For all this talk rumbling about Donegal and Derry being something of a novel Ulster final pairing, Jim McGuinness still carries a burden from his dealings with our bordering neighbours.
In terms of years, Armagh and Tyrone’s stranglehold on the northern province has lasted a baker’s dozen. But when the dusting pages of the history books of the Ulster championship are peeled back just a little further, the reason for the Donegal manager’s anguish becomes more evident.
Although the hair is less scraggly now with a sprinkling of grey and the shave cut much closer, the leanness McGuinness carries portrays someone fit enough to field at St Tiernach’s Park this weekend. Nowadays, though, his occupation concerns the head rather than the legs as he readies the contemporaries to make the step he fell just short of himself.
On three occasions as a player, each of them on similarly murky afternoons in Clones, McGuinness sat in the silence of the losers’ dressing room carrying out the autopsy in his head. The room might’ve been full of people, friends with whom he shared sacrifices and dreams, but it was the loneliest place to be. Losing on Ulster final day hurt McGuinness. It still does.
“As a player I sat in a number of those dressing rooms having been beaten in 1993, 1998 and 2002, ” he recalls. “We would’ve felt we had good groups of players in those years. A lot of other counties took the honours around that time and we never got over the line. There was a lot of psychological hurt attached to that.”
cGuinness was a substitute as Donegal saw the All-Ireland title slip through their fingertips on a Clones quagmire in 1993 against a Derry side that would then usurp their vacant throne. Nine years later Mickey Moran’s panel surprised a few by making an Ulster final but lost to an Armagh team whose knock had gotten so loud they too would open the door on a first All-Ireland. But in between lays McGuinness’s reason for regret. The scars inflicted in one decisive moment, he claims, took years to clear.
In the 1998 final, Declan Bonner’s Donegal led Derry by a point in stoppage time as 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 - one that won the Anglo-Celt Cup for Derry.
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 the last of Donegal’s golden generation would come to winning an Ulster title since 1992. It’s closer than their successors have managed since.
“Maybe the players now can’t but I can feed on things like 1998, ” McGuinness adds. “We thought we had the Ulster championship won and we lost it in the last moment and the scenes at the end were tough to take.
“There’s no question that after the 1998 game any time Donegal got into a very tight game for a couple of years we lost it. If the game was going down to the wire and there was only a point or two in it with 10 minutes to go, we almost always lost the game. There were games when we felt we had the run on teams and were in good positions to win it but we didn’t close it out.”
Having the experience of stomping pitches as a county player for the best part of a decade sown with a learned background in sports psychology, McGuinness would be astutely aware that nobody is shaped by a particular loss, but instead are moulded by what you do to develop from it. So if the tracks of the post-1998 failures could be traced back to Clones, going to the same venue now with three successive Ulster championship wins could only have an equal but opposite reaction.
“The players are in a good place psychologically, ” McGuinness says of the current crop. “They feel they have earned the right now. We’ve been winning games in the league and the championship and we’re looking forward now to the packed house and the big atmosphere. For the players and their families it’s a big occasion. We feel if we can do everything right now in the final we can do ourselves justice as we haven’t shown what we are capable of so far. We’d like to do that.
“We played very well in relation to what we’re working on in a number of the league games and we haven’t really reached that standard since in the championship. You’d have to ask the questions why. I know we had a couple of bad days with wind and rain but there was a big pressure on.”
Donegal’s fine league campaign made only ripples in wider circles until they sealed the Division Two title, defeating Laois with 14 men at Croke Park, which was a result that instantly avenged their only competitive loss under McGuinness to date.
The Ulster championship started with workmanlike dismissals of Antrim and Cavan at sodden Ballybofey and Breffni. Nationally at least, Donegal’s progress to date seems to have an embedded asterix. A wave of criticism followed, pigeonholing McGuinness’s policies as ultra-defensive. The Glenties native has had to elucidate on his tactics so frequently, he’s almost getting defensive himself.
After the debris of Crossmaglen when Donegal were hammered out the back door before the month of June had ended last season, McGuinness inherited a panel with fragile confidence and dwindling interest. On appointment, he waved no magic wand but swore to the county’s downtrodden supporters any team of his would at least leave their last ounce on the field.
Evidence of those utterances has splintered through the surface this year. The standout examples intertwine his first game, a league opener against Sligo at a wintry MacCumhaill Park, and last, the dramatic win over Tyrone with the championship sun at its height last month.
“One of the key traits in this team from the start of the year is that we have been able to come back in games, ” he continues. “The very first game of the year, against Sligo in the league, was the one day it looked gone and we ended up getting a draw. In the subsequent games when we found ourselves in a sticky corner, we managed to get something out of them.
“Against Tyrone, after 20 minutes, I didn’t feel as though we were gone but we were in a difficult situation that would be tough to get out of. But there is a trait within the panel that when things are not going well they do the simple things to weather the storm. It’s hard to coach as things like that are more mental. Coming through that Sligo game and getting a result was good for the group and was a galvaniser taken on board and it builds from there. If things happen you start to believe them.”
Whatever the opinions may be about McGuinness, people have started believing. Since initially getting the ball rolling with the U-21s only 16 months ago, he has won an Ulster title and almost an All-Ireland at that level, followed by a Division Two National Football League as the county now looks forward eagerly to a senior provincial final. The facts speak for themselves and although without question not the finished article, Donegal are developing with each passing game.
“Our focus all year has been very simple and routine, ” he adds. “We look at the game, we look at the opposition and we look at our own performance. We try and get ourselves to a level. Of course we were delighted to get through against Tyrone but there were a number of areas we wouldn’t have been happy with.
“They had won three All-Irelands and five Ulster championships. They’ve played all the top teams in the country and know how to beat them. That’s what you are going in against. It left a mountain to climb for us and we had to go in and beat a team that had beaten everyone.
“We were nervous and played with a bit of apprehension but we still got over the line and that’s something you have to hand to the players, especially the younger lads. Some of those would only have seen Tyrone lifting All-Irelands and mightn’t have believed they could beat Tyrone. It’s only when you get over that hurdle you can absorb it and move forward. There was a will to hang in there. We had to believe in our own abilities. From here on we are going to be really tested.”
Derry now provide that test. In an almost complete parallel to Donegal, they are being lauded as the province’s saviours after their unprompted and unpredicted semi-final win over Armagh lit up the championship.
“Derry have a charismatic manager who is getting the most out of them, ” McGuinness says of his opposite number, the wily John Brennan. “He has his own way of doing things and they seem to be very happy by all accounts. They are playing good football. They’ve a lot of big men and they are very physical around the middle of the park. Derry are dangerous and for them too it’s been a long time.
“It’s a very big ask but when you get to a final you have to look forward to it and look forward to trying to win it. Stakes are high and both counties have the chance to put themselves back on the map. It’s a different take. We know what’s ahead of us and whether we can rise to that challenge and overcome it, time will tell. ”
The acclaimed novel pairing has an undercurrent of history, of course, but this, McGuinness maintains, is a different take. And come Sunday evening, unlike those days as a lonely beaten finalist with nothing but his thoughts, wouldn’t he love to be a different dressing room. As he says himself, time will tell.