When the history of the Donegal GAA is written in future years, the period from 2010-2014 will be remembered with fondness.
It will go down as the time when Donegal were regular visitors to Croke Park, supping at the top table with the big guns.
It will also be remembered as a period of unprecedented success for the county and will be stamped as ‘the McGuinness years’.
Never in the history of the game has a manager changed the face of Gaelic football. By taking a group of footballers who were sprinkled with a good amount of talent but lacking in direction, Jim McGuinness proceeded to turn the county’s fortunes on their head.
His was a completely new approach, making players believe in what they were doing, and producing a ‘system’ that was to prove a winning formula.
There were times when that ‘system’ was not very entertaining, but this only occurred when other teams tried to copy what McGuinness was doing.
What people will remember most is the wonderful displays produced by this ‘system’ - defeating Kildare in extra-time in the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final with a truly remarkable display culminating in a wonder winning point from Kevin Cassidy.
The memories from 2012 were many with the win over Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final ranked among the team’s top displays ever.
That win, against the odds, was similar to the semi-final win over Dublin on the 30th August last - probably the biggest highlight of the four years Donegal seniors have been at that top table.
Under Jim McGuinness, Donegal played nine championship games in Croke Park in four years (the same number as Kerry). Only Dublin and Mayo played more (one more in Mayo’s case, while Dublin would be ten also if you preclude the Leinster championship).
Under Jim McGuinness, Donegal were perennial contenders. During that four year term Mayo were probably the most unlucky team of the big four. They surely were entitled to one All-Ireland title, which would have left the era more equally divided.
Jim McGuinness’s reign started with an inauspicious opener in the Dr. McKenna Cup under lights in Sean MacCumhaill Park in January 2011. A 0-14 to 0-10 victory over University of Jordanstown didn’t set off any alarm bells about future success.
The Donegal team which took the field that night was:
Peter Boyle; Paddy McGrath, Neil McGee, Kevin Mulhern; Karl Lacey, Leo McLoone, Frank McGlynn; Rory Kavanagh, Ryan Bradley; David Walsh, Dermot Molloy, Luke Keaney; Adrian Hanlon, Ryan McErlean, Barry Dunnion. Subs: Conor Classon for Bradley (33), Kevin Cassidy for McGlynn (36), McGlynn for Walsh (54).
A couple of weeks later, the first league game against Sligo, also in MacCumhaill Park certainly didn’t hint of future success either, but a game that was almost gone from Donegal, was turned by a goal from none other than Neil McGee, and that was to be the launch of the Jim McGuinness era.
A Division Two league title and a first Ulster championship in 19 years was to follow, success built on a meticulous approach and hard work.
The second year began again in inauspicious circumstances with a challenge game against Roscommon in Kinawley on one of the coldest nights I have ever experienced.
I was in the company of three of Donegal’s greatest supporters - Edmund Brennan (celebrating his 60th birthday and also road-testing his new car), Mary and Brendan O’Reilly.
A few days later Donegal lost their opening Dr. McKenna Cup game to Jordanstown in O’Donnell Park, Letterkenny, but by 5 p.m. on 23rd September, the Sam Maguire was destined for the Hills of Donegal.
The past year has probably brought the most unexpected joy to Donegal supporters, climbing their Everest once more after the deflation of 2013.
The journey has been enjoyable and uplifting for the supporters and also for the people of the county. The leadership of Jim McGuinness has put Donegal on the map in many more ways than football.
The bunch of players that he commanded have also been excellent ambassadors for the county - in victory and defeat.
Jim McGuinness put everything he had into Donegal for the past five years and hopefully, some time in the future, he may return. But for now, all we can say is ‘thanks for the memories’. We will never forget them.
The task of replacing Jim McGuinness at the helm of Donegal football will not be easy. However, life has to continue and the importance of getting the right person/persons in charge is imperative.
In making his decision as early as he did, the way is clear and there is plenty of time to make the right appointment. A closing date has been set for applications, but it may be necessary for the selection committee to be pro-active in this matter. There are plenty of high profile Donegal people, both within and outside the county, who have been important to the funding and preparation of Donegal teams. Jim McGuinness tapped into that resource and it was willingly given. It is a link that should not be severed.
Managing a county team has become a mammoth task. Managing a successful team has its personal rewards, but in the first instance, it is a job with massive responsibility.
A number of names have already been mentioned, all of whom have excellent credentials. Following in the footsteps of such a successful manager as Jim McGuinness is daunting on a number of fronts. But it must be looked on as a complete new era.
Ideally the person/persons who take on the role, would be appointed for a four-year term. There may be a few retirements, but there is still a very strong Donegal squad.
The need for a four-year term is important because of the recent successes at minor and U-21 level. There is a great opportunity to build on the success of the last four years and nurture the young talent that is coming through.
The draw for the Ulster Championship in 2015 takes place tonight (Thursday) at 7 p.m. and I’m sure that will be a factor in any prospective candidate considering making an application.
What would make most people happy is that there is a plan put in place for the next four years for Donegal football. If in that period we lifted another Anglo Celt and targeted one September appearance in Croke Park, then that would be regarded as pretty good.
Donegal are at the top table for some time now and hopefully we will get the right team in place to keep them there for some time to come.