Jim McGuinness tells a good one about just how serious they are about their football in Kerry. By the time the 1998 Sigerson Cup had rolled around on St Valentine’s weekend, the Higher Certificate in Health and Leisure Studies student McGuinness was part of a star-studded line-up at Institute of Technology Tralee.
The Glenties man, who then was an unmistakable character as he sported a goatee beard and had the flowing locks, lined out at full-forward in a side that included Kerry’s Seamus Moynihan, Mike Frank Russell, Barry O’Shea, Jack Ferriter, Pa O’Sullivan and William Kirby; Michael Donnellan, Michael Cloherty and Paraic Joyce from Galway were there, as was Damien Hendy of Kildare. Twelve months beforehand, Tralee had broken the universities’ stronghold on the O’Connor Cup, a grip that had been going since the establishment of the competition in 1911 as a three-way tournament between the university colleges in Dublin, Cork and Galway. Queen’s University Belfast soon came on board as did other universities but by the 1990s the event was further broadened to include the Regional Technical Colleges.
McGuinness wasn’t part of that team that won at Coleraine in the spring of 1997 but was on board in September of that year, making the long journey down Ireland’s west coast to study and returning back up it every week to play for his local club, Naomh Conaill, who then were much less decorated a team than they are today.
As well as being hosts and defending champions, the fact Tralee were the Kerry representative team in 1998 in a national competition also brought with it its own pressures from a county whose people were brought up on a staple diet of silverware. TG4 were to screen the competition live for the first time.
“When I was studying in Kerry and playing with the Sigerson team, I remember in 1998 we hosted the competition in Tralee,” McGuinness says. “There was a big excitement in the town and a lot of expectation on the team.”
Val Andrews from Ballymun Kickams was in charge of the team and in an era of rapid development as the Celtic Tiger purred in Ireland, developments in sport were similarly lavish.
“We actually went to Killarney to stay in a four or five-star hotel in the build-up and for the competition because there was too much activity going on in Tralee,” McGuinness adds. “Too much nocturnal activity probably! That’s how professional they were, though.”
McGuinness had an All-Ireland winners’ medal in his back pocket almost six years at that stage having been a panellist as Donegal toppled Dublin in 1992 and the Kerry contingent, in 1997, bridged an 11-year All-Ireland gulf in the Kingdom.
Six months after the Sigerson Cup the Galway men in Tralee’s ranks were to take Sam Maguire west of the Shannon for the first time in 32 years, thus providing a framed photograph to hang in Taffe’s Bar beside their three-in-a-row teams of 1964 to ‘66. Despite these wonderful accomplishments, though, the third-level colleges were probably more advanced than the bulk of the county teams who had won Gaelic football’s top prize at Croke Park. Students learned more at college than merely academics. As sportsmen they were living the life of professionals. It intrigued McGuinness. “When you woke up in the morning on those Sigerson weekends, there was a flip-chart stating what you would do at nine o’clock, 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock and so on,” he recalled. “Training, warm-up, showers, when you ate and when you were to go home. This was all done by very good coaches and there were some very good players from other counties. It opened up your eyes.”
That level of preparation ensured Tralee won that Sigerson Cup in 1998 against University of Ulster, Jordanstown, 0-10 to 0-8, before making it a three-in-a-row the year afterwards, when the Garda College were seen off 1-8 to 0-7 in Belfast. McGuinness had then been elevated to captain and in 2001, he skippered Jordanstown to victory in the competition.
McGuinness is now approaching his 40th birthday and is a well-rounded and knowledgeable football man after keeping his eyes and ears open in places like Tralee. He has taken Donegal football into the 21st century and much of the reasoning for that is what he picked up in Kerry.
“Being in Kerry, where football is held in such high regard, it’s very easy for me to see just how they have won so many All-Irelands. Every physical and human resource is put into it. They’re very passionate and professional about it.”
Now, on Sunday, Donegal and Kerry play-off in the last of the All-Ireland quarter-finals. While McGuinness’s Donegal have been lauded of late for their forward-thinking and evolving strategies, the one standout common with last year’s more static fare was is the excellent level of preparation.
Whilst Kerry might claim to be the traditionalists of football with the direct style and no blankets, that level of cute hoorism won’t wash with McGuinness, who almost 15 years ago witnessed first-hand the levels to which they readied themselves.
The day before the Ulster final against Down last month the Donegal panel sat together in the Slieve Russell Hotel in Cavan to digest the third round qualifier between Tyrone, a side who have been the bane of Kerry’s lives for the last decade, and Jack O’Connor’s contemporaries.
It has been said in the lead-up that O’Connor had driven to Dublin to spend three hours with a top Ulster coach, trying to unearth a game plan that would finally see Kerry get the better of their nemesis. For too long Kerry couldn’t beat Tyrone with their own policies, so they decided to replicate them.
O’Connor stuffed their defence when the need arose and still had the forward power to thump Mickey Harte’s team, 1-16 to 1-6, and bury some ghosts of the past. Tears welled up in Paul Galvin’s eyes in the post-match interviews.
Clare provided less of a test in the fourth round qualifier in Limerick as Kerry hammered in 2-22 to 1-6, learning little in the process. But at least it wasn’t as precarious a win as their first in the back door this summer, the 2-10 to 1-12 scrape against Westmeath in Mullingar, which was a match in which they trailed by six points at a stage.
Kerry have a habit of springing to life when they reach Croke Park. Just three seasons ago, the year they won their 36th and most recent All-Ireland, Sligo only lost in Tralee by a single point and Kerry had goalkeeper Diarmuid Murphy to thank for a late penalty save from David Kelly.
After that meek victory, Kerry’s obituary was already being written as they travelled to Croke Park for the All-Ireland quarters to take on five-in-a-row Leinster champions Dublin. That match is still dubbed the ‘Bank Holiday Massacre’ as Dublin were hammered 1-24 to 1-7. Meath and Cork were then beaten and Sam was off to the Kingdom. Again.
“It’s going to be a ferocious battle, we are well aware of that,” O’Connor said of Donegal. “These Donegal fellas really have pushed back the frontiers as regards fitness and tackling and getting a great defensive system. It will be a huge challenge for us to break that down.
“We are not expecting a pile of pretty football in Croke Park but we will be doing our best to keep it as open as we can but we know what we are up against. I was at the All-Ireland semi-final last year and it was Gaelic football as we have never seen it before. That’s a massive challenge for us as coaches and management and players to try and break that down.”
Kerry’s forward class with Colm Cooper – who last weekend against Clare became the championship’s record points’ scorer of all-time with 29-205 – Kieran Donaghy, Declan O’Sullivan and Galvin is as good as there is in the game. Darran O’Sullivan has had to be content with cameos of late. Bryan Sheehan is capable of swinging over placed balls from 55 yards.
But Donegal under McGuinness are unafraid of everyone. Their 2-18 to 0-13 Ulster final over Down in Clones was perhaps more spectacular than anything that has gone before in his 18-month tenure.
Tactics, the manager continually claims, are tailed to suit the occasion. But whatever about the micro procedures, the macro suggests Donegal will start with the intention of keeping concessions at a minimum until they feel their way into the game in an attacking sense.
The half-forward line will sit deep and McGuinness has a big call over whether to utilise Karl Lacey on Cooper in the corner or Declan O’Sullivan on the 45. Michael Murphy, who celebrates his 23rd birthday on Sunday and Patrick McBrearty his 19th on Monday, must be permitted to provide Colm McFadden with more support than he was allowed last August in the All-Ireland semi-final.
The most interesting facet of the content as a whole, is how Kerry can counter-act Donegal’s counter-attacks with the likes of Anthony Thompson, Frank McGlynn or even Declan Walsh as he did again Down, streaming forward on the break.
McGuinness’s players have matured and play with confidence, taking about Kerry as a “challenge,” or a “barometer.” Whatever about the in-depth appraisals, Kerry will certainly provide Donegal with both.
And although Kerry and favourites, lots of people are favouring Donegal. And no matter who wins, with this expected to be the closest of the four semi-finals that contain seven of the eight Division One teams, it can act as a serious springboard.
“Kerry have huge pedigree and will be very hard to beat,” McGuinness said. “It’s a great draw for the supporters and I would feel myself it’s a great draw for the players as it’s something they’ve never experienced before in championship. It’ll be something special and you’d imagine there would be a massive Donegal support travelling up for it and it should make for a huge occasion.”
Under McGuinness, no Donegal team has ever been under-prepared but don’t expect Kerry not to be the same. It’ll make for a fascinating battle. Kerry have always been serious about their football and since McGuinness took over, Donegal are being taken seriously too.