Friday 13 December 2019

No cutting corners in Jim McGuinness' Donegal squad

The question was 'how do you want to be remembered?'

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness
Jim McGuinness, Donegal manager
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Jim McGuinness tells you there is no 'bulls***ting' in his Donegal squad. There is no one cutting corners, no one skimping on gym work when they are away from the group.

But above all there is no disrespect shown towards each other. McGuinness is adamant about that. It was a core principle back in 2011, established in year one of his four-year term.

"There is never any bad feeling," he says. "I have a simple strategy from the first year, that if anybody disrespects anyone else in the group we all do 100 press-ups. That only happened five or six times in that year and it was wiped out."

The principle of respect is based on a simple premise, a simple question that he asks.

"How can you disrespect a team-mate and expect that team-mate to fight tooth and nail for you in a Championship match?"

"It's the tone. You can be snappy with someone to push them. You can clap hands and say 'c'mon'. That's fine," says McGuinness.

"But talk down to someone, or go over the top - that's disrespect. There is a boundary. If that line is broken, we all come in and everyone does the press-ups. And at the end of it all we all say: 'We don't disrespect'.

"That simple strategy has created an environment where we never have a situation that someone driving home thinking angrily of a colleague. Stuff like that festers, it rolls over into the sub-conscience and it will come out eventually. We don't have that.

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Devilment

"We have a very happy camp. There are so many blackguards, but there is no one carrying anything. What comes out is devilment."

McGuinness is seeking to accentuate the "purity" of what they have together. It is a word he revisits on quite a few occasions in the course of a 35-minute interview that concludes at the end of a long day that had begun at 9.30am in MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey.

There have been endless TV, radio and print interviews ahead of a second All-Ireland final appearance in three years and there is still a first birthday party for his twins to return home to later on.

But when McGuinness is making a point there are generally no short cuts and what the Donegal players have given him needs ventilation.

"The fact that they're so committed to the jersey and so committed to the training, it makes it that pure.

"When they're fully focused they're a joy to work with. I have had experiences of players who were really good players with a bad attitude. It's very frustrating to coach someone like that. It doesn't happen with our lads.

"They work really hard and they push really hard. They try to push themselves to the border, to the edge of their intensity."

Respect and success have created a unique bond, he says.

"I don't think there is a better feeling in the world than just sitting looking across the dressing-room at a team-mate. You're shattered, he is sitting there shattered and you know have done something out on the pitch."

When McGuinness looks back now on the last five years - four with the Donegal seniors preceded by a year with the U-21s - he appreciates the scale of the journey they have taken. The intention was to be in an All-Ireland final in the fourth year, aligning with his idea of an 'Olympic cycle' preparation. They achieved what they set out to do in half the time and are back for more now.

"That's a huge chunk of time out of your life. It's a big part of your life. You're living with these fellas and coaching them," he says.

"Some of them have got married, some of them have had kids, some have gone to college and are out of college again. These are all life experiences. When I started out, I had only one child and now I have five. It's quite a journey we're on."

How close that journey came to an end 12 months ago is evident by the U-turn that captain Michael Murphy felt compelled to take in Monaghan, while on his way to International Rules training in Dublin with Neil McGee, to return to Donegal and 'circle the wagons' as uncertainty emerged about McGuinness' future.

"I read that like the rest of you," McGuinness laughs at McGee's post-match revelation the last day.

But he admits now that a fourth year was dependent on getting 'absolute' commitment for what was ahead. There could be no equivocation.

"We needed to know what we wanted to do," he recalls of those critical days. "A half-baked attitude wasn't going to win anything. Everybody had to be fully in.

"There is no point conning people and saying 'we'll start training in a couple of weeks and everything will be okay and we'll pick up pieces and build momentum'. It isn't about that. The question was 'how do you want to be remembered? Do you want to be remembered for being beaten by 16 points in a quarter-final?'

"That was the question that had to be answered. And then it was about what was involved in that and 'are we prepared to do that?'

"I wanted that out in the open. I didn't want anybody going into anything blind. I wanted to gauge the room.

"If I felt that it wasn't genuinely in the room then I probably wouldn't have gone on."

Committing meant putting pen to paper and signing up to an agreement to commit. Were there any extra clauses that weren't there before?

"I just told them what I felt was required to be successful at this level. They're aware of that anyway. The key thing is that you need everyone moving in the same direction. It wasn't a gun to the head situation. I re-evaluate every single year," he says.

"The first thing I look at is myself. What have I got to offer, can I bring it forward and where are my energy levels? Then it's about whether the players are prepared to bring it forward. If there's a red flag there, it probably isn't right.

"I wanted to know where I stood with the players. I didn't want the Mayo game to be the one that defined that team because that wouldn't have been fair on them.

"Maybe that was an emotional reaction on my part to think like that at the time, but I was very angry and very frustrated with what had gone on," he recalls.

"On some levels I felt the carpet was pulled from under our feet and we didn't get the chance to prepare properly.

"That wasn't sitting comfortably with me and I made that very clear at the county board meeting. If you were going rectify that and turn it around you needed to know that your men were with you.

"I didn't want an answer at the meeting. I don't believe in snap reactions and I don't believe in lip service. I have been in meetings myself and every man has the hand up, 'we'll give this a push'. Then half of them walk out the door and that isn't the case.

"I wanted them to think about it. What I said was: 'You need to think long, hard and deep about this, you need to look inside yourself.

"You need to decide 'if this is the road I'm going down, I'm prepared to sacrifice the next 10 or 11 months out of my life'.

"It would be wrong to say: 'are you in?'. 'Yeah, I'm in'. 'Are you in?' and so on. That's too superficial.

"They went away and we met again after a week."

He has pushed them hard, very hard. He doesn't mind admitting that now. It doesn't come easy in Donegal because of logistics, so many away, so many travelling across bad roads on dark nights to get to a training venue.

McGuinness values preparations but has a "nightmare situation" in the winter. It made him uneasy for a long time.

"It is a disaster. There is no other word for it because you have 15 or 16 players working out of the county or in college," he says. "And if you want to train hard, it is wild hard to do that when you have 16 there and they are thinking 'Jesus Christ, what are the other 16 doing.'

"That is why the Derry game was such a big game. It came on the tail end of the exams. Everyone had their exams finished on the Wednesday. When we got over that, I knew we had everybody home bar the Dublin lads for every training session. That is a big lift. That is the time you crave."

It's not all toil and grind. They often train to music. The manager has his own preferred play-list, the legacy of his college days, but everyone gets a shot at it.

"When it's mundane or running through stuff that is repetition, we train to music. It's good. You get someone like Eamon McGee who puts on the iPad shuffle and it tells you a lot about the man," laughs McGuinness.

"I remember the first time I heard his I was thinking 'That has sorted out a lot of questions in my head!' Anything that can make the thing relaxed and get the work done, I have no problem."

His time spent in Kerry as a student of health and leisure studies in Tralee IT and involvement with a star-studded Sigerson Cup team helped to shape his application to preparation, describing it as "a wake-up call."

Natural

"The thing that struck me when I was in Kerry is how professional they were. You always hear about the lovely Kerry footballer and the natural footballer and that," he recalls.

"But in my experience of Kerry they were so professional and dedicated that I don't know if natural is the right word for them.

"They were so dedicated to making themselves better that they look natural, if that makes sense."

Tralee IT trained four days on, three days off, often twice a day with morning sessions and evening pitch sessions in Kerins O'Rahillys.

"Seamus Moynihan, for example, was living in Glenflesk and Jack Ferriter was in Dingle. They were leaving to be in Tralee for seven so they were on the road before six. And Seamus didn't have to prove anything at that stage. So that was a wake-up call," says McGuinness.

"When you were going away, every hour was on the flip chart and organised and structured. It was good to be in that environment."

Among his colleagues were Galway's Padraic Joyce and Michael Donnellan, future All-Ireland medal winners.

"It was a great dressing-room to be involved in. And it was great fun. The whole team used to go out on a Thursday night together," he adds.

"Darragh Ó Sé said at the Ulster All Stars that he remembered me being a good dancer. I was saying that when we were out dancing he was up at the bar chatting with whoever!

"There was great camaraderie. I have a great group of friends down there and I am sending them an odd text at the moment 'if you hear anything in the Kerry team, let me know.' But there is nobody responding to anything!

"The Kerry people were fantastic - really good people, really good to me on a personal level. So on a personal final it is a lovely final for myself. And I know it is a lovely final for the boys as well."

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