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Jim McGuinness is defying all the odds at Donegal

By John Campbell

A sombre atmosphere enveloped the impressive Croke Park Media Centre following Donegal's 16-point trouncing by Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final last year.

As the assembled journalists awaited the arrival of Jim McGuinness, apprehension, foreboding and anxiety filled the air.

But it was McGuinness himself who almost nonchalantly transformed the prevailing mood when he straight away quipped: "Right, who's first?"

The questions flowed thick and fast, the answers came back with honesty and alacrity and at the end we left convinced that step one in the Donegal rehabilitation had already been taken.

Today, McGuinness's team, an amalgam of gnarled veterans and aspiring wannabes, are preparing for an All-Ireland final against Kerry on September 21.

And no-one of sound mind would be prepared to wager too heavily against 'Sam' returning to the Hills.

If McGuinness underlined his equanimity with the media a year ago, he has since enhanced it by talking much yet ultimately saying little, certainly in relation to tactics and strategy.

He did not even put his team into the public domain in advance of Sunday's stunning triumph over Dublin even though the GAA's Director General Paraic Duffy had only a couple of weeks ago insisted that 'viable' teams should be made known in the build-up to important games. Was there a word of complaint from any quarter? Not a chance.

In a championship season in which various team managers, many of whom have since slipped through the exit door, have worked overtime to retain the faith and commitment of their 30-strong squads, McGuinness has worked a sporting miracle.

He has elicited even more out of what was thought to be a spent force than was thought humanly possible, his trusted foot-soldiers from last year having been buttressed by the towering talents of Odhran MacNiallais and Ryan McHugh.

As players drifted away from other county squads for one reason or another – Armagh lost Johnny Hanratty, Gary McCooey and Robbie Tasker; Kalum King, Connaire Harrison and Danny Savage turned their backs on Down; Seamus Quigley was jettisoned by Fermanagh and C J McGourty was absent from Antrim's line-up – the glue that held Donegal together remained more compact than ever.

True, Mark McHugh turned his back, apparently disenchanted with football but was he missed? Not in the slightest.

At the outset of the Ulster championship, Tyrone were being freely tipped to lift the title but Monaghan ended their ambitions before they were bushwhacked by Donegal in the decider.

And having been pushed to the limit by Armagh in the All-Ireland quarter-final, Donegal had been furnished with due warning that the road ahead would be strewn with pot-holes.

McGuinness not only heeded the warning but revelled in it, viewing it as a challenge to his tactical nous. To say that he met that challenge head-on last Sunday would be an understatement.

In an era in which players have become more demanding, vociferous and headstrong, McGuinness continues to exert total control over a squad that remains captivated by his intensity, passion, knowledge and ambition.

Some very high-profile managers have taken their leave of the big stage just recently – James Horan (Mayo), James McCartan (Down), Paul Bealin (Westmeath), Aidan O'Rourke (Louth), Paul Grimley (Armagh) and Alan Mulholland (Galway) to name but a few – but McGuinness, in contrast, has a job for life.

Not that he will over-stay his welcome, though. It was thought that he would step down last year but he has since proved that he is made of particularly stern stuff, resurrecting a team that many felt had run its course.

The father of a young family, it was initially believed, too, that his commitments with Celtic would impact adversely on his ability to reinvigorate Donegal.

He appeared to defy convention by restructuring his backroom team, but Donegal's measured style, voracious work-rate and total adherence to the McGuinness mantra speaks for itself.

And perhaps the team has yet to make its biggest statement of all.

Belfast Telegraph

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