BY CHRIS MCNULTY
IN his youth, Jim McGuinness was a keen basketballer.
Time was when those striking black locks were as familiar on the court as they were on a pitch. The young McGuinness played a lot with the now-defunct club in Glenties; the trophy cabinet at home contains several schools titles, won while playing for ‘The Comp’, St Columba’s Comprehensive School.
McGuinness has always had a keen interest in other sports away from Gaelic football. The Glenties man watched intently. The Chicago Bulls were in their pomp just as McGuinness was breaking into the Donegal senior football team, winning six NBA titles between 1991 and 1998.
Michael Jordan became recognised as the greatest basketball player of all time in that period. His take on his success and that of the Bulls will doubtless have struck a chord with McGuinness.
‘Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships,’ Jordan once said.
McGuinness shot the breeze with the local Gaelic Games correspondents last weekend in Ballybofey and spoke of the changing of the times in Gaelic football.
Teamwork, he mentioned, was more important now than when he was a player.
To illustrate his point, he touches on the old cliché about it being ‘a twenty-man game’ that has, since the increase in the amount of permitted substitutions, become ‘a twenty-one-man game’.
McGuinness bamboozled Derry, and most spectators, with his selection against the Oak Leaf men in May. Rory Kavanagh was suspended and Neil Gallagher injured. Without the 2012 All-Ireland-winning centrefield combination, McGuinness pulled the wool down when he kept Martin McElhinney in reserve.
“It’s a twenty-one-man game now and it doesn’t really matter who starts and who finishes really so long as everyone does a good job for the team – sharing the responsibility and sharing the game time,” McGuinness said.
“The concept of starting and not starting is not like when I was playing. Back then, if you didn’t make the 15 it was heart-wrenching as the chances of getting on wasn’t that high as there were only three subs – so it’s a different ball game now with it being about the squad. It’s opened it up a wee bit. There’s a good incentive with twenty-one places.
“There’s three or four levels to it – the first 15, the six that get on, the 26 and the fellas that won’t make the 26. Getting everyone into the best frame of mind to push on is the most important thing.”
That selection against Derry flummoxed even the graphics folk at RTE.
McGuinness said: “I did have a laugh when I saw Paddy McGrath and Jigger in the middle of the park on The Sunday Game – that has to be the smallest midfield ever named! (laughs). We were trying to work out who’s the smallest.
“With Neil Gallagher it was right up the last minute. He’d done a lot of work but we felt it was best to hold him and we went with that strategy. They want us to submit a team on a Tuesday now and we might train twice after that so there is a lot that can happen.”
McGuinness rarely makes a substitution for the sake of it, but the number of replacements used, and the nature of them, is in stark contrast to his time on the Donegal panel.
“When I played 90 per cent of time the poor old corner-forward got hooked (laughs),” he said.
The point he was making was around the importance of ‘the middle three lines’. This year’s Championship has seen a return of the Donegal half-back line swarming forward to devastating effect.
In 2012, when they topped the pile, Frank McGlynn, Karl Lacey and Anthony Thompson were unstoppable. Pace and power are now asked of the midfielders and with Odhrán MacNiallais and a fit-again Christy Toye thrown into that middle third, Donegal have options, and on-the-bench game-changers.
‘Athletic animals’ is how he describes the type of player that fits the bill.
“Every team used to have a player or two like that when I was growing up – like we had Martin Shovlin,” he said. “Players who would just run all day and put in so much effort.
“Now that must be the bulk of your players.
“It’s gone the other way now because it’s so athletic. They’ve got to be fit enough to do that with intensity but alert as to do it with discipline. It’s a tough gig.
“It’s a demanding area – the middle three lines – and there’s not a lot of players now who are seeing out the 70 minutes. We’ve the other dynamic where you’ve got Rory, Neil Gallagher, Christy and Martin McElhinney at midfield so who do you leave off? It’s difficult to say we’re playing two of them for 70 minutes when you know you’ve good quality there to come in. That’s a part of it as well.
“Rory and Neil are building it up slowly. Years ago you were either back training or you weren’t but now it’s a gradual process. A lot of times you might think they could be back a lot quicker but you got to put them in the hands of the medical team. That’s the way it is now.
“Rory hasn’t played any championship football. He’s very disappointed about the red card (against Monaghan in the Division 2 League final) but he’s hungry and wants to get going. That’s a good thing as well. He’s got that 19-year-old trait just like Darach (O’Connor) and those boys. He’s a top class footballer and a very important player for us. He’s been sitting on the sidelines chomping at the bit.”
When McGuinness woke in the Slieve Russell last year on Ulster final day, he knew his side was patched-up in places. Lacey wasn’t at full-tilt and several others were low on juice or running on empty. Eamon McGee would not play because of a hamstring injury. Bit by bit, the twine unravelled.
The Donegal manager said: “No matter how positive you are, people are switched on and they’d have known we had a man injured and another one and there’s a man not available. That impacts on the group.”
Now, though, Donegal are in much-healthier shape.
McGuinness, working closely with his medical staff, took time with his injured players.
Paddy McGrath’s comeback against Derry, for a first game for Donegal since last August, showed that the priority was only the Championship. Lacey, Gallagher, McGlynn, Toye, Neil McGee, Patrick McBrearty, David Walsh had their problems during the winter, but were eased back.
McGuinness said: “If we had’ve pushed too hard at the beginning we might’ve lost one or two of them. That’s important. The young lads have given it an infusion as well, an infusion of fresh legs and fresh mindset.
“They’re hungry for game-time and hungry for their own scores and to be a part of something. Seeing the older lads come back fit and the younger lads coming in, that’s like five players. This time last year we were probably losing five players. It was negative after negative after negative.”
MacNiallais and O’Connor grabbed the headlines in the semi-final, scoring a combined 1-6, while Ryan McHugh’s intelligence is there for all to see.
McGuinness likes to remind us that he was managing a ‘situation’ last summer. Now, he has a team back on his hands again.
“They’re carefree in a way,” he said of his young guns.
“They really want it and are pushing it to not only be in the team but to be team players. They’ve added a nice new fresh dimension. That’s what you want. We wanted to give them a good go at it in the McKenna Cup and the League. They’re comfortable on the ball and that’s what I like.
“We’ll know more after the Ulster final, with the packed house and a cup sitting up there, but they’ve done well up to now.”
Many felt after the National League that Leo McLoone’s position would be in jeopardy come the Championship, but the Naomh Conaill man has scored a goal against both Derry and Antrim. McLoone has been one of the best performers in those two games and has really sent a message to his doubters.
The single biggest boost for Donegal has been the return to top form of Karl Lacey, whose influence was badly missed last summer when he played despite being so inhibited by injury.
“Karl, in a funny way, came back in fitter than he left because he done more aerobic work,” McGuinness said.
”Karl has worked unbelievably hard to get himself into this position. He had an awful bad injury. He’s been so professional to get himself into the position he’s in today.
“Karl Lacey coming back to fitness has had a huge impact on this group. He brings serious qualities and serious composure coming up the field. When you get Frank. Tony and Karl in the one half-back line you feel they can do the job defensively but also can give you a lot going up the field.
“Someone like Karl could’ve rested on his laurels. He had one the toughest battles. Hopefully he can play a big part in the Ulster final.
“Maybe it’s the way sport has gone but, say, with a hamstring, these guys will ice it every three hours and get up in the middle of the night at 2am and 5am to ice it again. That’s what they do. That’s not something a manager needs to say. That’s the mindset they have. When you work with players like that, well it’s a privilege.”