McGuinness aiming to join Ulster giants
Donegal 'in privileged position' as boss targets 'incredible feat' of provincial treble
WHEN Jim McGuinness took over dishevelled Donegal in the autumn of 2010, the team hadn't won an Ulster Championship game in three years.
This Sunday, McGuinness' men are within 70 minutes of claiming their third successive Anglo-Celt Cup.
His water-into-wine evolution in Tir Chonaill has represented a seismic shift in the Ulster landscape. The once beaten docket is now on the verge of paying out unprecedented winnings.
Never before has a Donegal team won three Ulster titles in a row. So competitive and unpredictable has the Ulster Championship been that only three teams – Cavan (1947-49), Down (1959-61) and Armagh (2004-06) – have won it thrice consecutively.
"To be going into that company, if we're successful, would be, I suggest, great redemption for this group of players in terms of where they've come from," says McGuinness. "It would be fantastic for them, something they probably deserve.
"It's a big opportunity. We know how it felt in 2011, it was even better in 2012 – and to do something special in your province and go into that company would be an incredible feat."
Ulster is a province laden with difficulty and a championship in which every county has contested a final since 2001.
Dominance here is a rarity, in stark contrast to Leinster, where Dublin have won eight of the last nine, Connacht, where Galway and Mayo have a share of 88 of the last 113 championships, or Munster, where Cork and Kerry have won all bar one of the titles since 1935.
McGuinness holds the Ulster Championship dearly.
"Other people have other opinions on the provincial championships, but we understand the value of it," he says. "Everyone in Donegal and everyone in Monaghan knows what's at stake and are desperate to win it."
Footballer of the Year Karl Lacey and All Star midfielder Neil Gallagher have returned to full training, and both are likely to see some game time in Clones.
McGuinness, though, won't get too downbeat if either is forced to sit out.
"I don't want to dwell on the point because we haven't lost a game on the back of not having players available," he says.
"Our players are mentally strong now. They don't look at it and say: 'Aw, Jesus, we're missing Karl Lacey, he's got four All Stars and is the Player of the Year'.
"They don't think like that. They just think 'Karl isn't available today, but someone else has to step in to do a job for the team'.
"They don't look at it as a negative. We're happy with where we're at. We feel good in terms of our training and the attitude the boys are bringing.
"They know that the stakes are very high and this is an opportunity to do something special."
Donegal have now won 10 consecutive Ulster Championship games under McGuinness. Joe Kernan's Armagh went 10 unbeaten between 2004-06, but they had to negotiate two replays and, strangely, they didn't win any of their Ulster finals in Ulster with all three victories coming in Croke Park when the provincial showpiece headed south.
Post-war, the Down team of the 1950s is the only team with an unblemished 10 in a row. McGuinness is again on the threshold of a nugget of history.
"It's an absolute privilege to be in this position and a very special place for the players to be," he says. "A lot of our players could have retired when they won their Ulster Championship in 2011.
"They could have retired happily with their Ulster medal, safe in the knowledge that, after many years of toiling, they'd finally got over the line. Thankfully they haven't done that and thankfully everyone has worked very hard."
McGuinness never allows his players to look beyond the next opponent, but this week he will let his players recall those euphoric moments they enjoyed on their previous two visits to St Tiernach's Park for the Ulster final.
"It's okay to do that now because this is the next game," he says. "We haven't talked about it all year, but it's the reality now. If we win this game that is what will happen. It is very much on our radar now.
"It's the only thing that we've been thinking about in the last few weeks. We have to grasp this opportunity with both hands. We have to continue to move forward, grow and develop."
The economy of his side has been remarkable. In 10 games in Ulster, they've leaked just two goals – a rebounded penalty by Cavan's Michael Brennan in 2011 and a penalty by Cavan's Niall McDermott in 2012.
This year, Donegal have scored a combined 2-22, kicking just six wides between the Tyrone and Down games.
This weekend, all that counts for McGuinness is the bottom line.
He says: "If we can take the cup into Donegal town, whether it's a one-point win or whatever, that is all we want. That's what we're dreaming about and working towards."