Thursday 22 August 2019

Tommy Conlon: Jim McGuinness's stance made a virtue out of vindictiveness

'McGuinness is deep, intense and charismatic. His achievements with Donegal were exceptional. He had the vision to change a culture, and the personal courage necessary to push it through'
'McGuinness is deep, intense and charismatic. His achievements with Donegal were exceptional. He had the vision to change a culture, and the personal courage necessary to push it through'

Tommy Conlon

Before he re-invented the Donegal football team, Jim McGuinness first re-invented himself. He quit school at 16. He got a job grading fish on a freezer boat in Killybegs. But at the age of 22 he enrolled in an adult education course in Letterkenny and sat his leaving certificate. He then studied sports science for two years at Tralee RTC. From there he got a scholarship to the University of Ulster Jordanstown. And from there he went on to do a master's in sports psychology at John Moores University in Liverpool.

Each new school brought a fresh crisis of confidence; a feeling that he didn't belong, an anxiety that he might be out of his depth. But he felt the fear and did it anyway. "By the end of those years," he writes in his new memoir Until Victory Always, "I was left with an unbreakable conviction in the power of education."

On the Second Captains Live show last Wednesday night he said that every media interview about the book had focused on the same couple of controversies that had arisen during his four years in charge of Donegal. He pointed out there was a lot more to his story than just these flashpoints.

Obviously this is true. McGuinness is deep, intense and charismatic. His achievements with Donegal were exceptional. He had the vision to change a culture, and the personal courage necessary to push it through. He forced a new reality into being. He changed how the game is played. He brought a county with him on his crusade.

The range of his talents and the strength of his personality convinced a major soccer club in Scotland to recruit him. He has been a pioneering figure in modern GAA.

The book explains the nuts and bolts of his daily work with Donegal; the physical, psychological and tactical mechanics that went into making them All-Ireland champions, and Ulster champions three times.

And it recounts too the profound suffering he endured with the loss of two of his brothers. He was 12 when Charles died. "I went from a happy-go-lucky child to a very, very vulnerable person in the blink of an eye." He was in his mid-20s when Mark died. He was beside him in the car when a road traffic accident claimed Mark's life. "I was fragile and I was broken from that moment."

So it goes without saying that this is a book worth reading. It is written in a spare, plain style that projects with clarity McGuinness's authentic voice.

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Given these life traumas, and given also the scale of his sporting achievement, it seems almost inappropriate therefore to challenge the narrative. But it has to be done, if only because a few people were hurt along the way; and because McGuinness would prefer to control the narrative himself. Indeed, like almost every successful manager, he likes to control just about everything in his sphere of influence.

So naturally he chafed last Wednesday night when Eoin McDevitt raised those familiar controversies again. "Is the grilling over," he asked, half in jest and fully in earnest, when McDevitt moved on to his job at Celtic FC.

But the grilling could've been much worse. Not alone did he cut Kevin Cassidy from the squad in late 2011, Cassidy was ostracised to a degree that was deeply hurtful to the player, and that seemed unjustly disproportionate to the crime. Cassidy's offence was to provide a chapter in a book about that season's Ulster championship. He had been naïve and indiscreet; he'd shared details from the inner sanctum. But overwhelmingly he'd heaped praise on the new regime wrought by McGuinness.

The author of that book, Declan Bogue, was in the Croke Park press room nine months later when Donegal won the All-Ireland. McGuinness abused his position that day; he refused to hold his post-match press conference until Bogue had left the room.

McGuinness showed a fanatical heart in these situations. He had the zealot's unforgiving attitude, the puritan's absolute conviction. Viewed through the prism of his own re-invention, one can detect the zeal of the convert at work here. Having found the righteous path in his own life, anyone less than willing to conform to the new dispensation had to be ejected. In this worldview, the way ahead is simple and clear: one thing is black and the other thing is white.

He says in the book he would have been "hypocritical" to sit there with Bogue in the press room. But this is making a virtue out of vindictiveness. It wouldn't have been remotely hypocritical; it wouldn't have been much of anything at all.

In the 2013 post-season he dropped his assistant manager, Rory Gallagher, among other backroom changes. He'd brought Gallagher in two years earlier, he writes, "when nobody knew who he was as a coach." Mayo had hammered Donegal by 16 points in the All-Ireland quarter-final. On the way home from Croke Park that evening, Gallagher argued that it was time to rebuild the team, "that a lot of the senior boys had had their day."

This was clearly a sensitive detail to put into the public domain, given that Gallagher is now the manager of those same Donegal players - senior boys and all. Was McGuinness not guilty of a "double standard" here, asked McDevitt? No, came the reply, the code of omerta didn't apply once he'd left the dressing room.

It's his book, his story, and his world.

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