Friday 22 September 2017

Vincent Hogan: Gospel according to Jim can't change his legacy of success and contradiction

Jim McGuinness
Jim McGuinness
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On Wednesday, Jim McGuinness did not detain the audience for long in his victory speech.

Perhaps he felt out of place in a room of literary heavyweights like Banville and Tóibín and the star of the night, JP Donleavy.

Sport can sometimes take on the air of a passing curiosity at the Irish Book Awards, the feel almost of a photographic confection. How quaint to have the McGuinnesses, Henry Shefflins and Packie Bonners rubbing shoulders with pale giants of another world?

So McGuinness was resolutely brief, thanking some relevant people and reflecting upon how fulfilling he found the process of putting together 'Until Victory Always' with ghostwriter, Keith Duggan. The book was, undeniably, a deserved winner.

Maybe when TV cameras are about, there's a gruesome entertainment to monitoring the disappointed at that precise moment a voice recites "And the winner is . . ."

How to react?

Look exaggeratedly bored like Bill Murray in '04 when beaten to the Oscar by Sean Penn? Or summon a Burt Reynolds "to hell with this" glare as when Robin Williams took the statuette in '97?

The competitive wiring in every human being bequeaths that moment a particular frisson. And, in sports people, it cannot but be quietly intensified.

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There is harmony in Kilkenny hurling

So Shefflin and Bonner and Tomás ó Sé and Peter Stringer and journalist Sean McGoldrick will all, undoubtedly, have experienced a small, sharp intake of breath before confirmation of the official verdict. Yet, their instinctive applause will have been heart-felt too. Because McGuinness's story is remarkable.

There is an intimacy to 'Until Victory Always' that allows you hitch a ride into some profoundly personal spaces. And the music of Duggan's words casts a spell here.

Whether it be behind the closed front door of a home in Glenties or up that Clones hill to the stony bullring of Ulster final day, you can hear, feel, smell the experience.

It probably needed a fellow Donegal man to achieve this because Duggan, palpably, gets McGuinness's understanding of place, his sense of belonging. Probably shares it.

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The result is stark and often jolting. McGuinness's innate goodness is entwined in every syllable connected to family. He speaks quite beautifully of his lost brothers, Charles and Mark. His desire to honour both, to protect and comfort his parents in light of such wretched loss, to simply make them proud comes across as a compelling energy in his life.

The power of a simple, outwardly banal gesture from a child, like the presentation of a plastic ball at the hall door "for good luck Daddy" then brilliantly captures how the truly precious moments of a tumultuous life don't, necessarily, have to be mined from the cauldron itself. Because nothing trumps love. No silverware outshines family.

When McGuinness speaks publicly, it is easy to see why people are drawn to him. He comes across as charismatic, gentlemanly, quiet-spoken, controlling. The latter is, I know, a description he rails against, but his protests are unconvincing.

Like it or not, great management is - largely - about control. Coercion might vary in style, but leadership always begins and ends with some kind of ownership of the mind.

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Clare 1995

In this, McGuinness achieved something similar to what Ger Loughnane did with Clare hurlers in the '90s. He changed how they thought about themselves, how they saw one another as people. He ran a freight train through old stereotype.

Loughnane and McGuinness needed, not simply to hold a dressing-room's attention, but to make it blister and bubble to their bidding.

That both men today find themselves hopelessly polarised from old comrades who were part of their journeys doesn't - we are led to believe - unduly discomfort either. It is as if they regard sundered friendships as collateral damage. Unavoidable. Just bumps in the road.

In this, Loughnane's indifference is - perhaps - more convincing than McGuinness's.

Ger has always seemed genuinely puzzled by conventional sensitivities. He can be laceratingly cutting of someone in a public domain, then meet them privately with the guffawing laugh of a man who sees mischief as the only true calling in life. McGuinness cannot summon that frivolity.

Anybody who observed Eoin McDevitt's superb 'Second Captains' interview with him recently could not but have noted his discomfort with the questioning.

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Kevin Cassidy, Donegal. Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

McDevitt legitimately focused on the glaring contradiction inherent in Jim's reaction to a book written in 2011 - specifically his fury at what he regarded as the breaking of "something we held sacred" by Kevin Cassidy in 'This is Our Year' - to his own reflections in 'Until Victory Always' on current Donegal manager Rory Gallagher.

The truth is that one position cannot, logically, be reconciled with the other.

McGuinness has, I understand, been dismayed by the media's apparent pre-occupation with this paradox given the vast breadth of his life-story. He cannot, surely, have been surprised though.

On his greatest day in football, he performed one of the most graceless acts ever perpetrated by a winning manager, demanding that journalist Declan Bogue be removed from his post-game press conference.

What's more is that he makes a point of not naming the journalist in his book, as if Bogue is of a caste somehow beneath recognition.

"Can't have double-standards here," writes McGuinness of the incident.

"That book had been upsetting. It contained inaccuracies. The whole episode had threatened our entire project. Hypocritical now to just sit here in celebration. Felt wrong. Look about the room. Don't know the man to see. Had never spoken. Leave the room and explain to the GAA press officer. I am not doing any interviews while he is there."

Bogue, the author of 'This is Our Year', duly leaves. The "inaccuracies" in his book have - to this day - never been identified.

For a man of such palpable emotional depth, McGuinness's treatment of Cassidy, Bogue and - ultimately - his former assistant, Gallagher, runs in jarring conflict with so much that distinguishes him elsewhere.

It seems needlessly petty and, ultimately, rooted in obstinacy.

Of course, none of this will diminish his sporting legacy. In four years as Donegal manager, his team won three Ulster titles and only the second All-Ireland in their history. History doesn't fixate upon the irksome smallprint of revolution.

McGuinness took on the traditional czars of the game and won. It really will be that simple for generations to come.

You work to nobody's rules but your own. You get there. Until Victory Always. That is the gospel, that is the Constitution.

Regrets? You can't afford them.

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