Donegal face trouble after backroom departures
Timing of three trusted lieutenants' departure raises eyebrows
TWELVE months ago today, Donegal football was orbiting ever higher towards sporting heaven as it counted down the days to the All-Ireland final.
A few days later, it reached its celestial target when beating Mayo, courtesy of another Jim McGuinness- directed operation. In November, McGuinness landed his own personal deal with Paradise when he was appointed as a performance consultant with Glasgow soccer giants, Celtic.
If Donegal supporters were told back then that the county would be getting extensive publicity this week, they would have been certain the All-Ireland two-in-a-row dream was one win away from becoming reality. Instead, Donegal are making headlines, arising from the confusion surrounding the departure of three of McGuiness' trusted assistants, Rory Gallagher, Maxi Curran and Francie Friel.
The Donegal County Board are keen to portray it as a simple adjustment of the management transmitter, but, inevitably, questions arise as to why such a successful back-room team would break up at this point. McGuinness made no reference to change when confirming that he would continue as team boss last weekend.
"We are happy with where we're at. We will look at everything in the next number of weeks. We've had a very good analysis since the Mayo game in terms of medical and in terms of team and of what happened in relation to the amount of sessions we did, how many training sessions each player was able to deliver on. We have a very good handle on that now, which is great," he said in interviews with local media on Sunday.
By Tuesday morning, Gallagher, Curran and Friel were gone and the county board issued a statement, which suggests it was at the behest of McGuinness.
The statement read: "CLG Dhun na nGall were informed this morning by senior football team manager, Jim McGuinness of his intention to make changes in his management and support team. He subsequently confirmed that Rory Gallagher and Maxi Curran will not be involved in the Donegal management team for the 2014 season. Francie Friel, who was involved in the backroom team, will also not be involved in 2014."
The big question is: did McGuinness make the changes because they were forced on him by resignations? It seems odd that if the back room was to be overhauled, it wasn't announced at the same time as McGuinness' commitment for another year was made public.
McGuinness is smart enough to know that the manner in which this intriguing story unfolded will fuel all sorts of speculation as to the real reason for the management break-up. If he felt it necessary to undertake such a fundamental overhaul, what had
changed since last year? After all, the McGuinness-Gallagher axis, in particular, was touted as one of the best partnerships in the game.
Why didn't he announce the changes in conjunction with news that he was continuing? Was there a difference of opinion between McGuinness and the others which led to the break-up?
The background will continue to be a source of fascination inside and outside Donegal for quite some time, but McGuinness' immediate priority will be to line up replacements and launch the preparatory work for next year.
He was granted extraordinary leeway by the clubs who cleared the decks for 2014 when they voted to defer the start of the local senior championship until after Donegal's All-Ireland campaign is completed. He had suggested playing one round before the start of the Ulster championships, but instead the clubs decided to give him full access to the county players for as long as Donegal remain in the All-Ireland race.
It underlined their desire to ensure he remained on after complaining this year that the club programme hampered the county team. Donegal's decision to abandon the club championships for so long has raised concerns among senior GAA officials, but they have no power to intervene.
The latest managerial upheaval will add to the perceived pressure on McGuinness next year, although he will classify it as just another part of a team manager's job. Questions were raised when he joined Celtic last year as to whether he could satisfactorily combine his new employment with the responsibilities of overseeing an All-Ireland defence with Donegal.
He vowed that, despite the travelling, the Celtic job would not interfere in any way with his commitment to Donegal. He kept his word. His application and devotion to the cause were just as intense this year, but, as happens to so many All-Ireland winners over the years, performance levels dropped. Relegation from Division 1 wasn't seen as especially significant. Still, it was the first time since 2001 that All-Ireland champions (Kerry) had been relegated.
Donegal looked to be back on track when they beat Tyrone in the Ulster quarter-final, in what was regarded as the unofficial provincial final. In reality, it was Donegal's last really solid performance of the season. Defeat by Monaghan in the Ulster final, followed by a trimming by Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final, left Donegal supporters numb and also led to fears that McGuinness might quit.
Spirits were raised last weekend when it was announced he would continue for another year at least, but now a new state of bewilderment has settled over the county as it attempts to figure out what led to the management fracture and what the implications will be.