Wednesday 24 October 2018

Ewan MacKenna: Forward-thinking McGuinness and Horan have turned old ruins into new empires

Jim McGuinness
Jim McGuinness

The headline said it all. 'Donegal's darkest day,' read the back page of the local 'News' and it was quite a pronouncement in a place where the sun has rarely risen.

But it was justified because it wasn't just the manner of the thrashing in the first round of the 2010 qualifiers in Crossmaglen, it was the fact that even for a side that hadn't won a provincial game in three seasons, this was a new low.

As Armagh warmed down, they saw Colm McFadden pulled aside for presentation to mark his 100th appearance and loudly joked that it was the Man of the Match award. RTE cameras caught a shot of McFadden and Eamonn McGee laughing on the bench -- a remark had been made about the former being old -- but it wasn't the time or place and Declan Bonner took both to task in a column.

"It was tough stuff," recalls John Joe Doherty, who was over that side. "Neil McGee and Michael Murphy were the only two who performed. It was the worst experience and watching it all I felt my own time was up. A lot of key players just weren't performing and there were a lot of people saying careers were coming to an end. I felt there was potential, whereas the perception was there was no team there."

As those in Donegal read the article under that damning headline, further down the coast, Mike Finnerty in the 'Mayo News' was still compiling reaction from their own shocking defeat to Longford. Most of the team had gone to ground, but Alan Dillon had the profile and respect to call it for what it was. "In terms of team performance, we don't seem to be fighting for each other," the forward complained. "Not enough lads were digging out the guy beside them. Everyone's too focused on themselves."

"I knew we were vulnerable psychologically and you have the fallout then," says John O'Mahony, who oversaw proceedings at Pearse Park. "The one disappointment I had, what was needed were leaders. They emerged from that day but weren't there that day."

Yet from those ruins just two years ago, empires have since risen. And if their origins were similar, the method of reconstruction has been similar too.

Jim McGuinness had previously been passed over in Donegal. But after his heroics with an adequate U-21 team, there was no overlooking him this time. As for Mayo, only a plea from the panel stopped Tommy Lyons getting the job, although no one knew for sure it would be James Horan until the words came from chairman James Waldron's lips.

Horan made no promises in Mayo, other than improvement. As a player he felt they'd been outclassed in the latter stages of the 1996 All-Ireland because of skill deficits. His team-mates had handpassed with the right and turned over ball because they couldn't handpass with the left; they'd been caught in possession because they couldn't make a 20-yard kickpass.

Further north, McGuiness addressed his own county committee and said what he wanted was "for the players to be loved by their supporters again". In a similar mindset to Horan, he saw the key as addressing each player's strengths and weaknesses separately.

Just last weekend, Clive Woodward observed: "Rugby spends far too long coaching the team and nowhere near enough time improving individual players." Both McGuinness and Horan had long since realised that in Gaelic football.

There's a clip on YouTube of Karl Lacey doing gym work at 7.0 in the morning before going to work in Letterkenny, and he trained again that night. He wasn't alone. The team was split into three geographic groups and have consistently done such work under the current regime. Ryan Bradley was given a running programme and lost close to three stone. When Rory Kavanagh was earmarked for midfield, he was told to eat a small breakfast before gym work, lunch at 10.30, a snack at 12.30, and then eat at 3.0, 6.0 and 9.0. Others were having plates of potatoes for breakfast. As Kavanagh told Donegal journalist Chris McNulty: "Before last year a lot of us would have neglected such strength and conditioning."

McGuinness has been a facilitating manager in getting experts in each area. On stage after this year's Ulster title homecoming, he name-checked 16 back-room staff from assistant manager to goalkeeping coach to strength and conditioning coaches to physical therapists to kitman to logistics manager.

It's the same as Horan who, as a manager in Coca-Cola, has taken those skills and used them in Mayo and it's part of the reason Paul Galvin talked about modernising in the wake of Kerry's league semi-final loss to the Connacht champions.

Back in January when they opened their season against Leitrim in Ballyhaunis, those speckled in attendance noticed Cian O'Neill pull the subs into a huddle before throw-in and his hands-on approach during the game reinforced messages about tackle, tackle, tackle, coming off the shoulder at speed, never leaving a defender on his own.


He's now the football coach, while Ed Coughlan is the strength and conditioning coach and sets targets for players and then reviews their performance monthly. Deeper still in the back-room team Dr Liam Moffitt, Caroline Brennan and Joe Dawson have devised a programme that has allowed Barry Moran to play more this year than he has in the last half decade.

Of the Mayo team humiliated by Longford just two years ago, 11 are now heading for an All-Ireland semi-final with confidence. Of the Donegal team humiliated by Armagh just two years ago, 11 are now heading for an All-Ireland semi-final with confidence. They are much the same teams only now they believe that what's around them is so different. Horan and McGuinness have taken the future of football management and made it the present.

Irish Independent

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