BY CHRIS MCNULTY
ONE of Jim McGuinness’s defining qualities is that single-minded ability to move forward.
McGuinness rarely looks back in anger and, during his time as the Donegal manager, often noted how he’d never seen footage of himself playing the game.
Although he has already begun the process of moving on from his memorable four-year stint as Donegal senior manager, a five year association with Donegal when the 2010 Under-21 campaign is included, there remains those nagging, teeth-gritting memories from last month’s All-Ireland final when Donegal lost against Kerry.
Paul Geaney and Kieran Donaghy struck gold for Kerry as Donegal fell to what was a surprise defeat against the Kingdom, having swatted aside the Sam Maguire favourites, Dublin, in the semi-final.
McGuinness had made his mind up before the final that his time was up
‘win, lose or draw’, but the Glenties natives admits that the defeat made his decision to leave ‘a wee bit more difficult’.
“It still wasn’t the right reason not to (leave) – I just felt that the time was right,” McGuinness told Brendan O’Connor on RTE’s Saturday Night Show, in what was his first interview since he made public his decision via a late night group text on Friday, October 3rd.
“In some respects it was a very tough decision and in others it was a fairly easy decision. I played for Donegal for 12 years and I went for the job a few times and didn’t get it. When I did get it, I wanted to give it everything I had. That was the game plan. In my own mind I thought: ‘Four years here, give it everything, have no regrets.’
“It was a fantastic journey, one of the best experiences of my live and I enjoyed every single minute of it.
“The time was right. I put so much into it and I knew in my own mind that that was the way it was going to pan out.
“I asked for the job for four years because I thought it might take that length of time to win the All-Ireland. We did it in two and then we got to the final in the fourth year. An Olympic cycle is four years and it’s four years for a reason: You’re hoping that all the development phases can be worked through and you can bring an athlete or a team to a level where they can compete at an elite level.”
McGuinness took a group of previously unheralded Under-21s to within a crossbar’s width of an All-Ireland in 2010. That same group sniggered when their manager predicted that they’d win Ulster.
Many of that same squad stepped up to the senior ranks with McGuinness at a time when Donegal football was at one of its lowest ever ebbs.
McGuinness rose the phoenix from the ashes and led Donegal through the most successful period in history. In 2012, Sam Maguire was won for the second time by Donegal and his tenure also yielded three Ulster titles and the 2011 Division 2 prize.
Last autumn, it looked as if the music had died for McGuinness’s Donegal. Beaten by Monaghan in the Ulster final, they succumbed to a 16-point loss against Mayo in an All-Ireland quarter-final. Back they came, with a new backroom team and, crucially, a fitter squad, for another go in 2014. The Anglo Celt was reclaimed and they reached the All-Ireland final again, only to fall against Kerry on September’s third Sunday.
McGuinness said: “Somebody asked me what the high was. For me the best moment was the five years. Even the times where we got beat because you’ve got to look deep inside yourself and ask yourself the serious questions. In that moment you are really alive; you have to find an answer or look at yourself and ask if you’ll throw in the towel or goback for another go.
“At the back end of 2013 we lost by 16 points against Mayo. That was a
very difficult situation and it looked like the break-up of the group. Everyone refocused, recommitted and re-energised. We ended up back in Division 1, Ulster champions and beaten in the All-Ireland final narrowly. It was a good year this year but we didn’t get the ending that we wanted.”
He lost just one game in the Ulster Championship out of 14; under his watch, Donegal won 20 out of 24 Championship games in total.
The one that will grate the most will be the Kerry defeat, the one that brought the great voyage to an end.
He said: “Against Kerry we didn’t deliver our normal performance. If we did deliver our normal performance I think we might’ve won the game. Kerry can be better again. But Kerry were better than us on the day. There’s no question about that. I’ve no regrets about that. I wouldn’t change a thing in the lead-in to the final.
“That’s a funny thing to say but our preparations were spot-on. We just didn’t deliver the performance. It was very unusual for us to do that. It’s hard to say.
“Kerry had their own gameplan and they had their tactics and nailed it well. You have to acknowledge that. We didn’t deliver what we know we are capable of. We have criteria we work to in every game and we evaluate that after every game. I would suggest after the final it would be very, very low. We give a percentage out of 100 and it would’ve been very low.
“Maybe, I don’t know, we just gravitated towards winning it or the medal or whatever.”
McGuinness referenced the semi-final against Dublin, a game for which they ‘knew that we had to deliver a really top class performance or Dublin would annihilate you.’ Ryan McHugh netted twice and Colm McFadden goaled another. Against a team that was billed as almost unbeatable, Donegal triumphed. Croke Park was shell-shocked and stunned all at once. 3-14 to 0-17.
“We delivered that performance,” McGuinness said.
“The reason we won the game is because we believed that we could winthe game and we worked very hard.
“It’s down to having good players first and foremost.
“If you’ve got average or poor players you won’t beat Dublin. That is a brilliant Dublin team and there are many All-Irelands in that team.
“For me, I think it’s very important to knock down all the barriers.
“If you believe what was being said, or listening to what was being said, there’s not a chance we would have won that game.”
McGuinness’s phone rang non-stop on the night he conveyed his decision to the ‘group’.
“The text messages kept coming from the players to me. Some lovely words and that means a lot,” he said.
It had surprised many people that McGuinness opted to inform his players in this way, rather than call them to a meeting.
“Donegal is a massive county and to bring everyone into a hotel in Letterkenny to say: ‘I’m leaving’ and then let them go home again wouldn’t have made a lot of sense,” he said.
“It was an emotional moment when you sit down to do that. The bottom line for me is purity and honest. We have had that from day one and we had a great time together.”
In the weeks after Donegal’s capturing of Sam in 2012, McGuinness took up a role with Celtic FC in Glasgow as a Performance Consultant.
This year, new manager Ronnie Deila has heightened McGuinness’s responsibilities and he now works as the first team’s sports psychologist. On Saturday last, he was alongside Deila in the dugout as Celtic romped to a 5-0 win over lowly Ross County at the Global Energy Stadium in Dingwall.
He explained: “In soccer, a lot of it is about opinions. When I went there with my own sports science background and psychology background and coaching background I wanted to make it more objective and try and develop indicators on players on a consistent basis.
“That’s been rolled out now in the academy now for the U-9s up to the U-20s. Since the new manager came in he wants me to pretty much work exclusively with the first team on the psychology side of things.”