Saturday 7 December 2019

McGuinness era driven by his tight core of regulars

Economic Donegal still reaping the rewards with limited resources

Donegal manager and Celtic reserve team coach Jim McGuinness pictured at Celtic Park, ahead of his side's All-Ireland final against Kerry. Photo: Rob Casey / SPORTSFILE
Donegal manager and Celtic reserve team coach Jim McGuinness pictured at Celtic Park, ahead of his side's All-Ireland final against Kerry. Photo: Rob Casey / SPORTSFILE
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

It's not quite the parable of the loaves and fishes but Donegal's economic use of playing personnel has been one of the main pillars of Jim McGuinness' four-year tenure as manager.

Over that period of time Donegal have played 23 championship matches and used just 33 different players, surely the thinnest spread of any team that has competed at such a level.

By comparison, contemporary teams like Kerry have used 39 players in 22 games with Mayo's James Horan, who had an equally tight starting core after his first year in charge, gave game-time to 43 players over a similar profile of games from 2011 to 2014.

Given what they have achieved in the most attritional of the four provinces, their deployment of resources makes their consistent progress and success all the more commendable.

Four of those 33 Donegal players have never started a game, four more have started just one, while one has started two. Kevin Cassidy and Michael Hegarty both left the squad at the end of 2011 after playing six games each that summer.

Strip away all those players and you are left with a very firm core that McGuinness has been loyal to and has extracted so much from.

Essentially a base of just 22 players have kept Donegal operational over the most demanding and competitive period the county has never known with 12 playing some part in 20 games or more. In all 17 have been involved in 17 of the 23 games and this is effectively McGuinness' core group.

The game profile of Martin McElhinney is the most interesting of all. He is one of seven players who has been involved at some stage in every championship match on McGuinness' watch.

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But, remarkably, he has never played a full 70 minutes, coming on as a substitute in 18 of the games and starting just five, against Antrim, Cavan and Tyrone in 2011 and Kerry and Mayo in 2012.

The only player to feature for every minute of every championship game under McGuinness is goalkeeper Paul Durcan.

Paddy McGrath has the next best record of service. The quietly spoken corner-back with the hard edge figured on McGuinness' U-21 team in 2010 and has only twice been withdrawn between 2011 and 2014, against Kildare in 2011 and Mayo last year.


Neil McGee's is high up the roll call too with just four substitutions beside his name. One of those came early in the 2012 Ulster semi-final against Tyrone when he injured himself in the warm-up.

He is the only Donegal player to be black-carded in this year's championship for his body check on Dublin's Johnny Cooper the last day.

Anthony Thompson can also claim a gold-plated record of service under McGuinness with 23 starts and just three substitutions in that time.

Colm McFadden has been replaced in four of his five championship games this season but prior to this year he had virtually ever-present with only three previous substitutions from 18 games up to the end of last year.

Patrick McBrearty had played for the Donegal minors in the curtain-raiser when McGuinness gave him his debut against Antrim on a wet May day in 2011 and he has played a role in every championship match since, four as a substitute.

Captain Michael Murphy has missed just one game, the 2012 Ulster first-round match against Cavan because of a knee injury, and he was a substitute in another, the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final against Kildare, when he had an injury in the build up.

But Murphy also has the distinction of being the only starter that McGuinness has never had to or chosen to take off. He was, however, sent off in the 2011 Ulster championship match against Cavan, a red card that was later rescinded.

One of Declan Walsh's 11 appearances was as a blood substitution but, outside that, he too has stayed on in each of his six starting appearances.

Getting the most out of his resources has been one of the key McGuinness' traits. They are not renowned for the depth of their squad and these statistics would appear to back that up.

The consistency of the defensive selection over four years has been a core element for Donegal.

Durcan, McGee, McGrath and Thompson have started every game, Frank McGlynn has missed just one (against Cavan in 2011) while Karl Lacey has been involved in all but one (Antrim 2014) though he was a substitute in three, all last year, as he recovered from a bad run of injuries.

The other regular defensive component, Eamonn McGee, didn't fully establish himself until the middle of the 2012 championship season but since then he has played every minute of their 13 championship games, with the exception of time spent on the sideline after his second-half dismissal at the end of last year's All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Mayo.

David Walsh has emerged as one of their most regular contributors with 20 appearances, nine off the bench.

McGuinness has deployed an average of 24 players in each of his four seasons in charge. In his first year there were 24 different starters from 25 players used but the number of starters had dropped to 18 from 24 used in the year of their All-Ireland triumph.

Last year 25 players saw action but just 19 started while the starting figure is back down to 18 from just 23 used in the five games so far this year.

The average number of starters for Donegal over the four seasons has been just under 20, quite a feat of consistency of selection.

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