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'He's somebody who knows how to get the best out of people': Jim McGuinness and fulfilling a football fantasy

After six years serving his apprenticeship, the Donegal man has got his chance in North Carolina.

WHEN THE PLANE began its descent into Charlotte Douglas International Airport, earlier this week, Jim McGuinness peered out the window and got a shock. 

Despite the sunshine, the city was still blanketed with snow after a weekend of extreme weather. 

Later, at his official unveiling, he couldn’t resist using it as an opening gambit.

“They said, ‘Come to North Carolina. It never snows. It’s never cold. Sunshine 12 hours a day,’” he said, with a grin.

“So, I got a surprise when I was flying in this morning.”

Inevitably, there will be plenty more ahead as he attempts to navigate his very first head coaching role in professional football. 

The Charlotte Independence ply their trade in the United Soccer League (USL), effectively the second tier in the North American soccer pyramid below Major League Soccer, though promotion and relegation don’t exist. 

The USL has developed a steady product, particularly in the last 12 months. The remarkable success of FC Cincinnati (average crowds of over 25,000) has seen them secure a place in MLS from next year while Nashville will follow in 2020. Elsewhere, other communities like Louisville and Sacramento have completely bought into the local football scene and new franchises like Didier Drogba’s Phoenix Rising and the quirky but impactful Las Vegas Lights have both ensured plenty of headlines this year.

For the other clubs, it’s a difficult balancing act because so many of them are MLS affiliates. In total, 19 of the 33 competing USL sides in 2018 effectively operated as a developmental extension of a higher-profile club. 

Charlotte were one of those for the last four seasons, with Colorado Rapids as their partner. However, from next year they’ll be on their own. And before going their separate ways, the Rapids presented them with a farewell gift: McGuinness.

Meathman Padraig Smith is the executive vice-president and general manager of the MLS side and played a crucial role in the Donegal native being offered an intriguing opportunity in the Tar Heel State.

“We spoke on the phone first of all and chatted about football, really,” Smith says. 

“He asked if he could come over and we were delighted to have him around the club. He spent three or four days with the coaching staff and with me, getting a bit of an insight into the game over here and the idiosyncrasies of soccer in the US compared to back home. It was great for us as well, in terms of going through his methodology, his philosophy, how he likes to set up his teams, what he’s taken from his time with Celtic and in China.

It really makes a lot of sense for Charlotte to bring in someone like him, who’s proven to be a winner and not just a great motivator but also tactically astute and somebody who knows how to get the best out of people.”

McGuinness has never shied away from rolling the dice and is determined at finding his way.

Eyebrows were raised when Celtic headhunted him. But he was always chasing more. He studied for his coaching badges, intent on earning the right to become a fully-fledged manager somewhere down the line. The short stint in China with Beijing Guoan was another risk but one worth taking. At Celtic, there had been a long-term commitment and, more importantly, a familiarity with the club’s identity and culture. He was way out of his comfort zone in the Super League and alongside staff that were relative strangers. Still, he put everything down to experience: a different management style to absorb, a new league to figure out, players from different backgrounds to get to grips with.

Manchester City U19 v Celtic U19 - UEFA Youth League - Group C - Academy Stadium McGuinness was involved with Celtic for five years before he headed for Beijing. Source: Martin Rickett

He stepped away in January, having joined the previous summer. In his parting statement, he mentioned how he was looking forward to ‘a new chapter in Europe’. But, for whatever reason, that didn’t materialise. Instead, the chance has come in an unusual place. But that won’t deter McGuinness. He’s never shirked a challenge.      

Smith, who recommended McGuinness to Charlotte president and managing partner Jim McPhilliamy, feels it’s ‘a natural move’. 

“Jim obviously had other opportunities that were open to him and that he could have taken up,” he says. 

“But he already made the jump across from Gaelic football into the soccer world with Celtic and Beijing so I think this is a logical step and with the growth of the US soccer market, this is a great starting point for him from a head coaching perspective. It’s something that will certainly benefit Charlotte and that’s good for everybody.

His attention to detail is unbelievable, it really is strong. He proved back in Ireland that he’s a very good man-motivator and manager. The fact he went to Celtic and then Beijing shows he’s committed to honing his craft and turning himself into the best coach he can be.”

The North American football landscape is a curious place and the USL certainly has its quirks. Teams like Indy Eleven, Sacramento and Nashville boast average attendances of over 10,000. But, so many sides – Charlotte included – struggle to even hit a third of that. Still, context is important. The team’s current home – the Sportsplex – is a 25-minute drive outside the city in Matthews. At an absolute maximum, the capacity is 5,000. So, for a relatively new sports franchise, it’s a tough sell for supporters, especially considering Charlotte’s marquee teams – the Carolina Panthers of the NFL and the Michael Jordan-owned Charlotte Hornets of the NBA – both reside in the downtown core.

The Independence will move into a better-located and newly-renovated Memorial Stadium in 2021 which will push the capacity into the mid-teens. But, in the short-term, McGuinness and the ownership will need to get more people through the gates. The numbers need to start spiking.    

There are other unfamiliar elements too, like the championship structure (East and West conferences and then the postseason play-offs), the wearying effect of travel (it’s at least a two-hour flight to most conference rivals), the economics of assembling a competitive roster. 

Screen Shot 2018-12-14 at 22.16.37 McGuinness is a risk for Charlotte but given their situation, the appointment makes a lot of sense.

But, McGuinness has prided himself on being an immensely well-read character and according to Smith is already well up to speed on the league and wider North American football environment.    

“It’s one of the things you learn about Jim when you first meet him – just how much research he does,” he says. 

He’ll be absolutely clued in on every single nuance of the game over here. He doesn’t leave much to chance at all. It’s that sort of attention to detail and dedication that’s helped him achieve what he has so far. And that won’t be any different over here. We’ve spoken on the phone many, many times now and it’s clear that he already has a super grasp of the landscape over here.”    

There is a genuine excitement at the appointment.

Football people who have spent time with McGuinness acknowledge that he’s not an imposter. They feel that it makes complete sense. They point to his work ethic, his desire to push himself as a manager, his decision to switch codes and change focus when it seemed easier to stay put, his already-impressive playbook. And then there’s his fascination with cross-pollination and taking inspiration from other sports. He has impeccable references. He’s already worked alongside well-known European managers in Brendan Rodgers and Roger Schmidt. He’s spent six years serving an apprenticeship.  

And the fit is a good one. 

Charlotte are not a dazzling heavyweight in the USL. It’s hard for them to find an edge. To try and compete with the big teams in the big markets they need to do things differently. So, they’re open to new ideas. McGuinness is a risk. But for a team that missed the playoffs by seven points last season and saw an average of 1,659 come to their games, the time seems right to throw caution to the wind.

Perhaps his relationships and contacts can lead to some interesting player acquisitions while his own story will attract plenty of media attention and a wider interest in how Charlotte fare next term and beyond.

At the very least, there’s a renewed sense of optimism in the city after the McGuinness appointment. And that’s not a bad start.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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