Saturday 18 November 2017

The gospel according to Jim

Christy O'Connor

After Donegal annihilated Derry in their Ulster football quarter-final in June (2-13 to 0-9), one Derry footballer privately admitted afterwards that he had never seen anything quite like Donegal before.

As well as being blown away by Donegal's fusion of power and precision, the Derry player reportedly remarked about how the Donegal players talked non-stop from start to finish. He said that they had their own glossary of words, their own phraseology, which they all understood perfectly.

"Squeeze," was the command used most often. They also appeared to speak in code. The defenders kept referring to an outfield team-mate called 'Paul,' even though there is no outfield Donegal player called Paul.

When that story was put to the Donegal management, they completely denied it. Although they forensically analyse their own defensive performances after games, they also denied the story that, after every championship match, Jim McGuinness makes his players do 15 press-ups for every foul they concede inside the 45-metre line.

Over the last 12 months, there has been so much said and written about McGuinness and Donegal's level of preparations that it has become hard to separate myth from reality. Each new account often sounded so outrageous that it seemed sensible to make deductions and settle for a less than glamorous, or brutal, version of events.


The latest one doing the rounds is that Donegal train 12 times a week. "Unless my fella (his son Mark) is leaving the house in the middle of the night, they're definitely not training 12 times a week," says Martin McHugh. "They aren't even training as much this year as they were last year."

The Donegal management are said to deride how the rigidness of their professionalism is portrayed. When Michael Murphy passed a very late fitness test against Derry, McGuinness forgot to tell the team that he was starting instead of Rory Kavanagh. In the team photograph, there are 16 players, 15 wearing black tops, and Murphy in his jersey.

It is always easier to propagate myths and exaggerate the aura around teams which haven't had a history of success. What is certain is that the Donegal squad pride themselves on training harder, and smarter, than any other team in the country during those sessions. The ferocity that McGuinness will often subject them to was evident from Kevin Cassidy's input in the book 'This Is Our Year', which ultimately led to his exile from the squad.

Those close to McGuinness paint a picture of him in very basic terms; great coach, brilliant communicator, excellent motivator. However, all of those qualities are overridden by a phenomenal passion for Donegal football and a burning desire to be successful.

"Everyone can see how passionate Jim is and he brings that across in the training," says goalkeeper Paul Durcan. "That passion he has is something we all aspire to."

Ultimately though, McGuinness' primary motivation comes from a deep sense of underachievement as a player, and Donegal as a county. McGuinness knows that he and a generation of Donegal players had the talent to win more, but they weren't as organised or as well-prepared as their Ulster rivals.

As Armagh and Tyrone lifted weights and refined their playing system, Donegal were playing what McGuinness has often called "off-the-cuff-football." The six provincial finals and the All-Ireland semi-final (2003) Donegal lost between 1993 and 2006 left deep scars of regret that McGuinness is now hell-bent on removing. They have already shown they have improved significantly from last season, but Donegal are working on a five-year plan. When McGuinness first took over the U-21s in 2010 and led them to an All-Ireland final, his players exhibited traits that Donegal had almost lost completely -- mental toughness, ambition, confidence, loyalty to each other and a game plan.

He has instilled all those qualities now in his senior team and his methods secured a first Ulster title in 19 years last season. They were hammered for their uber-defensive tactics in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, but they had a game plan which they felt could win the match and it nearly worked.

They knew they had to evolve this year and they have. Donegal have been playing Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden closer to goal. They are breaking forward quicker from defence. Their greater fitness level has also given them more confidence to push forward, while the outstanding form of defender Frank McGlynn has given them an extra attacking option.

Their scoring difference is not markedly different from last season. Having played the same number of games before last year's Ulster final, they have only scored five points more, while also conceding two points more. Yet their attacking mindset is vastly different to what it was last season.

"We've been working hard this year to try and bring an extra edge up front," says Rory Kavanagh. "Hopefully, we can build on that because that is the hardest part to crack in the final third of the pitch. We have the players there to do that, but it's all about trying to evolve now."

McGuinness now has Donegal exactly where he always wanted them. Everyone is buying into his goal -- players, supporters and the county board. When McGuinness first applied for the job in 2008, he was treated shabbily by the board. When the job came up again in 2010, he wondered if he had the stomach for the board. He sat with Martin McHugh one evening for two hours and threw things around. In the end, he knew that if he didn't go for the job, he wouldn't be able to live with watching someone else do it.

Almost two years on, McGuinness has converted everybody. "Having a son on the panel, I have a wee insight into Jim," says McHugh. "Mark would go through a brick wall for him.

"In the past, I would have been advising Mark and telling him what to do. I don't even bother with that anymore because he won't listen to me. Jim's word is gospel and that is all that matters.

"He has a huge hold on the players and they all have massive respect for him. You can see the loyalty and belief they have in him.

"Every young player in the county now wants to play for Donegal because there is such pride in the jersey. That is the big difference.

"In the past, I used to always class Donegal like Mayo -- lovely people, but too nice to win anything. Now, McGuinness has changed everyone's mindset.

"He has put a massive belief in Donegal people. It is a nice feeling in Donegal at the minute. We are respected as footballers and people now. We're up there now as serious contenders. And given how he has gone about it, Jim is the most highly respected person in the county at the minute."

A Donegal team has never retained an Ulster title. No team has ever managed to win two Ulster titles in a row having come through the preliminary round in both seasons.

As the revolution continues, it's not that difficult to separate any myths from the reality that McGuinness and his players now have history in their grasp.

Irish Independent

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