Joe Brolly bumped into Jim McGuinness at the Allianz League final, where the Donegal manager was casting an eye over the team that has preoccupied his thoughts all spring – Tyrone.
After initial indifference towards his methods, the RTÉ analyst has evolved into one of McGuinness’s most loyal allies. McGuinness’s abilities, despite his success in just two years in charge of his native county, continue to be questioned. Brolly, though, is a believer.
In the wake of Donegal’s 0-8 to 0-6 loss against free-scoring Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final of 2011, McGuinness’s capabilities as a coach after the most dissected game of football ever played were deemed primitive. Donegal’s ultra cautious approach almost derailed the eventual All-Ireland champions, only to fall short on the day.
McGuinness promised that Donegal would develop by 2012. They certainly did, winning the county’s second All-Ireland ever having become the first side ever to win seven consecutive matches en route to Sam Maguire.
Brolly, when they met last month in Dublin, asked McGuinness whether Donegal were accomplished enough to be able to win successive All-Ireland championships, a rare feat in this more democratic era of football.
McGuinness’s answer was simplistic. He explained to Brolly that there had been no talk of Sam Maguire or Croke Park. All he and his Donegal panel were putting their focus on was Tyrone on that red-letter day, May 26. They would be happy to take each game as it comes.
Brolly told friends afterwards that despite McGuinness feeding him the most clichéd of answers, the way in which he delivered his opinion made it almost feel like it was a method nobody had ever thought of before.
It was, presumably, a little like how the world felt when Isaac Newton explained that it was actually the force of gravity that made the apple fall from the tree.
The way in which McGuinness can say things is perhaps his greatest asset. Donegal’s players, off the record of course, have said his pre-match team talks on any given Sunday can make the paint on the wall cry.
That’s why there is an absolute belief in the manager. It’s the reason Donegal players would run through a brick wall for the collective good of the team.
Nobody can control a room like McGuinness can. In that respect, it’s a little peculiar that so many of his opinions are constantly queried when there’s commonly utter silence from those present when he shares them. Every word transcribed from his press briefings is of significance; nothing is said just for the sake of it.
This season, McGuinness’s seemingly carefree attitude towards the league went against the continual marketing push to expect the unexpected. For Donegal, who perhaps didn’t expect to get relegated, under McGuinness the emphasis has been solely placed on the championship.
But a bit like the phenomenon Brolly fell across at Croke Park last month, there’s nothing particularly ground breaking in McGuinness’s plans. It’s the same as Donegal did last year and the same as the year before.
“In terms of the league, we wanted to stay in the division,” McGuinness said last week. “That is why we tried so hard to beat Dublin on the day. We wanted to stay in the division. But we didn’t prioritise the league as a win at all costs situation.
“We had a very long season last year. We got to a very high level over the course of it. It was a very long year and to try and keep that going, and to try and go into a league campaign and go into another championship campaign, we took another management decision that it wasn’t the right thing for our players for this year.
“Tyrone prioritised the league to get traction to get the young players integrated and build a team and try and get results and scores on the board.
“There isn’t one player in Donegal thinking about the All-Ireland final this year or about retaining the All-Ireland. It isn’t on our radar. It’s the same with the Ulster final.
“If we beat Tyrone that gives us a chance to move on to a semi-final. If we beat the opposition in the semi-final, then we have a chance to win an Ulster final. That’s it. That is the bottom line. It’s that simplistic.”
But just like McGuinness can speak with undiluted relevance, he’s meticulously calculated the planning for his panel. It’s been claimed you cannot just turn on form like a tap but a man like McGuinness has proven he can press the right buttons when the time suits.
If his team get past Tyrone on Sunday, McGuinness’s approach will be justified, just like he was when he took Donegal from being the most controversial team ever to play football to the All-Ireland championship in a matter of months last season.
But for every head there’s a tail and should Tyrone continue their impressive characteristics of the spring and ransack Donegal’s aspirations of as third Ulster championship in succession, the ‘New Year hit the ground running’ procedure will be considered the latest blueprint in Gaelic games. It’s a gamble McGuinness is willing to take.
“Whenever the draw was made, it was a real focuser for everyone,” he said. “It was really down to earth again after the All-Ireland. As a management, it did give us a chance to say that Tyrone was on the horizon for us and it would be a huge challenge against top-quality opposition.
“Thankfully the game is in Ballybofey with our home crowd and the support and atmosphere will be something special. It’s something that the players will remember for the rest of their lives. It does focus the minds very quickly.”
When Donegal defeated Kildare in the All-Ireland quarter-final of 2011, a sterile encounter in a web of ploys and counter-ploys evolved into a battle to see whose heart could beat the longest and strongest. McGuinness said after that match that it was what it felt like to be “really living.”
That’s why he loves the championship so much and that’s why other competitions are seen as little more than a hindrance. The jury don’t sit on cold January evenings during the Dr McKenna Cup, or even during the league. There’s only one place where a team in judged. And for McGuinness, who of course took the Donegal U-21 team to an Ulster title and an All-Ireland final before taking on the seniors, it’s where he’s most comfortable
“This is my fourth year,” he said when cumulating the seasons with Donegal. “I had the U-21s and that was every bit as intense. It has been a fishbowl situation. That is when I am most comfortable in life – when I am managing teams and coaching.
“In one sense I haven’t been living in reality for the last four years. It’s training, working with people, trying to develop people, games and trying to win games and grow as a group, building fitness, strength, strategy, everything.
“We love it and that’s why we do it. It is a very privileged position to be in, managing a team. It is an unbelievably privileged to be managing your county. The icing on the cake is if you’re managing your county and you’re being successful. That is the ultimate honour.
“It is privileged. Ultimately, we wouldn’t be successful without the players we have. To be working with your Michael Murphys, your Colm McFaddens and now the Patrick McBreartys, who is coming really into form and showing all the signs we hoped he’d bring as an inter-county footballer, watching them developing and maturing all the time.
“When you’re working with people who want to be there and who want to be the best they can be, improve all the time, and I include all of our top players in that, it makes the experience very enjoyable. We’re into the face of another championship now. We don’t know what it’ll hold, but we just know that our approach will be the same.”
For McGuinness, the more things change the more they stay the same. With the Anglo-Celt Cup and the All-Ireland having spent the winter in the north-west more of the same will do for everyone in the county. But Tyrone will have certainly something to say about that.