McGuinness’ journey of a lifetime now reaching final destination
Sometimes when you sit and listen to Jim McGuinness talk, you can transplant yourself back to the press nights in the Clare and Wexford hotel rooms that prefaced the 1995 and '96 All-Ireland hurling finals.
Ger Loughnane and Liam Griffin were the orators then and how they could hold an audience in a captive spell during a boom time for hurling.
There was an almost evangelic feel about them. Not only were they team managers and coaches, but they were leaders of an entire movement in a county who knew how to tap into their people's energy and past experiences.
They radiated positivity just as McGuinness does now, that same sense of sporting evangelism permeating through his words. How often does Jim reference the 'journey' that Donegal are on in the knowledge that every journey has an eventual destination.
He, too, is on his own journey.
"This is my passion. All I wanted to do all my life was play for Donegal and then when that moment was over the next thing was to go on and manage them," he freely admits.
Did he go as far as to spend a large part of his 20s going through third-level education, arming himself with credentials that he knew one day would be of his benefit as a Donegal football manager?
Adrian McGuckian, who coached the University of Ulster team that had McGuinness at midfield to a Sigerson Cup in 2001, is convinced it was always in the back of his mind. A diploma in sports studies from Tralee IT, a degree from Jordanstown in a related course and a masters in sports psychology from John Moores University in Liverpool have all equipped him for what he does now.
"I spend all the time disputing the theory that Jim McGuinness enjoyed life to the full, and wanted to remain at college because he wanted to have a good time," says McGuckian.
"Nothing could be further from the truth. Jim knew how to enjoy himself, but he wanted to build a career."
McGuinness would not dispute either that his choice of courses somehow had management of Donegal in the future in mind. "Football is my life. I wouldn't change a minute of it and I have a great support system at home that allows me to do that," he says. "I hate saying I spend more than 40 hours a week at it because it sounds like a job-type thing. It's not. It's a passion. I went for the job three times for good reason. I believed I could do something with the players and I believed the players were there. That's what's driving me."
For McGuckian, McGuinness' passion to coach and manage was evident from the moment he stepped through the doors of Jordanstown. "I had him taking the warm-up before training and games. He would thrive on that responsibility. I knew he wanted to be a manager. He just had a great way of putting things to people.
"When he came back from John Moores University in Liverpool he asked me could he get involved with the college team. He wanted to spend a year just getting experience on the sideline. It didn't work out because he was still living in Glenties and it was 140 miles away but he was just so keen.
"As a player he would constantly challenge you. I liked that. When we played the Sigerson Cup semi-final against UCC in 2001, I gave a dressing down to our midfield that day as I felt their midfield was running through us. Players wouldn't normally respond, but Jim did. He put it back to me that it was the forwards who weren't chasing back and putting in the tackles. He was able to pinpoint exactly how it was happening."
When the Donegal job became vacant two years ago, McGuinness thought long and hard about not putting his name in for it after missing out on two previous attempts. In the end, he was the only candidate. "It was more a case of 'I'm never going to get it.' It wasn't easy. Sometimes I think the likes of Rory Kavanagh and them boys were 24 or 25 at the time I went for it first and now they are 29. So I missed a few years with them. But then I wouldn't have had the experience of the U-21s, which was a great experience."
For McGuckian, McGuinness' single biggest achievement is convincing the players and the county to "rip up the manual and write it all over again".
"It took courage to do what he has done and stick with it despite all the criticism. For a county that tended to play its football off the cuff, it's incredible how they have achieved it."
For McGuinness, making that leap came down to the character of the players at his disposal. Two years ago the current corner-back Paddy McGrath sustained a broken jaw in the build-up to the All-Ireland U-21 final against Dublin, but played through the pain barrier. McGuinness often relates McGrath's participation in that final to back up his faith in those players.
"I read a book once about Scott going across to the South Pole and he said, 'hire character and teach them the skills,' because obviously if you hire the wrong characters there and they mess up, everybody is dead.
"We have a very good group of players, they are very good lads. Everywhere we go, the hotel people where we stay and so on, they all say the same thing -- very good lads, very mannerly lads. And that wouldn't have been the perception of Donegal three or four years ago."
On the cusp of an All-Ireland final, he still says his greatest coaching experience was something that only he could see and appreciate on a much smaller scale. The sight of a player who had never kicked a ball before his time at Limavady College, where he was lecturing in sports psychology, setting up a score in a college final that McGuinness had steered them to, was "the best buzz I ever got".
"When I went up there and I had to try and get a team together. We won the league in the first year, won a championship in the second year and there was a young lad that never played the game before who came on in the final in the second year for about five minutes and dropped his first ball.
"Then a couple of minutes after that he won the ball again, slipped it to someone else who kicked it over the bar. That was the best buzz I ever got out of football coaching, because this young fella never set foot on a pitch before and all of a sudden, on a very small level, he was part of a winning team and his face, and his team-mates' faces looking at him, was unbelievable after the game."
Many great managerial careers can happen almost by accident. Donegal's great football evangelist has planned this for a lifetime.