Thursday 22 February 2018

Wise head helps to liberate a county's dormant passion

Jim McGuinness has got Donegal playing as a team, says Dermot Crowe

ON the evening Donegal defeated Derry to win their first Ulster senior title since 1992, the bus home stalled near Lisnaskea at a quiet spot on the road from Newtownbutler. Taking a strict interpretation the stop had nothing to do with football and yet it couldn't be divorced from it either.

On August Bank Holiday Monday in 1998, Jim McGuinness was in a car being driven through this tranquil part of Fermanagh towards Dublin airport by his brother Mark when they were in a collision. Mark was killed instantly. His brother, who escaped serious injury, had been on his way to the US to play football for a few months.

There is a small headstone on the roadside marking the place where Mark died and wrapped round it is a sock in the blue and white colours of Glenties. The two were close. Both played for the Naomh Conaill club, though Jim at a more advanced level, and they even shared a similar pirate-like appearance, back when Jim wore the hair long and sported a beard. For some time after, Jim McGuinness struggled to get a hold of his life and whilst he eventually found a measure of stability and direction, his brother always remained part of him on the good days as well as the bad.

Coming back from Clones with the Anglo-Celt was, unmistakably, a good day and he felt the need to remember the spot where he had lost his brother 13 years before. From there the triumphant Donegal party resumed its journey into the home county, to bonfires and celebrations that ran into the night, reminiscent of the scenes of jubilation that greeted the squad of 1992 when McGuinness, fresh out of minor, was the youngest player involved.

He is a more earnest and sculpted person now, 19 years on, and while still warm and convivial, the streak of intensity visible this summer is distilled from a life in which he has had to deal with a great deal of disappointment. In 1985, another brother, Charles, died of a heart condition aged 16. Given those family tragedies it is fair to say he has known graver loss than having to go without the Anglo-Celt for 19 years. They are experiences, though, that became inevitably engraved on his personality and outlook and influenced the type of choices he made.

In the home town of Glenties he is now a hero and there is a large portrait of him hung in the streets depicting him in the classic pose of Che Guevara (and bearing an uncanny resemblance) with the slogan 'Until Victory Always' attached.

But he did not have a smooth ascension. When he took over as under 21 manager, the job that put him in the front line to succeed JJ Doherty in the senior position, McGuinness had already suffered repeated rejection. Twice overlooked for the senior post, he later failed in a bid to manage the county minors. At one of the interviews for the seniors the room didn't have a socket to power his laptop on which he had prepared a detailed presentation. Later he related that one of the county board people present sniggered, as if not taking him or his presentation seriously.

Having experienced that kind of mocking indifference -- "they didn't give me the time of day," as he put it -- it was a very reluctant McGuinness who put his name forward for the under 21 job in late 2009, only doing so after being persuaded by some influential Donegal ex-players and close allies. He had become utterly disillusioned by the politics and agendas at play but he relented and got the nod and has never looked back since.

A team that hadn't set the world alight at minor was transformed and went all the way to the All-Ireland final in Cavan, beaten narrowly by Dublin. Michael Murphy had a chance to win the match at the end but his penalty came off the crossbar. Some of the players had contracted a virus before the game which didn't help their prospects, but McGuinness's standing as a manager and coach had now become impossible to ignore.

From there the weather began to turn in his favour. Doherty's reign dissolved after a trouncing from Armagh in the qualifiers in Crossmaglen. While they had claimed memorable championship wins over Derry and Galway the previous year, the 1-27 concession to Cork in Croke Park -- and the overly predictable pattern of their play -- left gaping holes in the management's credibility. After the unseemly feuding that preceded Doherty's appointment, the installation of McGuinness was positively Gandhiesque.

Before taking the under 21 job, McGuinness had already attracted notice at club level. In 2005, while unable to play due to injury, he asked if he could help prepare his own Glenties team. Given the chance he completely changed how they played and approached the game. This was the first public demonstration of his defensively-minded tactical strategy, stacking over a dozen players behind the ball. To everyone's amazement, not least the raging favourites St Eunan's, Glenties won their first ever senior title in a replay. McGuinness came on in the final five minutes to complete the perfect day. "We were lucky, we had very good players; you need the right type of player to play it," says the team's full-back and former Donegal player, Paddy Campbell.

"These players coming back into defence need the right mindset, it is a very tough and thankless job, running up and down the field; it takes a lot of coaching and educating and talking and teamwork. You've got to be very, very fit for it. One thing about Jim, I would be surprised if there was any team as fit as Donegal in the country; you saw that against Kildare."

He returned as joint manager of Glenties in 2009, when they reached the county final, and then retired after getting the county under 21 position. After nailing the senior job, he held his first trial last August and the players went into training in September.

He met each of them individually, set out his goals and emphasised the commitment needed to attain them. He then asked each one to go away, consider what he had said and come back with a response.

Players who were away in college in Galway and Dublin were monitored by people specially selected by McGuinness. They would get the players up at 7.0am and put them through the strength and fitness conditioning programmes McGuinness had devised. Discipline was a must, an area where Donegal had fallen down in the past.

The Monday drinking club, where boozing carried over into the second day, had its licence revoked.

Campbell speaks highly of McGuinness's powers of communication and man-management and he is well qualified in terms of the theory -- he has an MSc in sports psychology and lectured in the subject before setting up his own consultancy business and also earned an honours degree in Sports, Exercise and Leisure at UUJ. But sheer hard work and honesty are the immutable bedrock principles which he swears by.

"With Donegal I know they trained very hard," says Campbell, "put in a huge effort. A lot of the training sessions, the lads couldn't even finish. Chatting to some of them recently, they are over the moon, full of praise for him."

McGuinness has become the only manager outside of Brian McEniff to land the Anglo-Celt for Donegal. McEniff brought him into the senior panel and was on the selection committee that chose him to lead the under 21s. "He is very intense and focused," says McEniff. "He's a very clever lad. He has people skills which is most important as a manager. Some can manage, some can train and some can coach -- very rarely you will find someone with all three. And he works well with (fellow trainer) Rory Gallagher."

An interview McGuinness gave to the Donegal Democrat's Tom Comack soon after his appointment plainly set out his goals. "We have a situation where the players in the 26-to-27 age group are being written off by some people. As I see it, those players are at a crossroad in their careers. I would also feel that the younger players, say those in the 21-to-22 age category, members of the last two under 21 teams, are also at a crossroads.

"The older guys are going to have to decide if they are going to commit and give it a big push over the next few years. Likewise the younger boys are at a stage in their careers where they are going to have to decide if they want to be county players and make all the sacrifices that are required to play at the highest level. What I mean by that is that they are going to have to decide if football is going to be the major thing in their lives for the next ten years or so."

Enda McNulty, part of a Sigerson-winning team at Jordanstown with McGuinness ten years ago, has witnessed the sea change in Donegal at close quarters. "The premier example was last year when Armagh played Donegal in the championship and I remember after the match one of the Donegal lads coming over and being excited about changing jerseys and not that disappointed about being beaten. Donegal that day completely capitulated. Now if we contrast that with the Kildare display, the difference is like night and day. One difference is the physical fitness of the team, another is their mental resilience, and a third would be the spirit in the team. Jim is the only new part of the equation here. All the key players are the same as before, there is nobody really new."

McNulty claims it is "very difficult" to get a team to alter its tactical approach as fundamentally as Donegal has achieved.

"You have to get your players to believe in your tactics and in Donegal's case that involved almost a complete culture change. You know what Donegal was like; it is a complete 360-degree turn, almost like inverting the pyramid."

He recalls McGuinness being a natural leader and empathetic, drawing down a conversation he had with him on the way to a Sigerson game in Cork where he waxed lyrical on how Mike Frank Russell created space to kick a score. He noticed the observation to detail. His knowledge of players and how games were played stood out amongst a group of students.

The shift in tactical emphasis between Donegal's final-round league defeat in Laois and the Division 2 final victory over the same county is also noted by McNulty. "In the second game Donegal played a much more defensive system -- they brought Michael Murphy out to midfield. They played a more defensive game than Kildare when those teams met as well. Having seen Donegal over the last four or five years they always had ability, but Jim is the first one to unlock it."

Such a radical departure was bound to raise hackles. McGuinness has been sensitive to criticism, variously taking issue with RTE's Sunday Game panellists, Kieran McGeeney's management team and his own county's club fixtures planners, the latter cavilled from the stage when he addressed a delighted audience in Donegal town after winning this year's Ulster title. On each occasion that he raised objections, Donegal had won. Accusations invariably flew of him being a poor winner but those in his defence say that he was genuinely hurt and can't help speaking his mind.

There may be elements of deliberately trying to stoke the siege mentality given his command of psychology. On the field, though, there is no second-guessing or conjecture but what you see before your eyes. And that is a Donegal team, managed by Jim McGuinness, that has fuelled a county's passion like none before it for almost 20 years.

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