Although he later admitted he considered doing cartwheels, Jim McGuinness was stone-faced in his clinical assessment of Donegal’s 0-16 to 1-11 All-Ireland semi-final win over Cork.
The Donegal manager leapt into the air as the final whistle sounded yesterday, as his team took another giant step in their miraculous journey under the stewardship of the Glenties native. However, as he faced the media half-an-hour afterwards, there was a bubbling smile still bristling to get out from under a serious countenance as the dissection of what he had just seen began.
Twelve months ago, McGuinness’s managerial strategy was questioned in the same room when Donegal went down 0-8 to 0-6 against Dublin in an unorthodox a game of football as was ever played. That day McGuinness promised that there would be changes when the side were given a chance to develop.
Against Cork, Donegal showed their maturity and their evolution. In an unyielding first 35 minutes when no inch was given, it developed into a shoot-out. Cork’s marquee forwards are as good as any in the game but for a team constantly criticised for not coming out of their shells, Donegal led at the break 0-8 to 0-7.
“I thought we were a wee bit lethargic in the first-half,” McGuinness noted. “The stakes were very high and it was in the players’ minds. We got them in at half-time and they got settled. We got them focussed on what is important to us as a team and how we operate. They took to that very well. There was more flow to our play in the second-half, particularly from the half-backs and midfielders.
“We had a lot of wides that maybe we would normally tag over. You can’t give out about details like that on a day like today. It is brilliant for the supporters and a great lift for football in the county.”
When McGuinness took over from John Joe Doherty two years ago, Donegal football was on its way to the morgue. He recalled that some of his friends joked that he was mad even getting involved with the panel of players who perennially had come up short. Some even tried to warn him off them and the job.
McGuinness is the obvious reason for the sharp incline in Donegal’s fortunes. He might to too modest to admit that and emphasise the group ethic but his role of coordinator has spearheaded the change. However, despite the obviousness of that, he maintains it’s the players who deserved the credit.
“They have worked very hard in the last two years,” McGuinness said if his players. “They have made a commitment to the county, a commitment based on the fact that they wanted to win things for the county. It is very satisfying that the hard work they’ve put in is now reflected by the fact that they have an opportunity to play in an All-Ireland final.
“I am delighted for the boys. I just hope that they can take the opportunity when it presents itself in four weeks time. It is a great position to be in. We will look at ourselves this week, then obviously we’ll look at the other game next week.”
On appointment, McGuinness told Donegal’s supporters that he would have a team capable of challenging for top honours in five years two.
With that as an indicator, the contemporaries are well ahead of schedule and McGuinness admitted there was no fear in the lead-up to the match as to what might’ve happened if Cork had derailed Donegal.
“It wouldn’t have been the end of the world,” he added. “We had gone back-to-back in Ulster and we have added a lot more to our game this year. We are getting more scores and we’re asking more questions for other teams offensively. Whether we’d won or not today this team would still be Ulster champions - and that is a big thing.
“The other side of that coin is that we got beaten at the semi-final stage last year, so the only progression was to the final. We can evaluate this week and get all that stuff out of the way. We can let the hype die down a wee bit before the other semi-final. We can evaluate this week and get all that stuff out of the way. We can let the hype die down a wee bit before the other semi-final.”
For all the mystique that surrounds McGuinness the man and Donegal the team, there are some fundamentals that help the wheels on the bus go around. Donegal’s diligence has taken them to only a second All-Ireland final ever but after McGuinness takes a look at the other game next week, the semi-final between Dublin and Mayo on Sunday, they will zoom in on final day.
“Our training will have to go to a new level again and we’ll have to improve every aspect of our play again,” said McGuinness. “We will need to prepare as best we can and after that we have to trust them to do the job.
“That’s the way we have approached all the games for the last two years. Now is about the next four weeks and a very good focus on the job at hand. I am looking forward to that and I am very excited about that.
“They don’t pay attention to criticism and they don’t get too excited when we win. They just look, like myself, and say ‘right, this is what we need to do and here is how we’re going to do it’. I have no fear that that will change in the next four weeks.”
McGuinness says the next four weeks will be the highlight of his players’ live. And if he can keep winning matches the current crop will be immortalised. They’re certainly in the right hands.