Vindication for McGuinness after big decisions bear fruit for Donegal
Published 22/07/2014 | 02:30
It wasn't quite Jose Mourinho darting down the flanks in Old Trafford, but the sprint that Jim McGuinness took off on into the middle of St Tiernach's Park on hearing Maurice Deegan's last whistle to end Sunday's Ulster football final in Clones was a telling one.
It reflected a man who felt some strong sense of liberation from probably his most difficult stretch as Donegal manager.
Twelve months earlier he had made the short walk down to where Malachy O'Rourke was standing to offer a hand of congratulations to the Monaghan manager, just as Tommy Freeman was kicking the insurance point, to avoid the crowd surge that would inevitably follow the Farney's first Ulster title in 25 years.
Now the contrast couldn't be greater as he shot from the sideline like a rocket to join his players in celebration.
His description of their third Ulster final win in four years as their "best performance" in over 50 games between league and championship on his watch had its source in their recovery from the mauling handed down to them by Mayo in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final.
But he is also entitled to feel some personal justification for some of the hard decisions taken to restore Donegal as the dominant force in the province, decisions that affected the majority of club players in the county and even some of those that had worked so closely with him to land previous Ulster and All-Ireland glory.
For McGuinness to initiate a recovery of Donegal football so quickly after the Mayo loss with a new management team will have added to that sense of satisfaction he felt in those moments afterwards. Tactically Donegal have been quite flawless in this Ulster championship.
But McGuinness may feel that the real battle was won way back in September when agreement was reached to give the county team an uninterrupted run throughout the 2014 championship.
He has always maintained since that their collapse against Mayo had more to do with the impositions placed on them by a punishing local fixtures schedule and the injuries that resulted rather than any unwillingness of the heart.
It is known to have irked those teams that beat them that such injuries and time constraints placed on them were being referenced as contributing factors to their downfall.
But to back up what he was advocating the results had to prove it.
At a media briefing prior to this year's championship McGuinness outlined how they had fought to defend their Ulster title with the straitjacket of club fixture interruption wrapped around them.
All the time their problems in 2013 were physical, not mental, he stressed. Karl Lacey had missed 66pc of all sessions, David Walsh was up to 69pc, Neil Gallagher was at 68pc, while the figures for sessions missed by Anthony Thompson, Mark McHugh and Neil McGee were also "high," he suggested.
The unavailability of players through a key stretch of the Ulster championship was "like sand going through your fingers".
Football, he evaluated, was like a boxing match where you need to be confident going into the ring that you have the work done. And Donegal, he felt, didn't have the proper work done.
"Last year we had four weeks when we didn't get the players," he recalled in May. "The Ulster championship is an eight-week competition. So on the back of beating Tyrone, you don't see them for a fortnight and then we beat Down and didn't see them for a week."
He estimated that nine players picked up injuries playing with their clubs in that period and, with "natural" injuries from an intense Ulster championship, it was just too much load to carry.
"If you know you haven't been together or been building and on top of that you are losing players, it is negative the whole way. And it culminated in Croke Park."
Before agreeing to return last September, McGuinness had bargained hard for a clearer run with club championship fixtures in the county in 2014.
He had proposed playing one or two rounds prior to the championship getting under way, but he got more than he bargained for with the clubs agreeing to shelve championship games altogether until the county team's interest was at an end.
Such an approach to club fixtures is contentious and flies in the face of what the most recent Football Review Committee report proposes. But clearly McGuinness believes it couldn't be done any other way and the contrast over two summers now supports that view.
For Donegal the development of younger players in this championship has also been encouraging.
Odhran Mac Niallais embellished a big display against Antrim with another three points against Monaghan and some clever assists.
The kind of exchanges prevalent in the opening 20 minutes may not have suited 19-year-old Darach O'Connor's game but his time will come again.
Ryan McHugh is in his second full championship season and winning his first Ulster medal will cut him some slack in a household where his older brother Mark and father Martin have already enjoyed provincial and All-Ireland success.
The younger McHugh was able to highlight afterwards how important the victory was.
"This was a big one for us. There was a lot of hurt after last year. Monaghan have been great Ulster champions and we were going in as underdogs.
"But Jim and the lads, they've put great belief into us and put great store in us coming back and winning Ulster this year."