BY CHRIS MCNULTY
WINNING THE ULSTER title meant everything to Jim McGuinness.
He had done what no other Donegal manager could manage in leading the county to back-to-back Ulster titles, but the sense of satisfaction for the Glenties native was in the finer details.
Ever since he entered the unforgiving world of management, McGuinness’s mantra has been about progress.
No-one can deny the advancement in Donegal’s football fortunes since McGuinness rolled into town. An unfancied group of U21s went within inches of an All-Ireland title and now the hopes and dreams of the senior crop are focussed on Gaelic football’s ultimate prize.
The Anglo-Celt is in Donegal for the second year in a row. McGuinness is the man with the Midas touch in Tir Chonaill right now.
“I don’t get caught up in it too much,” says McGuinness.
There is too much to do preparing the boys and getting ready for the next challenge. It is very hard to take stock. It is a different dynamic and there is always something going on, thinking about getting this man back or that man fit. “That is a part of the daily life now.
“I would be very much in a cocoon and the players are the same.
“For us, there is work to do. We need to make sure that the players are as well prepared as possible and that the team is ready.”
He doesn’t know the meaning of downtime, but does get to the beach in Ards occasionally to gather his thoughts and hatch a plan.
Other times, he puts the headphones on and goes for a jog around the block.
“It is full on for the management and for the players,” he says.
“It is well documented that we are putting in a lot of work.That is the way it has gone and the way it has to be now.
“If you want to be competitive then there is no other way to be. I am lucky that I have an understanding wife who has given me the opportunity to do this – and a lot of the players are the same with their wives and partners.”
It seems almost unthinkable now that McGuinness had two unsuccessful applications for the Donegal job. One time he wasn’t even afforded the chance to make a powerpoint presentation.
Weaker men would have folded, walked off into the sunset and never came back.
“The reason I went for it was that I believed we had the talent,” says McGuinness.
“I have always believed that in my heart. I used to look at teams and think ‘we’re as good as them technically and player-for-player’.
“It means absolutely everything to have won Ulster again because I have had a lot of hurt and pain down through the years on days like that.
“I am very proud for them. Your life can take twists and turns and those boys could have ended up walking off the panel or moving away.
“People would always have said things about them, whereas now at least they have rectified that and put their own stamp on Donegal.”
Progression remains his mantra. On Sunday, they line out against Kerry and will become the first Donegal team to face the Kingdom in Championship football. That in itself is a measure of their development.
McGuinness’s biggest kick comes from a scan around the dressing room.
“You look at someone like Patrick McBrearty and it is lovely to see that development, that while progression unfolding,” he says.
“We had him in as a minor and he was very raw in a lot of respects. When he came in he was the star of the show in every team he had ever played on.
“I’m sure that wasn’t easy to integrate into what we were doing, but he has showed up as an important cog in our wheel now – and he is becomming a star with our team too. These are different dimensions, but it is very pleasing to see what he has done and the journey he has taken in football.
“It is the same with Mark McHugh, Paddy McGrath, Leo, Daniel and Martin too for example, who are being exposed to senior football all the time – they are learning something every day.
“They are working hard and are developing.”
A year ago, McGuinness winced when Dublin edged through their All-Ireland semi-final battle. There’s nothing he’d love more than to get another three weeks with a squad that seems to be getting better by the game.
“We’ll see where the journey takes us,” he says.
“There is nothing we want more than to get a chance to progress this team and prepare them for another big game.
“If we get over the line on Sunday and got another couple of weeks training and preparation in it would stand to them so much down the road again.”
On the night of the Ulster Champions’ homecoming to Donegal town, members of the squad paid a touching tribute to tragic Ardara man Thomas Maguire. Killed in a road accident in Australia, Maguire might well have been on the stage had his life taken a different course.
Paddy McGrath carried a flag with ‘Thomas Maguire’ etched across it. McGrath and several of his team-mates held it for the duration of the speeches.
It was a Brazilian flag. It’s motto reads ‘Ordem e Progresso’ – Order and Progress.
It came from an ancient motto of positivism which translates as ‘Love as a principle and order as the basis; progress as the goal’.