the most disciplined guy he ever came across, a fella who asked more questions than anybody he ever came across.
"Perception is reality," McGuinness observes. "There are good people, jealous people, happy people and there are sad people. There is not one of our players who would go into a nightclub and people come up to them and think they're the bees' knees -- and another group who think they think they're the bees' knees. That's just par for the course. Likewise, the way you look can have a huge impact on what people think of you. It makes it okay for people to act in certain way. Looking back, if you decide to grow your hair long and have a beard as well, you have to put up with the consequences."
The truth is a lot less beer and nightclubs and just as much text books and gymnasiums. If he enjoyed himself McGuinness also went through college winning three Sigerson titles, learning from his club, county, college and provincial managers and stacking up primary and master's degrees that would one day support his quest to manage at the highest level.
"I definitely took the studies with this job in mind," he accepts. "I went on to do a master's degree in psychology because it was an area in which I felt I wasn't strong in and it was something I wanted to know more about. When you're playing you get a handle on training and get a handle on drills because you see other managers -- and good coaches -- doing them and you might feel you wouldn't be too bad in that area. Do your studies and that backs it up."
You put it to him that during every interview he makes mention of trying to develop 'the man' as well as 'the footballer'. Maybe his education handed him that perspective too.
"Well, I played on teams and seen teams in which maybe 'team' wasn't the key thing," he replies. "I've seen this in my own club; we had three or four very good county players in periods but we weren't able to win a county championship. We had John Gildea playing with us and when he was at the peak of his power he could win a game on his own; Paddy Campbell and players like that. But we weren't able to win a championship because we didn't have enough players around the edges to get us over the line. The Glenties model now is that the collective always beats the opposition. They're all at a very good level but we don't have a wild number of superstars. At times in the past Donegal were like the old model -- we had a couple of superstars in our ranks but the whole collective never seem to give us traction. I felt it was important to address that. Now, Patrick McBrearty is the youngest on our team but he has the exact same voting rights as the player who is going out the door retiring. Everybody has the same voice."
* * * * *
HE held his first meeting with the senior squad at Downings Bay Hotel on November 6, 2010. Individually, he spoke to a few players beforehand but this was the first collective gathering.
He was taken aback at what he heard that night. Nearly every experienced footballer in the room said the same thing: 'I know I'm not playing well and I know the team isn't going well'. That was his starting point. That bunch of players, under 21s aside, were losing heavily in big games and they were demoralised.
McGuinness decided that confidence was needed through results, not necessarily as a result of the way they played.
"People said I was off my rocker going for that job but the fact that I kept coming back looking for it was because I wanted to get my hands on them," he explains. "It showed the players that I believed in them. My mindset was very simple. I had gone for the job three times so there was a very clear reason why I wanted it. I believed deep inside I could do something. More importantly, the players were there to work with. Obviously, it was a low base to start from but that's not a bad thing either."
Forming an unyielding defensive ring that few teams could penetrate, they marched through the league, losing just once, and then came out of Ulster unbowed. That protective shield was raised higher as the season developed and the stakes went higher. It's safe to say their style didn't capture the public imagination.
Against Dublin in last year's All-Ireland semi-final, they put 14 men behind the ball but still came within an inch of making the final. Their defeat was unsympathetically heralded as a 'victory for Gaelic football'. McGuinness could have taken the hump with the relentless negative commentary of their ways and could have put 15 men behind the ball when he returned to the fold in 2012. Instead, however, his players have spread their wings. At the moment there are few better sights in football than watching them converge as a unit on the opposition -- in attack or defence.
"You have to be pragmatic," McGuinness remarks. "After 2011 you had to say this is where we're at, but this is where we want to get to. We wanted to move the thing forward; you don't have to be perfect, you just have to be moving forward. A lot of last year's criticism was unrealistic. It would have been absolutely ridiculous on one level if we had been able to win an All-Ireland last year. It would not have made sense on a coaching level."
He explains that it takes up to six weeks to get tactics right on the field.
"On top of that you have 40 players. You get a handle on who is your first 15; who is in your first 20 and then coach everyone. There is a hell of a lot going on with a manager in his first year," he insists.
"To do all that and get them playing unbelievably, flowing, attractive, positive football is a tall order."
Yet, he managed it within a year and a half. Maybe such progress was always in the plan. Either way, Columba McDyer would approve. And that's important.