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Joe Kernan: Sam Maguire can return to Donegal

Less than 12 months ago I watched Jim McGuinness trudge out of Oliver Plunkett Park, Crossmaglen with some friends having just watched Donegal surrender to Armagh in what proved to be an embarrassingly one-sided All-Ireland qualifier.

Defeat was surely a difficult pill for McGuinness to swallow, a man who had given many years outstanding service as a player to his native county.

When Jamie Clarke scored two goals in the opening eight minutes, the game was as good as over. McGuinness must have felt that Donegal were about to be consigned to a lengthy period in the wilderness.

It was that game which, perhaps not surprisingly, sounded the death knell for John Joe Doherty’s hopes of continuing as Donegal manager.

The north-west side was in chaos with morale at rock-bottom and the future looking grim to say the least.

Needless to say, there was much boardroom debate in the aftermath of that Crossmaglen debacle.

Even when it was finally confirmed that McGuinness would succeed Cunningham, grave apprehension was expressed that he might not be the right person to revitalise Donegal’s fortunes.

But time has proved a great healer — and eye-opener.

The misery, depression and stark anger that prevailed within Donegal then has been replaced by optimism, buoyancy and pride as sights are justifiably fixed on the possibility of a second All-Ireland title.

Maybe a few weeks ago this might have been deemed fanciful thinking ,but Donegal’s track record in the seven months they have been under the stewardship of McGuinness has been nothing less than inspiring.

They won the NFL Division Two title, conquered Ulster for the first time since 1992 and thrust themselves into the hunt for the Sam Maguire Cup.

McGuinness, articulate and forward-thinking, certainly does not see himself as a miracle worker.

But he has managed to instil a new psyche within his squad. In tandem with this he has devised a system of playing that, while perhaps not carrying any great aesthetic value, has certainly taken Donegal to a place they never dreamt they might be.

This is a squad too in which a number of members suffered severe criticism from within and without their own county for their reputation as party animals in the past — win, lose or draw the theory was that Donegal celebrated anyway!

A succession of managers, among them Brian McIver and Mickey Moran, along with the affable Cunningham, strove to inculcate discipline and organisation in the hope of ending the county’s title famine. But while league glory was enjoyed under McIver, championship success remained as remote as ever.

Jim McGuinness, though, has transformed Donegal. When they take on Dublin or Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final on August 28, you can be sure that his team will be even more confident and focussed after their recent progress.

The influence which McGuinness has wielded in Donegal this year is similar to that which James Horan has exerted in his role as the new Mayo boss.

Like McGuinness, he has only been at the helm for seven months, but in that period Mayo have retained their place with some comfort in Division One, won the Connacht title and have

already booked an All Ireland semi-final date against Kerry.

No team has endured more All-Ireland semi-final and final heartbreak than Mayo.

Not since 1951 has the county won the All-Ireland. They have ‘hit the bar’ on a few occasions, notably in the 90s when they had a great rivalry with Meath.

But they have invariably fallen short in their pursuit of Sam.

Horan, who knows all about All-Ireland agony having been a member of the Mayo side in the mid-90s, has instilled steely resolve, passionate pride and a ferocious work-ethic into the present side.

For a county team that had come to be regarded as lightweights in the past, Mayo are strong, resilient and aggressive – qualities that complement their skill, flair and fluency.

McGuinness and Horan have already left a significant imprint on the championship landscape even should their teams make no further headway.

In doing so, they have sent out a message to all those who may be considering a career in inter county-management.

Commitment, self-sacrifice and minute attention to detail are absolute pre-requisites if success is to be achieved. It also helps if a person is prepared to commit themselves 24/7.

Between now and the end of the month we will learn if McGuinness and Horan are to see their ceaseless labours bear fruit in the All-Ireland vineyard.

Belfast Telegraph

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