The night Donegal retained the Ulster championship a fortnight ago, Jim McGuinness looked out over the Diamond and let his mind wander in whatever direction it wished to go.
Having become the first Donegal manager to retain the Anglo Celt the celebratory mood reminded him of when, almost a generation beforehand, he was one of the gang bound for Clones on board one of the coaches of the family business, now run by his brother Frank
“We were the ‘Straw Hat Brigade,’” he recalls. “We used to head off on the Sunday morning - maybe three or four coachloads from Glenties - to make a day of it.” McGuinness was not part of the entourage for the 1991 Ulster final when Donegal faced Down. That March he had gone to America, earning a few dollars labouring on sites whilst helping Donegal Boston win the New England Championships and almost the All-Americans.
Returning that Christmas for a holiday to see his parents Maureen and Jim, the 19-year-old accepted an invitation from Brian McEniff to attend a trial one cold afternoon in Ballyshannon. Brian Touhy, the first Donegal man to lift an All-Ireland when Tom Conaghan’s team won the U-21s in 1982, had opted not to return to the county fold and McEniff was looking to add a tender face or two to an experienced panel.
“I went up to the trial and scored 1-3 from wing-forward, putting the goal past Gary Walsh and I was chuffed with myself,” McGuinness says. “As I was going out the gate, Brian McEniff, wearing a sheepskin coat, called me back and asked me would I be interested in coming into the panel. I was flabbergasted. “I couldn’t get home quickly enough to tell my parents. Sometimes your life can take twists and turns. I was just fortunate enough I played very well that particular day. I could’ve gone another day and it mightn’t have worked out and I might never have been heard of again.”
Life certainly can take twists and turns. It’s said things happen for a reason but that adage sat uneasy with McGuinness. Eighteen months prior to that trial he was a Donegal minor. The inclusion was one borne out of disaster and diligence after his brother Charles had died with a heart condition aged just 16 in 1986.
“Charles was a very good player,” McGuinness recalls of his brother, a boy with the frame of a man. “He was four years older than me and was destined to be a county minor. That was a dream I carried on. One of the biggest moments of my life was making the minor team and fulfilling a promise I had made to myself after Charles had passed.”
Having dropped Boston and whilst bedding in with the seniors in the spring of 1992, McGuinness had the opportunity of more than a minor career. Rooming with Martin Gavigan and getting the chance to integrate with his teammates on overnight away trips eased the transition.
“I was playing against grown men at the peak of their powers that weren’t holding back,” McGuinness adds. “It can be daunting for a new player. I was trying to keep my head above water. But the lads were welcoming and that made a big difference.”
McGuinness would not make his championship debut until 1993, but for the starry-eyed teenager just being a part of the All-Ireland winning panel was more than enough in 1992.
“It was fantastic; something the county had always wished for and to be caught up in it was surreal,” he says. “To have the Sam Maguire coming into the dressing room was something very special to be part of.
“Just seeing what it meant to people was what made it worthwhile and that’s something that gives me the biggest kick even now. It made people very proud of who they are and where they come from.”
If ever something peaked too soon, it was McGuinness’s inter-county career. With Ulster and All-Ireland winners’ medals before the age of 20, he scoured the wilderness for 13 years afterwards.
Donegal lost their All-Ireland crown on a quagmire in Clones in 1993 against Derry but by 1998, McGuinness, still only 25, was a pivotal player. Declan Bonner’s Donegal had nine fingers on the Anglo Celt as they led Derry by two points in the depths of Ulster final stoppage time.
Anthony Tohill punted forward. As the ball fell from the grey skyline, substitute Geoffrey McGonagle, who had only been on the pitch for eight minutes and touched the ball just twice, nudged Noel McGinley aside to set up Joe Brolly to score the only goal of the game. Derry won by a point.
The drips of the ball smacking the net pelted the heartbroken Donegal supporters behind the goal, to whom Brolly indignantly blew kisses. It was as close as McGuinness would come on the field of play.
“I have to make peace with it now and I’m content I was involved in the early stages of my career. There are a lot of good players like Adrian Sweeney, John Gildea, John Duffy, Brendan Devenney, Brian Roper and Damien Diver, who never got an Ulster medal. At least I did.”
A few weeks later, McGuinness was off to America again. Mark, his elder brother of just two years, offered a lift to Dublin airport. The pair were almost inseparable, more like best friends than brothers. At Lisnaskea, barely 10 miles from St Tiernach’s Park in Clones, the car spun and Mark lost his life.
“It’s something I live with on a daily basis and one I particularly think about when we play in Clones,” McGuinness says of that tragic day. “My relationship with Mark was also centred on football. He played club reserve and had an awful passion for the game. We’d chat for hours on end about football. Mark had a huge impact on my life.”
When Mark was alive he had a huge impact on his younger brother and it was the same after his passing. Life was heavy going for McGuinness, who had left school before doing his Leaving Cert but had gone back at 24 years of age.
He continued his education and now holds an MSc in Sport Psychology from John Moore’s University, Liverpool; a BSc Honours Degree in Sport, Exercise and Leisure from the University of Ulster, Jordanstown, and a Higher Certificate in Health and Leisure Studies from IT Tralee.
Along the way he won three Sigerson Cup medals, two as team captain, depicting leadership qualities with an extensive, evolving knowledge of the game. Meanwhile, Donegal continued to be likeable losers, a point emphasised in 2002 when they ran eventful All-Ireland winners Armagh close in the Ulster final and then drew with Dublin in the All-Ireland quarters.
“We really should’ve won Ulster in 1998 and also against Armagh in 2002,” McGuinness says. “It was around then things started moving very quickly in the six counties with coaching levels, psychology and sports science. We were always playing catch-up even though we had teams as good, if not better.
“I always liked coaching and I don’t know why or where it came from. When I was only 16 or 17, I was involved with Naomh Conaill U-12s with Leo McLoone Snr. It’s a bug I have inside. It was just putting a bit back into it but maybe that was to my detriment too. I was thinking about coaching when I was actually playing.”
As the leaves browned on his playing career, in 2004, as McGuinness went to play a ball one day against Killybegs pain shuddered though his body. He had torn cruciate ligaments, broken a leg and smashed a kneecap.
“There was nothing really there of my knee. My friend met Roy Keane at a Manchester United function in Mayo and he got me a number of a specialist in Manchester. I got it operated on and was lying up in the house feeling sorry for myself when Hughie Molloy asked would I train the Naomh Conaill seniors.”
McGuinness looked around the parish and wondered would the players have the same commitment as him. Naomh Conaill had never before won a senior county title but when McGuinness took Molloy up on his offer, the new regime took the club to the final, where they were 6/1 outsiders against St Eunan’s in 2005. The underdogs packed their defence and picked off their scores, but after a 1-5 to 0-8 drawn final, it appeared their moment had passed. The replay, however, was a mirror image of the first game and the young Naomh Conaill team were two points ahead, 0-10 to 1-5, with moments remaining.
“I came off the bench for the last few minutes,” McGuinness says. “No sane doctor would’ve recommended it. It was just nice after all the years I had played to be on the field when the final whistle went. Winning was a huge thing and something a lot of people in Glenties thought might never happen.”
Twice McGuinness was overlooked in comical circumstances for the position of Donegal senior manager. It mightn’t have made sense at the time but perhaps these were again things that happened for a reason.
He was then offered the U-21s for 2010 and shared a pot of tea with Martin McHugh and wondered whether it would be worth his while. Looking into the tea leaves, few would’ve predicted his taking of an unfancied team to an Ulster championship and within a lick of paint of an All-Ireland.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, the seniors were the first side evicted from the championship. When John Joe Doherty walked, there was only one natural successor.
McGuinness let bygones be bygones and accepted the job, promising to do all in his powers to restore the Donegal peoples’ pride in the team. Two years later, with successive Ulster titles, he has remained true to his word. “Even if it was to end tomorrow I would be content that at least I contributed something. Winning All-Irelands is the ultimate goal but for me it’s about bringing the best out of people and helping them be as successful as they can be. I feel I should’ve had more as a player so I want to get the most out of my own players.
“I’ve said it all along and it was the same in 1992, seeing smiles on people’s faces makes everything worthwhile. I saw plenty of them in Donegal Town last week and it reminded me of those nights we had there all those years ago after getting the bus from Glenties.
“I’m very aware and have always been very aware of what football means to the people of Donegal. You have to get out into the world and experience it and everything that happens to you in your life helps make you what you are today. Your past is your future.”
Jim McGuinness has helped Donegal’s future catch up with its past. Maybe soon he will be asked to recount his second All-Ireland. That should bring plenty more smiles to faces.