Wednesday 29 January 2020

McGuinness has no room for error in delicate balancing act

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

BY St Patrick's Day last, Donegal's footballers were second from bottom in an eight-team Division 1 table after losing three of four games.

The third defeat had been inflicted by Kerry, who hit Donegal for 2-16 in Killarney, leaving Jim McGuinness to reflect on what had been a serious unravelling of his defensive structure.

"It's the first time it's happened in two years. I suppose it was going to happen sometime. You have to take the lessons and move on," said McGuinness afterwards.

Over the following week, McGuinness and his assistants rebooted the defensive server, which proved a whole lot more secure against Mayo, whom they beat in their next game.

Donegal later survived in Division 1, got ready for the championship and, by September, had ascended into sporting heaven.

Fast-forward to next March and a possible similar scenario where Donegal have made a slow start in the league.

Would the perception among the Donegal public change as to why that had happened?


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Such was their belief in McGuinness and the squad this year that they were convinced -- rightly as it happened -- that the early setbacks would have no relevance in the long run. However, if Donegal were to struggle next spring, would the mood change?

Would McGuinness' commitment to Celtic be blamed for diluting the sense of obsession that has anchored the entire project over the last two years?

That's where the battle between reality and perception comes in and it's one where the latter often wins, even with a flimsy case.

"You can get the reality 100pc right, but it's hard to beat perception. If supporters think there's something else distracting you from the job of managing a county team, it's hard to convince them otherwise. That's one concern for Jim if he stays on as Donegal manager," said former Mayo, Galway and Leitrim manager John O'Mahony.

O'Mahony was elected to the Dail as a Fine Gael deputy for Mayo six months after being appointed manager of his native county for a second time in late 2006. Having worked as a secondary school teacher through his previous management engagements, he found it quite different combining political life with managing a county team.

Now while there's no obvious connection between the role of a TD and that of a performance consultant with a professional soccer club, it offers an interesting insight into the possible conflict between perception and reality.

Mayo had quite a few squad members in Dublin in 2007/08 and since the Dail week started on a Tuesday, O'Mahony decided to train them in the capital that night while the remainder of the squad trained under the other members of management back home in Mayo.

As far as he was concerned, it worked well, but there would have been a perception among some in Mayo that his Dail duties were impinging on his capacity to micro-manage his football duties in the manner for which he had become renowned over the years.

Some (political opponents perhaps?) were happy to mischievously peddle that line, even if it had no basis in fact. Still, they had perception on their side.

"Being a TD in no way cut across my job with Mayo at the time. It would be different now that the Dail sits on Friday," said O'Mahony.

Still, he knows all about the power of perception and suspects it could be the biggest challenge facing McGuinness if he opts to combine work with Celtic and Donegal.

"In the end, results dictate everything, of course. It's fine when a team is going well, but if there's any dip, people will look at other aspects that mightn't be remotely relevant," said O'Mahony.

"Jim could fly over and back to Glasgow three or four times a week and take every training session, but if Donegal performances dropped a little, people would blame his work with Celtic. Reality has to be right all the time, perception gets away with a lot less."

That apart, O'Mahony believes that combining Donegal and Celtic will be a massive challenge for McGuinness.

"He based everything on 150pc commitment to the Donegal cause, but now he will have other sporting commitments, too, in a year when they're trying to retain the All-Ireland. History shows just how hard that is.

"So 2013 is going to be an even more demanding year for Donegal than this year. Good luck to Jim, it will be interesting to see how it all works out," added O'Mahony.

McGuinness has, no doubt, weighed up the potential conflict between reality and perception, which will inevitably flare up if Donegal lose any ground next year. In fact, it's certain to arise unless they retain the All-Ireland, a target that has eluded all teams with the expection of Kerry (2006, 07) over the last 20 years.

No pressure then, Jim.

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