BY CHRIS MCNULTY
FRENCH playwright Jean-Paul Sartre once mentioned that ‘in football, everything is complicated by the presence of the other team’.
For Jim McGuinness, the Donegal senior football manager, everything is simplified by the presence of his opposition. The Glenties man this week insisted that the preparations for 2013 will not alter in any shape or form from the approaches of 2011 and 2012.
McGuinness has fielded questions about defending their Ulster SFC and All-Ireland SFC titles since he took Donegal across the Rubicon by beating Mayo in the All-Ireland final in September. Ever since, Donegal has been high on Sam Maguire euphoria and while the county still celebrates, McGuinness will draw a line under the success in the coming weeks.
The squad head off to Dubai in the days after Christmas and the big names will get down to some serious training in January ahead of planned returns in the early stages of the National Football League. Donegal were given new focus this week when it was confirmed that their opening League game against Kildare will now be played as a part of a double-header with the Dublin-Cork fixture at Croke Park.
For most of McGuinness’s players, they will be back at the site of their greatest ever triumph when they next take to the field for a competitive outing in Donegal colours on February 2nd in Croke Park. The game was initially planned for St Conleth’s Park in Newbridge, but its compact 6,000 capacity led to the GAA top brass calling for a move and this week the return of the Spring Series, with All-Ireland kings Donegal headlining was confirmed.
McGuinness and Rory Gallagher have both pledged that it will be ‘more of the same’ and it’ll be ‘tweaks’ not ‘changes’ that will fall into their psyche.
“Just because you’re the All-Ireland champions doesn’t mean the approach changes,” McGuinness said.
“We break the season into phases and we move from phase to phase. We won’t change that. They won’t be in good shape in January, they’ll be ok in February, they’ll be decent in March, they’ll be building in April…in their minds too because once the grass is cut and there’s a smell of summer in the air, people start thinking about the Championship. Then it’s about getting the preparations right for the Ulster championship. Too much can be read into these things at times – but for us it’s straightforward.
“For us, it isn’t about ‘defending’ anything.
“The reality is that we have had a very straightforward approach to games of football. What we try to do is be the best that we can be on a given day, first and foremost. That hasn’t changed in two years.
“All that is on our radar is trying to have a good National League, identify one or two players we can bring into the first-team squad and then it’s Tyrone. You’d be a real fool to look past Tyrone. For us, our summer hinges on that game. We’ll put our best foot forward and try to get the right result that day. If we don’t, we’ll re-evaluate again.”
In 2011, Donegal played the role of the panto villains in Gaelic football’s big drama, as McGuinness’s tactics had pundits shooting from the hip at every given opportunity. 2012 saw Tir Chonaill cut a devastating swathe through the Championship summer – but the Donegal manager insists that the critical analysis was ‘irrelevant’.
He said: “It played no part at all.
“We’re our own biggest critics. We know what we want and what we want to achieve. We don’t need other people to tell us that. It is irrelevant because what we’re doing on the training field and what we’re coaching the players is what is important to us. People can have opinions, but that can’t impact on how we coach and prepare the team.
“The group is important to us – and the best way we can bring the group forward. After that, it’s about implementing it on the field of play.”
Last Saturday night, McGuinness paid tribute to his players for their efforts under his watch.
This week, he said that they were the key components of a jigsaw that wouldn’t fit without their dedication.
He said: “Every single coach is trying to motivate their players. Coaching is what I love doing; it’s my passion. Sitting down and thinking about what you want to do with a team and putting it down on paper and watching it all come to fruition is a very exciting process.
“That’s what we had to do initially and again on the offensive side of our game last year. If things work out, you get a great kick out of it as a coach. The key thing in the whole process is the players. If you have players who are committed and focussed when they come to training, prepared to listen when you’re working with them you’re onto a winner. In Donegal at the moment we’re lucky to have a group of players like that.
“There are fantastic coaches up and down the country – and maybe sometimes the problem is that what they’re saying isn’t being absorbed by their players.”
The 40-year old former Donegal and Naomh Conaill midfielder has recently taken up a role at Celtic FC as a Performance Consultant. Already, he has been getting his teeth into his new job at Lennoxtown, Celtic’s training base, and has spoken positively about his experience.
“My job is to work with the development squad and Celtic have identified nine players for me to work with,” he explained.
“There are a few of the young lads on the first team that I’ll be working with as well. The main job is to bridge that gap.
“I liken it to the under 21 and senior grades in Gaelic football. You see some very good Gaelic footballers at under 21 level and sometimes you can never understand how they didn’t move on to become senior players. I’m in the process of profiling them at the moment and trying to identify strengths and weaknesses in their game. Weaknesses are not a negative – they’re just things to work on to make you a better player.
“I’m enjoying it at the moment. I’ve been out watching the first team training too and that’s been very enjoyable too.”
Already, too, he has seen and heard ideas and methods that he’ll bring back into Donegal.
He said: “I’ve only been over for a couple of weeks and getting a handle on things. Even from a point of view of standing back and watching the other coaches – something I haven’t done in a long time – and seeing how the get their message across, how they instruct, how they deal with a group, has been very interesting.
“I’m enjoying it immensely. There are other things that go on at the club that I pick up on just by being there – and that is all very helpful on a personal level. If you can continue to develop as an individual, then you can bring that into your group.”