independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

The master motivator

By any estimation it represents the finest coaching and management performance in the recent history of Gaelic games.

What Jim McGuinness has done with Donegal over the last two years must be set against the context of the road travelled.

Taking them from where they were (19th in one printed order of merit in December 2010, as he recalled the day after their All- Ireland triumph) to where they are now surpasses anything achieved by any of his managerial peers.

Donegal had one All-Ireland title before 2012, but they are not considered a county cloaked in tradition.

In that sense he was a mould-breaker, convincing a group of players who had a history of underachievement to go against the grain when it came to conducting their business.

Donegal's reputation for indiscipline in the past was something he was conscious of, so McGuinness sought to change that mentality at the outset.

On the field they were prepared to risk the wrath of purists by setting themselves up extremely defensively in their first season, as they looked to become as hard to beat as possible.

It was daring and most unconventional to consider putting 13 players behind the ball in a defensive screen, an evolution of what Tyrone brought in during the early years under Mickey Harte. But it was smart and most effective.

evolved

What was even more impressive was the manner in which they evolved that game plan in season two.

All the time McGuinness was able to work on strengthening the mental conviction of his players.

It is said that most of what he mapped out for those players transpired. In his communication with his players and the media McGuinness has been almost evangelical in his delivery during his two years in charge of Donegal. Negativity is clearly not a feeling that invades him too often.

It is, after all, his job, what he educated himself for through almost a decade of studies that earned him a masters in sports psychology from John Moores University in Liverpool, a degree in sport, exercise and leisure from the University of Ulster, Jordanstown, and a higher certificate in health and leisure studies from Tralee IT.

And it stands to reason that when a golden opportunity arises, he should embrace it warmly.

Celtic have been tracking McGuinness for some months now, clearly impressed by what he has achieved with Donegal and how he has gone about it.

But just as his tactical vision for Donegal was mould-breaking, so too are his motivational skills, which the Hoops obviously believe he can transfer to the beautiful game.

Gaelic football has lost plenty of star products to cross-channel soccer in the past, from Kevin Moran and Niall Quinn to Seamus Coleman and Shane Long.

But such a high-profile management figure being linked with a position in such an esteemed club represents a new departure.

A post in Celtic's academy is being lined up, where he would work on the performance development of the club's young recruits.

The skills that created a vision and inspired such a movement over the last couple of years are generic to sport and should be readily transferable to a different field. McGuinness has already worked, through his consultancy firm, with some soccer teams in the north and north-west, and has also lended his expertise to a host of other athletes.

Celtic and Irish goalkeeping legend Packie Bonner was in no doubt yesterday that McGuinness would relish the chance to prove his worth at the Celtic academy.

"What an opportunity for him in many ways to see can he transfer what he has and introduce the fitness and the psychology bit into a professional soccer club," Bonner said.

"It would be a great experience to see does it actually work and my advice would be for him to go for it."

McGuinness' imminent move to a developmental role brings him right to the heart of what inspires him most.

In the middle of a 45-minute interview at the pre-All-Ireland final press night last September, he told a story about what he considered his best experience in coaching.

It focused on a young man in Limavady College where he was lecturing who had never played Gaelic football before.

"There was no Gaelic football team when I went up there and I had to try and get a team together and we won the league in the first year, won a championship in the second year," he recalled.

"That young lad never played the game before, but he came on in the final in the second year for about five minutes and he won the ball, then dropped the ball.

"A couple of minutes after that he won the ball again and 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 absolutely unbelievable after the game."

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