Hills are alive with new hope
Jim McGuinness believes he can guide Donegal football back to the top, writes Damian Lawlor
LAST February, Jim McGuinness gathered his Donegal under 21s into a huddle and told them they would win the Ulster title. One player started to laugh -- the giggles bursting out before he even realised it.
McGuinness turned to the other players. "Do you see that?" he said. "This is what Donegal football has become. No belief."
Fast forward a few months and Donegal lost out to Dublin in a dramatic All-Ireland final when a cruel twist made all the difference. With only seconds remaining of a compelling encounter, Michael Murphy crashed a last-minute penalty against the crossbar.
But the true wonder was that it had even got to that kick. That night, seven of Donegal's starting 15 were on antibiotics after a viral bug had invaded the camp a week earlier. McGuinness admits Dublin were deserving winners, but deep down he'll always wonder.
"Fair play to Dublin, they beat us fair and square," he says, "but a lot of pain in losing the final was taken out of it because so many our players were sick. It was just an awful situation. On the Tuesday before the final, I drove to Dublin to train our city-based 21s and started feeling unwell; I contacted a friend of mine in the city and went to bed. Then I got a phone call that another player was sick. It was like that all week. By the time we played the final, seven out of our 15 were on treatment. Another six of our squad had it too. We had to take two lads off at half-time because they were destroyed.
"Someone brought a viral infection into the camp and our dressing room at half-time was horrible. The players couldn't hear me with all the coughing and spluttering. I was managing a situation as opposed to a football team."
Wing-forward Mark McHugh ended up in Sligo General Hospital for three days and Kevin Mulhern was also hospitalised with a viral infection in his throat. Selector Pat Shovlin received similar medical attention.
Some of those under 21s were later part of the senior team's disappointing championship campaign. After the disspiriting defeat to Armagh in the qualifiers, manager John Joe Doherty stepped aside. Two years previously, Doherty had pipped McGuinness to the gig and the latter was disappointed at his treatment by the county board. This time around, his was the only name in the hat.
"It's a different county board now to what was there two years ago and that's why I allowed my name to go forward," he says. "There was controversy at how applicants were treated for the senior job two years ago, I had a lot of major issues with the board then, but that's in the past now.
"When I put my name in this time around, people asked if I was off my head or had lost the plot. They said we just didn't have the players. But I wanted this job for a while. Even when I was playing, I was always thinking of managing.
"The truth is we've become the laughing stock of Gaelic football. All around the country, people are making a joke of us. But I take great pride in the county and always tried to play like I felt that way. I'm asking my group of players to commit to nothing else but this county for the next few years. Nothing less than 100 per cent will do me. Let everyone else talk, and there's plenty of flak coming from home and around Ireland, but let us get on with the football side and see where it takes us."
A 19-year-old substitute when Donegal claimed their only All-Ireland in 1992, McGuinness has become a fine young manager and has already guided the county to only its fourth under 21 All-Ireland final. He was the obvious choice to replace Doherty.
McGuinness will wipe the slate clean to a certain extent, drawing on the minor team of three years ago and this year's under 21s. But what does he intend to do about the ongoing perception that the Donegal senior players are not committed to the cause?
"I'd like to put my head down and say nothing on that front. I have to get on with some hard work and that starts now, so others can make up their minds about that. I just find it very hard as a Donegal person to see what's being written and said and how critical people are of us.
"But my door is wide open; players not in this year's squad have a chance and every single player in the county will be looked at over the next two months. I have a concept for the development of younger players and they are the future core of my squad, but I'll not kill anyone's inter-county career. A few lads there still have a lot to offer."
Those close to the scene say that this year's under 21 crop would walk through walls for him and he'll hope to inject the same enthusiasm into the senior set-up.
An inspirational character, the 37-year-old made the decision to go back and sit the Leaving Cert in his 20s and in the following years won Sigerson Cup honours on his way to getting a degree in sports psychology.
His football career peaked in 1992 with that winner's medal and try as he did, that was about as good as it got. He never gave up the ghost but there was constant heartbreak and hard-luck stories, like in 1998, when Donegal were just two minutes from an Ulster title before Joe Brolly snuck in for a late goal.
But it's off the field where McGuinness has known real tragedy. A few weeks after that '98 Ulster final defeat, he was en route to Dublin with his brother, Mark, when their car spun out of control. Mark died instantly at the age of 27. This was the second brother Jim lost: Charles had died from a heart condition back in 1986.
Perhaps his two late brothers are driving this insatiable desire to learn and succeed. In 2005, he was player-manager for his club, Naomh Conaill, and brought them a wholly unexpected first ever county senior title. The upward trend has continued.
"From when I was 18, I was managing teams and three or four times I was player/manager of our seniors; we won the league in 2003 and then of course there was '05.
"I've always been dabbling in that aspect when playing. I'm working in Limavady College lecturing in sports psychology and it ties in nicely. Since I applied for the sports psychology degree, I've been working with teams every week. I tend not to go past Galway, Dublin, Leitrim, Sligo or Roscommon but it keeps you in the right environment, makes you a better player and gives you a good handle on the coaching side of things too."
His trusted backroom team of Peter McGinley, Maxi Curran, Pat Shovlin and Michael McMenamon all received unanimous backing from the county board and it's clear that they have a brief for the next four years.
"We have a good core for the senior squad for the next eight years. But I'll be asking our players to put everything else in their lives on hold. That's the way it will be."
They'll respond too. It will be impossible not to.