Evolution plan shows positive signs of life for McGuinness
Donegal have often failed to match their billing but manager Jim McGuinness may be about to change that, writes Damian Lawlor
L ast June, following an embarrassing qualifier defeat to Armagh, Donegal captain Kevin Cassidy announced his retirement and called for the county to undertake a "total rebuild" in the wake of their submissive championship departure.
"We've suffered a few heavy defeats recently," he said. "You get sick and tired of that. I think there has to be a total rebuild, a complete review that looks at the whole situation. We have to build from the bottom again. It's the only way."
Months later, Jim McGuinness took over at the helm and a spring-clean looked imminent. McGuinness had just guided the county under 21s to an All-Ireland final, and of his extended squad of 34 the majority were under 20.
But from the team that was utterly outclassed by Armagh in Crossmaglen last summer, ten were on duty against Antrim seven days ago, including Cassidy, and the equally experienced Michael Hegarty, who didn't kick a ball in 2010.
"Kevin just couldn't say no to Jim, nor Michael, and now we have a brilliant mixture of youth and experience," explains one player. "He has held onto the experienced fellows, brought back lads who weren't involved at all and blooded loads of younger guys."
Upon taking the job, McGuinness declared that he would retire nobody and he has been as good as his word. Kevin Rafferty, the 6' 5" St Eunan's midfielder, flitted in and out of squads for years, but has blossomed under McGuinness and insiders reckon the 29-year-old's presence in the engine room will make a big difference this season.
The backroom team has been supplemented by former Fermanagh star and St Gall's All-Ireland winner Rory Gallagher, who now lives in Killybegs. Gallagher's introduction as coach has eased the pressure on McGuinness -- he can take short, sharp training sessions while the manager attends to other areas.
Donegal's style has changed under coach and manager; lateral, hand-passing has been replaced by direct ball to big men like Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden in the full-forward line. Murphy's class has always told, but this year McFadden is benefiting from the deliveries. He holds close family ties with McGuinness and has put the foot to the floor in every game. McFadden's ability was never in question but as recently as last year he was substituted against Armagh. Before that he only managed a point against Down in 90 minutes of their Ulster championship quarter-final.
McGuinness also has Damien Diver's presence as selector and has introduced an impressive medical set-up. With that kind of player support, it's little wonder their players have responded so well.
"I would go as far as saying it's the best set-up we've ever had," says the Donegal player. "We don't want to get too excited because things were brilliant under Brian McIvor when we won the National League in 2007 and then it all went wrong. So there's no point in looking too far ahead. But apart from Jim being a nice fellow, the fact is that he just encourages lads to do the right things all the time and that's rubbing off. He's always in touch with you, making sure all is okay. We have guys getting up at 7.0am to hit the gym on their own and doing their own training outside of the camp. I can't ever remember an attitude like that here before."
Three of the team are based in Galway and another two in Dublin but no pressure is placed on them to be constantly car-bound. Instead, they return just once a week to train with their team-mates rather than the drag of having to hit the road every second evening. Training turnouts have been almost 100 per cent and there have been no discipline problems either, a welcome respite from previous years.
So the evolution under McGuinness continues apace even if a few creases still need to be ironed out. Deep down their belief will need a summer bolstering after enduring rough terrain in recent seasons. Even if the younger players lack inhibitions, bigger tests lie ahead.
Traditionally, they have failed to live up to their billing. The manager knows that certain players still haven't realised their full potential and a side like Donegal needs at least 12 of the 15 to do that on a championship day. McGuinness has placed a heavy emphasis on building an effective defensive formula to help their chances but they must be equally wary that if Murphy or McFadden are held, scores will be hard to come by.
Overall, though, they look to have reached a consistent level of performance and such steadiness is welcome with the championship looming. Should they beat Antrim on May 15, they face Cavan with a provincial semi-final spot against either Tyrone or Monaghan very achievable.
Throw in a likely promotion today and it's not a bad outlook for a team whose prospects hung in the clouds at the start of the league campaign. Getting back to the top flight and challenging for Ulster would be a dream start to the manager's reign.
Back in 2002, a full decade after he was a young substitute on the team that won provincial and All-Ireland championships, McGuinness declared that he would "carry a limp for the rest of my life to win an Ulster medal". He never did get the chance to add a second title to the cabinet. As manager, that might be rectified.
Sunday Indo Sport