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'The challenge for people is life itself' says dream-maker Jim McGuinness ahead of Charlotte Independence adventure

Jim McGuinness signed a three-year contract to manage United Soccer League outfit Charlotte Independence
Andy Watters

“I wish I’d worked harder to be in better condition because I couldn’t be one of the boys and have a drink too often because I’d put on weight. Although I loved being part of that group, it didn’t help me. That’s the only thing I really regret, I wish I’d gone and had a real go at being as fit as I could be.”

Republic of Ireland World Cup striker Tony Cascarino

IMAGINE a man, he’s about 35 now. As a boy he had the talent to stand out when he played, he had the luck to be spotted and the opportunity to make the very best of his ability.

Years later, when all the games are played and the crowds are long gone, he looks back on his career and he has more regrets than medals.

‘Why didn’t I train harder?’ he thinks. ‘Why didn’t I say ‘no’ and live the life?’

Maybe Jim McGuinness was that man once but now he is in the business of making sure players hang up their boots free of regrets.

The Glenties native takes someone with talent and inspires him to use it, to make the best out of it. That’s what he did with Donegal and Celtic and it’s what he plans to do at Charlotte Independence, the US soccer team he'll manage for the next three seasons.

His job is to inspire the players at Charlotte to success in the USL (United Soccer League) but do the skills he used to motivate a group of amateurs in Donegal transfer to a squad of professionals in North Carolina?

“You have to work out why the Donegal lads wanted to do it,” he says.

“That comes to the nub of it.

“For me, people are people and the challenge for people is life itself.

“I’ve had this conversation with loads of people over the last six or seven years. For me, when a player retires, when they’re 33 or 34 or whatever and they’re sitting at home having a cup of tea or they’re sitting in a bar having a drink.

“When they look back and they think: ‘What was that? Did I get the most out of that? Did I wring that dry?’ That was at the forefront of my mind with Donegal. I said: ‘We’re not going to take any chances here guys, we’re going to give this everything we have in our bodies and if that brings success it brings success. But if it doesn’t we can sleep safe and sound in our beds at night knowing we gave it absolutely everything we had’.

“That will be one of the things in terms of the squad of players they I want to assemble at Charlotte and then, when we get them together, we want an honesty and a purity in the group and we want a work ethic in the group so that we go on our journey together.

“We don’t know what we’re going to achieve, nobody does because there are loads of things that can get in the way but if you have all bought into a concept and an idea that we are going to attack this with everything we have then most of the time that ends up in a positive result.

“We did that in 2011 and we didn’t win the All-Ireland but we went as far as we could (semi-final) under the circumstances. At the end of the day for me it’s about people, they have to have the skillset and when you have the skillset and you have the right people and the right characters and they want to do it and they believe in that challenge then it becomes a very enjoyable thing.

“That’s what I want it to be. I want the guys to enjoy this because, at the end of the day, they’ll be retired in the blink of an eye and it’ll be all over and they will be sitting in that chair.

“So, as a manager, you have to hold that mirror up now to them as quickly as possible and say: ‘This is it, this is the moment in your life and we are going to come together for three years here, let’s make the most of it and let’s make it as enjoyable as possible’. Ultimately, that’s what I want to do with them when I get to meet them and start working with them.”

Just nine years ago, McGuinness was coaching the Donegal U21s to the All-Ireland final. His side was denied victory by the width of the crossbar but the organisational skills and tactical awareness he displayed saw him promoted to senior manager.

Playing a new style of football that was tailormade for them, the Tir Chonaill men were Sam Maguire winners in 2012 and finalists again two years later. By that stage McGuinness was already being employed as a performance consultant at Celtic and he progressed to the role of U16 coach before leaving the Glasgow giants to become assistant-manager of China’s Beijing Guoan alongside former Bayer Leverkusen boss Roger Schmidt.

He left after six months for family reasons but now he is off to North Carolina - he’s had quite a journey over the last decade.

“Never in my life could I have forseen it,” he admits with a laugh.

“That’s the way life works sometimes. The opportunity came and when it did come it was a challenge, it’s a step into the unknown.

“It’ll be a steep learning curve, there’s no doubt about that but I think I went through the same thing in Donegal. When you’re the senior manager in your first year everything is new as well and I know that is coming down the track but hopefully the last experience will serve me well.

“It’s a really nice city and there’s a new stadium coming on board in three seasons’ time, so in the third year of my contract there’ll be a $35million stadium built by the city. So they have aspirations and they want to put themselves out there as a club that could potentially move up to Major League Soccer (MLS).

“The thought of that is exciting as well so there is a lot going on, there’s a lot happening off the pitch and they want to get things going on it. Getting to the play-offs is the initial target and then we’ll take it from there.”

He had offers of work from League of Ireland clubs before the offer came from Charlotte through a meeting with Meath native Padraig Smith in Colorado. McGuinness had spent five days with the Colorado Rapids MLS team, who had Charlotte Independence as an affiliate team at the time.

“It’s looking at where you’re at and then thinking: ‘Does this feel right? Does it feel like a fit?’ and that’s the feeling I got when I met the owners,” he explains.

“I’m really excited about it. The club have a very clear vision of what they want to do both in the short and the medium term and once we sat down and started speaking about that it just felt right. It’s a new departure, a new chapter in my life and I’m so grateful to all the other coaches, particularly at Celtic that I worked under who gave me the opportunity to go there and observe initially in a psychological role and then to start coaching with the U16s and through from there.

“All of these experiences along the way have created this opportunity for me now and I’m just looking forward to getting started at this stage.”

Although there is no promotion to the Major League, the United Soccer League – home to 36 clubs split into two conferences - is regarded as the second tier of US soccer.

Last season Charlotte finished 11th, seven points off a play-off place and McGuinness left for Charlotte on Monday to begin preparations for the start of the 2019 season in March.

“I’ll be looking at players – I’ve spoken to one or two of them,” he said.

“The next couple of weeks will be very, very intensive in terms of recruitment, the window just opens on the 12th (of December) and most of the players are free agents, they are on rolling contracts yearly so we have a couple of them under contract, a couple of them who we have options on and then a lot of them are free agents.

“So we’ll be trying to match what we have with the style of play. We’ll be looking at the ability of the players, their physical attributes and the mentality of them and piece all that together over the coming weeks with a view to putting a squad together that can be competitive in the league.”

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