BY CHRIS MCNULTY
JIM McGuinness doesn’t do looking back.
Unless it’s for analytical purposes, he isn’t a fan of the past; rather, the Donegal manager prefers to move forward, taking lessons from the past experiences, but not dwelling on occurrences that have been and gone.
McGuinness has never seen himself playing football.
Indeed, only when reviewing tactics or searching or conducting analysis on his own team or opponents – for use in future games – does McGuinness delve into the ghosts of matches past.
Last Friday night, the charismatic Glenties man was presented with the Donegal News/Brian McCormick Sports and Leisure Sports Star of the Year award for 2012.
The All-Ireland winning manager captivates whatever audience he addresses – even one like last Friday’s in a room full of sports stars from all walks of Donegal’s sporting codes.
It’s not hard to see why players go through the mill for him.
When he speaks, your focus is immediately grabbed; he holds your attention; every word has meaning.
“It is year three now and there are certain things I’d be very happy about in terms of their conditioning and a lot of the gameplans are nailed down now,” said McGuinness, noting that there are ‘four or five things’ he wants to bring into the Donegal game in 2013.
“You also have to retain what you’re doing, so it’s a very fluid process. It’s an ongoing process and there are a lot of factors that can impact on it.
“They have dealt with winning the All-Ireland very well. They’ve been very mature in terms of celebrations and how they conducted themselves. They know that there is a realistic chance of achievement again in the future if they continue to work hard.”
Life changed for the Donegal footballers when they took that leap through the Promised Land’s gates in September.
Up until their departure for the team holiday to Dubai in late December, Donegal’s players had been pulled from pillar to post, every inch of the county and beyond demanding a slice of Sam.
The appearances and parties take a toll, though, and McGuinness noticed a want in the players to get back to what they know best – football.
At the RTE Sports Awards in December, McGuinness encountered Katie Taylor, the poster girl of 2012. The Bray woman’s life also changed utterly in 2012, after her historic gold medal win at the Olympic Games in London. Taylor mentioned at the awards that she ‘couldn’t wait’ for everything to subside and to get back into training.
“That is what I see in our lads. As long as that continues, they’ll be in with a chance,” said McGuinness.
“We don’t tend to make a comparison between last year and this year. Our focus always is on the performance in big games. It would be foolhardy for us to start talk about winning an All-Ireland or an Ulster with Tyrone in the first round. That wouldn’t make sense and I think all our lads are intelligent to know that.
“In terms of the players themselves, they have been very mature in the way they’ve dealt with it. They had a very good time, but they’ve been very focussed and are very clued in.”
In 1992, a 19-year old Jim McGuinness was the bright-eyed youngster on a Donegal panel that altered the course of history forever. Brian McEniff, at the tail end of 1991, invited McGuinness onto his panel after he impressed in a trial game in Ballyshannon.
McGuinness jumped at the chance and a few months later he peered out from a dugout in Croke Park as a Donegal team beat Dublin to win Sam Maguire for the first time.
When he led Donegal to their second Sam in September, it was different.
“In 1992, a lot of players had been trying to win it from ’83 – that is a long time,” he told the night’s Master of Ceremonies, Tommy Martin, the TV3 presenter.
“In ’92, quite a few players were around 32 or 33 and there was a drop of the shoulder, sort of ‘we’ve achieved it now.
“It was the same almost with the Dublin team who won it in 2011 – they had won seven Leinster titles before they got there.
“We did it in 21 months, so we are fresh in terms of development and we’re not the finished article.”
McGuinness sees the same steely focus and determination in his players that gave him such confidence heading to Croke Park for the September 23rd joust with Mayo.
He said: “I had a very strong feeling a couple of weeks out from the All-Ireland that we were going to win it because of the way they were going about their business.
“I could see it in them that they were focussed on the performance, on delivering and they came with the right attitude every night. They stayed focussed on the job.
“I see the same thing in them now and they’re in decent shape. Their feet are still on the ground and they want to get the best out of their careers.
“A lot of them have had a lot of set backs – a lot of them played in a lot of big games, Ulster finals where there was a lot of expectation and it didn’t happen for them.
“Sometimes they were heavily defeated. Although we have had success for two years, there were a lot of years where there was nothing.
“Hopefully they’re just starting to get their teeth into it now and I think there is a feeling there in the group that they want to get the most out of their career. When you have that people will remain focussed.”
McGuinness believes that the retention of the Anglo-Celt in the Ulster final was ‘a defining moment’. After successive tilts at the Ulster Championship, Donegal were paired with Kerry – for a first ever Championship meeting between the counties.
“A lot of people felt that we couldn’t beat Kerry – beating Kerry grew another sense of belief in us,” said McGuinness.
“It grew towards Cork in the semi and the final was probably our most disappointing performance.
“It was a good performance, but it wasn’t potentially what we were looking for. We’ll learn from that match because of the enormity of it.
“Other things came in our play over the course of the season that we’d like to build on.
“Nothing is neutral – you’re either going to go backwards or forwards.
“For us, the trick is to try and retain the good stuff and add in other aspects that we didn’t get working on fully this year.”
McGuinness’s own talents have been recognised having been snapped up as a Performance Consultant by Celtic FC, a position that he will juggle with his commitment to Donegal in 2013.
McGuinness has always been a fan of looking at other sports and extracting some of their strengths to take into his teams.
Last Friday night a wide array of talent was present as McGuinness scooped the top accolade at the inaugural Donegal News/Brian McCormick Sports and Leisure Sports Personality of the Year Awards function.
He mentioned Letterkenny AC’s middle distance athletes as being the ‘role models’ of whom he and his team ‘are so proud’.
He added: “We’re very luck in Donegal, in all sports, to have the calibre of athletes that we have.
“The people I work with have a great attitude every single night. They want to be there, they want to make themselves better and they want to make the group better. When they’re operating in that environment it makes your job a lot easier.
“It is they who are central to the whole thing and they who make it happen. When you have your preparation done and your plans laid out you just hope that they can deliver it then when it comes to the day.”
The nights are still long and the spark has yet to ignite, but McGuinness is already plotting the moves he hopes will put fuel on the Tir Chonaill fire this summer.
Always forward; never back.