Jim McGuinness - a leader of men

Alan Foley


Alan Foley

A couple of weeks before the All-Ireland Jim McGuinness told the huddle of journalists in Jackson’s Hotel at the pre-final press night what he looks for in players.

A couple of weeks before the All-Ireland Jim McGuinness told the huddle of journalists in Jackson’s Hotel at the pre-final press night what he looks for in players.

McGuinness referred to a book he had read on Robert Falcon Scott, the British explorer who had headed expeditions to both the North and South Pole in the early years of the twentieth century, with varying degrees of success.

Football management at the top end of the scale has certain common ground with the traits it presumably takes to overlook and undertake such daring voyages.

The leader can organise, plan and delegate but must place a wholehearted trust in his men, so much that he literally lets his future depend on them.

“I read a book once about Scott going across to the North Pole and he said he had to hire character and teach them the skills,” McGuinness said, breaking the silence in the room as he did so.

“So, obviously if you hire the wrong character then everyone’s dead. You need good people and we have a very good group of players.

“From my point of view it’s very enjoyable working with them and it makes the job easier. For that reason, you’d love to see them succeed. They’re 70 minutes away from an All-Ireland.”

Donegal won that All-Ireland of course and it’s long been stated the manager doesn’t adhere to the notion that Jimmy’s winning matches, preferring to instead encourage the integrated promotion of the group as a whole.

But it’s the way he has formed that group that is perhaps his greatest triumph far away from the football pitches.

Football’s tribal rivalries were often claimed to be the vehicle for the county team’s underachievement. It was 1972, just a dozen years shy of the GAA’s centenary, before Donegal won even an Ulster championship.

Before then the county team was picked by a selection of gentlemen, all from different geographical areas, many of whom had the simple mandate to get their own representatives on the team, regardless of ability. The was scant common good. No bigger picture.

Brian McEniff can claim some credit for changing the mindset and the Bundoran hotelier played a part in Donegal’s first five provincial championships, and, of course, the 1992 All-Ireland championship.

McGuinness was a scraggly-haired teen by then, the last man to get promoted to the senior panel before the fabled success.

Although he wouldn’t make his championship debut till a year later, he was building a bank of experience whilst admittedly being initially star-struck in doing so.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in the aftermath of clinching Sam Maguire was the failure to build on the success. Donegal often played with a verve and confidence thereafter but it was almost a generation before the next championship triumph.

Mark McHugh was just two years old and falling asleep when his father Martin and uncle James took Sam Maguire into Kilcar back in 1992. He would be one of McGuinness’s vital components when it would return 20 years later.

During a summer of memorable moments last year, one of the lingering ones was the intensity and heart shown by McGuinness in the pre-match huddle, as his players, a band of brothers, stood linked arm over shoulder, ready for battle.

McGuinness is famed for his novel approaches to football, shredding the stereotype and shifting the landscape. But whatever about the new, there was a touch of the old.

At a stage in his life when he began to study the game, McGuinness was offered some supportive words from Columba McDyer, a Glenties native who became the first Donegal man to win the All-Ireland when he played in the famous Polo Grounds final in New York in 1947 when Cavan defeated Kerry.

McDyer gave McGuinness a whistle one day when they shared their thoughts on where football was going. It was to be seen around his neck all summer.

“Me and Columba would have been fairly close,” McGuinness stated.

“He was an absolute gentleman to the fingertips, very well-educated. He went on his travels when he was young, played with Cavan and then Sligo before returning to Donegal, playing first and then managing the team.

“He came down to the field one night with his wife Peggy. I was out with the young fellas when he called me aside.

“He handed over a whistle, a blue and white whistle (the Naomh Conaill colours) and said: ‘I think you are going to be a coach. I want you to have this whistle’.

“Jesus, that’s at least 21 years ago but I have never lost that whistle. Oil has been spilled on it. The pea is probably gone in it, and the boys slag me about it.

“But there would be panic in the dressing room if I mislaid it. It actually happened one day. All the boys could hear was, ‘where’s the whistle? Where’s the whistle?’ Now they know the full significance of it.”

The intensity in his eyes made it obvious his players would run through a brick wall for him and the team, the collective good. Donegal’s players showed that over seven unforgettable afternoons last summer.

No team from the county had ever won back to back Ulster championships, no side in the province had ever lifted the Anglo-Celt in successive years from the preliminary round and nobody in the whole country had won seven successive matches to clinch an All-Ireland.

History had been made. McGuinness, just like Scott, had hired character and taught the skills.

Scott’s next expedition, the South Pole, wasn’t as successful. Let’s hope that’s not the case in Donegal. The county team is the right hands to make sure of that.