Jim McGuinness, Donegal's manager again following his first stint from 2011-14.

Jim McGuinness returns from a decade of wilderness in soccer

Ten seasons after he said goodbye to Gaelic football, Jim McGuinness returns. The GAA world is intrigued to see what happens next.

COME SUNDAY THE tall, slender figure of Jim McGuinness will stoop through the narrow tunnel of Ballybofey, climb the few steps to pitch level and start all over again.

He’s hardly a man for daydreaming, but should Cork manager John Cleary approach for a pre-game greeting, it might just jog McGuinness’ memory.

jim-mcguinness-with-his-son-mark Jim McGuinness with his son Mark, Ballybofey, 2014. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

When he started his coaching journey with Donegal, he gathered up his Under 21 players in late winter of 2009 and bluntly stated his intention: an All-Ireland.

He showed them a picture of the reigning All-Ireland champions at that level, Cork, with their manager, John Cleary.

Most eyes darted down to the floor. One even snorted. It was some journey from then to three years later, when McGuinness managed Donegal to their second All-Ireland.

The last time he stood in Donegal garb by the side of a pitch in a meaningful game was the 2014 All-Ireland final. As he made his way around the pitch afterwards consoling his players after defeat to Kerry, he already knew he was gone.

He was 41, fizzing with energy and intelligence and onto a good thing with Celtic FC.

Most of all, he was relentlessly ambitious. Those who played for him were convinced he would make a career in soccer. Joe Brolly made the bold prediction that he would one day manage Barcelona.

But in the decade to follow, he would meaningfully be involved in adult professional soccer teams for just 13 months.

The last game was on 9 June, 2019. He never managed again.

Where did those years go?


If there is a Jim McGuinness soccer origin story, it’s thin gruel.

In terms of playing, he managed to fit in a few games at the tail-end of the ’90s, in that dead time between Naomh Conaill had finished up and Donegal hadn’t got going again, togging out for Kilmacrennan Celtic on boggy pitches with short shorts and outsized shinpads.

His coaching career was percolating though from the moment Brian McEniff asked him to stay on the panel for the 1992 season after he returned home from Boston for the Christmas. He was just 19.

Under McEniff, PJ McGowan and Declan Bonner, he would return home from training and draw out the drills and plays they had gone through.

While lecturing in Sports Coaching and Sports Psychology at Limavady College, he had a role with Gaelic football and soccer teams.

In his years managing Donegal, he wasn’t doing any formal work – he would detail that his days were taken up with domestic chores, school runs and his schedule was kept clear to devote himself to the Donegal job.

Within that, his achievement in winning the Ulster title in 2011 provoked Paul McGinley’s father Mick to put a call through. His son was captaining the Ryder Cup team and wanted to bounce things off various people.

When McGinley and McGuinness met, the conversation went on half the night.

McGinley had a relationship with Dermot Desmond, the moustachioed shareholder of Celtic. He gave him a nudge about McGuinness and told the man who owns several betting companies to keep an eye on Donegal in 2012.

That year he would occasionally be brought over to Parkhead and experienced the glamour of Champions’ League nights.

After they won the All-Ireland, Desmond offered him a full-time job with Celtic. McGuinness, who would quaintly refer to his new boss as, ‘Mr Dermot Desmond,’ asked if he could do it part-time and continue with Donegal.

Initially, he started as a performance consultant. That involved constantly monitoring players and then later having conversations. The role evolved to coaching underage teams and becoming a occasional presence in the dugout during Ronny Deila’s time in charge of the first team in 2015.

In 2017 he started studying towards his coaching qualifications and was assistant manager of the club’s Under 20 team.

When Brendan Rodgers took over from Deila, he brought in his own support staff and McGuinness was less in the public eye.

from-left-to-right-celtic-manager-ronny-deila-efe-ambrose-jim-mcguinness-leigh-griffiths-and-assistant-manager-john-collins-before-the-uefa-champions-league-qualifying-play-off-at-celtic-park-g With the Celtic management team under Ronny Deil Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

There must be times, however, when he thinks about his next move.

He left Celtic in June 2017 to become assistant manager to Roger Schmidt at the Chinese Super League side, Beijing Sinobo Guoan. It lasted just six months before he explained his exit was for, “Personal, family reasons.”

By the end of 2018, he got his very first gig in managing a team with Charlotte Independence in the second tier of Major league soccer.

It’s difficult to argue against his record at this time and attention will be draw to the bottom line of one win in fifteen games.

The most logical analysis was conducted by the former soccer journalist, youth coach and Uefa Youth Elite licence holder, Stephen Finn, on his blog .

Their one win, he points out, “Came against a side whose oldest player in their starting line-up was 22 and seven of those starters were teenagers”.

The problems identified by Finn was that the team during McGuinness’ time lacked an identity. Good at the back and poor going forward, until they were shocking at the back with individual and collective errors.

They made 535 passes in their first game – a 3-2 loss to Indy Eleven, and had just three shots on target. They enjoyed 62% possession while their opponents made just 330 passes.

The next day out, they had 16 – 16! – attempts at goal in a 3-3 draw with Atlanta United.

Then, the losses started piling up. 1-0 against St Louis. 2-0 to Charleston Battery. 2-1 to New York Red Bulls’ second team.

Reprieve came in a 2-1 win over Bethlehem Steel but that positive energy was wiped away instantly the next day out with a 3-0 loss in a derby against North Carolina.

Losing to the amateur side, Florida Soccer Soldiers in the US Open Cup, was a major embarrassment. He was on borrowed time after that.

Any sober reflection on that time, this side of the Atlantic and with an appreciation of the GAA, would leave you wondering about the worth of the entire venture.

The average attendance at Charlotte Independence was 1,659 – less than the crowd at Waterford FC. In fact, it’s less than half of the average attendance at League of Ireland Premier Division games this season past.

It all felt a bit insignificant. A move inspired by panic. 

His next move looked to be a return home and a role with Dundalk. Sporting Director at the time, Jim Magilton had talks with McGuinness when the manager’s role was open. Magilton decided he wanted to take a ‘suck it and see’ approach and offered him a temporary contract. It went unsigned.

In October 2020 he popped up for an online press conference promoting Sky Sports’ GAA coverage and said: “I’m open to anything that makes sense for me professionally and in terms of my own development. That’s the bottom line. I have had a very good journey up to this point and have been learning a huge amount along the way.”

The punditry gig was good for him. He was exceptional at it. Articulate and bright and embarrassing for those on other channels that had long given up and relied on polemic or folksy stories to get through the day.

jim-mcguinness McGuinness doing punditry for Sky Sports. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The relationship with Irish Times writer Keith Duggan that produced such an impressive autobiography also worked in print for his column that ran through championship summers.

Around that time, a clip surfaced of him conducting a training session with Galway’s footballers, causing much speculation.

In actual fact he had been properly involved with Louth club Naomh Máirtín as they won their first senior title, having lost the previous two finals.

The last soccer post he was attached to was in the backroom of Derry City’s Under-19 team that won the Enda McGuill Cup in 2021.

Last year his involvement with the Down senior footballers was more comprehensive than he or the Down camp would wish to have admitted publicly. As the season wore on, his appearances at training became regular as he helped to plot the downfall of Donegal in the Ulster championship.

Aside from that, he was on the books of several public speaking companies and did the circuit of talking to teams of bankers and insurance salespeople. It was a meandering, off-brand period.

Was it at this point that he realised the ‘coach for hire’ gig wasn’t worth it?


The touchstones of place and pride, mean nothing in professional soccer. The means by which McGuinness stoked the fires in Donegal had no part of a world where team-mates barely know each other, let alone where each of them are coming from.

And when you are playing in front of crowds in America of 1,600, the one thing you want is out of there, as soon as possible.

Soccer is an enclosed world.

McGuinness arrived into county football with a very specific, personal set of motivations. It’s outlined in one of the most touching and tragic memoirs on an Irish sporting figure ever committed to print, ‘Until Victory Always.’

When he was rolling out his project to the Donegal senior team, he got the same reaction as he did from the U-21s; disbelief and mirth.

Some knew him from playing with him, when he was a lighter spirit and carried the nickname ‘Jimmy Tunes’ from his love of dance music.

‘What is this boy on about?’ questioned Rory Kavanagh in his autobiography, ‘Winning an All-Ireland? Jimmy Tunes?’

jim-mcguinness-1671998 McGuinness in the 'Jimmy Tunes' era. Patrick Bolger / INPHO Patrick Bolger / INPHO / INPHO

But as he laid out his plans, he did so in the ballroom of the hotel in Downings, the massive glass windows showcasing the waves coming in to the bay.

‘Look out there,” McGuinness beseeched them. ‘There’s a county just waiting to be proud of you.’

jim-mcguinness-and-michael-murphy-lift-the-anglo-celt-cup-in-the-dresing-room After winning the Ulster championship in 2011, with captain, Michael Murphy. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

The kind of stuff that has the pores opening for GAA people.

The kind of stuff that would have a soccer player ringing his agent as they pad out the door in socks and flip-flops.  

The two worlds are incompatible. McGuinness is back and we should all be thankful for the return of one of the most influential figures of 21st century Gaelic football.

Yeah, he will be spiky and he will be difficult. He will hang on to grievances that don’t exist and he will manipulate the narrative.

All managers do. The trick is to keep your eye on the important stuff.

In 2011, his first National League game was in Ballybofey, on a soaking Saturday night local derby against Sligo. They were eight points and a man down after a red card for Kevin Mulhern.

In the dying moments, Neil McGee – now his selector – charged up the field and grabbed a critical goal.

In the press box, Brian McEniff had spent the evening muttering curses to himself as frustration bit. At the moment of the goal he ran the full length of it and punched the air, exclaiming his happiness.

The thread that binds McEniff, McGee and McGuinness still holds.

New beginnings.

Once again.

Donegal endures.

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