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Dublin: 15 °C Tuesday 20 August, 2019
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Jim McGuinness dreaming of Donegal dynasty

The All Ireland winning manager takes his satisfaction from helping players make the most of their time in the Donegal shirt.

Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie

SOME THINGS MOVE fast in Gaelic Football.

A Donegal player covering back is one of them. Perceptions, targets and popularity are just a few others.

Three years ago, you would have been hard pressed to get a strong opinion from the average football fan on Donegal.

They were dismantled by Cork in the 2009 All Ireland quarter final. In 2010, they matched Down through 70 Ulster Championship minutes before fading in extra time. When the first round of the qualifiers came to an end, they were nine points worse than Armagh.

Bar a few natural neighbourly rivals, nobody had any great dislike for the team in the north west.

Fast forward to the present day and they split the nation. An All Ireland and a third consecutive Ulster final will do that.

The view of their detractors is that they blot the landscape of football. A sport which should be played with each and every team adopting a single uniformed  tactic. 14 individual match-ups is the only true and fair way.

‘We don’t take the flak…’

Jim McGuinness hardly reinvented the wheel with his defensive system, but he did smooth the edges. It’s a rare sport that reacts to tactical innovation so angrily.

“We don’t take the flak because we don’t really acknowledge the flak, do you know what I mean?” And with that, McGuinness has risen above the criticism when he sat down opposite TheScore.ie this week.

The challenges he faces in the job have changed. He has built belief, now he has to deal with complacency. Not within his own squad, he insists. But from supporters who have quickly come to expect things come easily on the road to Croke Park.

“The general public say it to each other and when the general public interact with the players, ‘this will be handy enough, this will be handy enough’. That’s the way it goes on. It is all part of it, but I can’t go around holding Mark McHugh’s hand in Kilcar. If he is interacting with people, he is interacting with people.

“Thankfully we don’t go in for that. We respect every team to the highest level. Whether it is a Division Four team or the top team in the country, we respect them, analyse them as best we can and focus on ourselves then, try and get ourselves right to give a performance.”

Attention to detail doesn’t go halfway to describing McGuinness’ management. He blames the lacklustre performance in the win over Down to the kick-off delay. His players, he says, were ‘ready to take the hinges off’ the dressing room door, but were left to cool off on the field awaiting the start.

An excuse, maybe,  but McGuinness doesn’t strike you as a man who wallows too long in excuses.

The new sense of expectation in Donegal comes because of the superior displays on their way to lifting the Sam Maguire. It’s something McGuinness is undoubtedly proud of delivering, but his eyes really light up when talking of the players who have collected overdue medals on his watch.

‘Bridesmaids’

“We’ve a group of players and we’re trying to be the best we can be with that group of players. That’s what’s important to me.

“Colm McFadden, Rory Kavanagh, Neil Gallagher, Eamon McGee, Neil McGee and Karl Lacey had no Ulster Championship medal, but now all of a sudden they have two Ulster Championships and an All-Ireland medal. They’re getting out of their career what they’ve put into it for ten years, eight years or whatever amount of years it is.” He says.

“They’ve been the bridesmaids so many times and stood back and watched Tyrone and Armagh take the spoils, year in, year out. This is their time now to try to do the best they can for themselves.

“This thing will all blow over some day and Donegal will disappear into the sunset and somebody else will come along. But the boys will have gotten something out of their career in the form of medals. That’s what they’re fighting and competing for.”

Of course, it may not ‘blow over’ completely. When a side starts to dominate matches and provincial championships like Donegal are now, talk quickly moves to long-term goals. A dynasty. Football’s Kilkenny – albeit the Cats have missed out on the Leinster Championship this time around.

McGuinness loves the idea, but fears it’s a long, long way away.

‘You have to ask the question why?

“That would be ideal, wouldn’t it? I suppose Kilkenny are winning minors and under 21s consistently. There’s a self-prophecy there; a God-given right –  ’Liam MacCarthy shall be mine some day’ – that’s the way the mentality is there. I suppose Mickey Harte has created that in Tyrone with three All Irelands and five Ulster championships. A culture where the under age teams expect to move forward and achieve.

“We’ve a lot of work to do in that area in terms of under age structure in our county. Colleges football within the county is not strong and there are a lot of gaps to be filled so our minor teams don’t traditionally do well. You have to ask the question why?

“But then our bucks come better in their mid-20s than the superstar minors in Tyrone, Derry and Armagh because they’re put up as a superstar very young in their career. So there is no magic answer to these questions unfortunately. A lot of it is about trying to make the best of what you’ve got.”

McGuinness was speaking at the launch of Arthur Guinness Projects this week.

Few can argue McGuinness has done that, he makes no bones about being driven on by the prospect of winning a third consecutive Ulster title. It’s only since beating Down that that has become the focus, but he is acutely aware of what beating Monaghan to claim three-in-a-row would mean in the context of history.

“For this group of Donegal players to go into the history books with Cavan of the 40s, Down of the 60s and Armagh of the noughties… to go in with that calibre of company based on where these fellas were: basically wrote off. Wrote off within Donegal and wrote off outside Donegal.

“‘Time for change’” McGuinness continues, beginning to echo the sentiment in the county when he was handed the reins. “‘Time to move them on. Time to Bring in the under 21s, get rid of all them players…’  These are all the players that won the All Ireland and the last two Ulster championships. These are the exact same players.

“So, for that group of players, to go in with that sort of company would be awesome once their day is over and looking back on it.”

‘McFadden was that close to calling time’

It’s a common theme you’ll quickly find when sitting down with McGuinness for any length of time. The success, the rise to the top of the game gives him immense pleasure. Not for his own ego, but for players who have given their all to Donegal to finally get some reward before signing off from inter-county duty.

“Colm McFadden for instance,” McGuinness announces as he moves his index finger and thumb towards each other, “very easily might not be part of our squad. I’d say it was that close that he was gonna call time.

“All of a sudden now, he’s fulfilled his potential and is fulfilling his potential – as a footballer. He’s recognised as a top player and winning games in clutch situations.  He’s got his medals; his All Ireland and his two Ulster championships. That’s a great story in terms of an individual person. That story might not have happened.

“Probably, if you said to me three years ago, was that achievable? I’d be thinking, it’d be unbelievable if it was, but a lot of things would have to fall into place to make it happen.”

Things change, some quicker than others.

Monaghan book their place in Ulster final

5 talking points – Dublin v Kilkenny, Leinster SHC semi-final replay

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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