Jim McGuinness turns darkness into light as Donegal reclaim Anglo-Celt Cup

Donegal boss McGuinness spares a thought for Armagh after Ulster final drama

Donegal players celebrate after their victory in the penalty shoot out during the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship final match between Armagh and Donegal 2024.
12 May 2024; Donegal players celebrate after their victory in the penalty shoot out during the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship final match between Armagh and Donegal at St Tiernach's Park in Clones, Monaghan. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile (Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

WHO believed winning an Ulster Championship was possible for Donegal this time last year?

Jim McGuinness did.

His county lost at the quarter-final stage to a Division Three side in 2023, they were relegated and alsorans in the All-Ireland series but no-one has beaten them since McGuinness took over the reins again.

Armagh went toe-to-toe with them and had them on rack twice but the Tir Chonaill outfit refused to lose and Shaun Patton’s flying save from Shane McPartlan’s penalty meant the Anglo-Celt Cup was on it’s way back to the Hills for the first time since 2019.

“You have to believe,” said McGuinness.

“If you don’t see yourself in the depths of winter here on Ulster final day in Clones then there’s no point being back. You had to believe that.

“The challenge is so multi-faceted - there’s culture and fitness and everything else. They (the players) turn up every night and they give it everything. It wasn’t perfect, we have a lot of things to tweak but they turned up and gave it everything and that’s all we can ask for.

“There’s not much you can say to them. You have to let them enjoy the journey, enjoy that day, enjoy it with their families and soak it in. Ulster final day is special. To win it is extra special and we’re very thankful tonight to be on the right side of it.”

Before he spoke of his own delight, McGuinness spared a thought for Armagh. Gallant losers once again the Orchardmen might well be kicking themselves back down the road. They had one hand on the cup when they went four points up in normal time but didn’t score for the final 20 minutes.

In extra-time, Armagh once again took the lead but couldn’t seal the deal. It took penalties to decide it and Kieran McGeeney’s men lost the lottery for the fourth time in three seasons.

“I really feel for Armagh,” said McGuinness.

“Such a tough place for that group of people and players to be after what they put into the game. They asked a lot of questions of us and challenged us so much but somebody has to come out the other side of it and we’re very fortunate – fate, luck, God… whatever you want to call it.

Rian O'Neill in action for Armagh.
Rian O'Neill in action for Armagh.

“We ended up on the right side of it. Myself and Kieran had a quick word before the penalties were taken – what do you do, you know? You have to roll with the punches at that stage and put your faith and your trust in it.

“For us, the fact that we were four points down in a massive game and were able to respond. “That’s the big one for us. They’ve done that a few times now, twice against Tyrone. Particularly the second time when they were three points down in the second half. It felt like a lot on the day and they got over the line.

“We have to savour this, we have to savour it with our supporters and our families. We’ll get back to reality during the week.”

Throughout the first half the counties traded brilliant scores with Oisin Gallen outstanding for Donegal and Conor Turbitt equally excellent for Armagh. As the second half developed, Armagh pushed into a winning position but Donegal didn’t panic and gradually reeled them in.

“It wasn’t easy,” said McGuinness.

“But we played Armagh in Armagh (in the League) and we responded to a similar situation. Rian O’Neill kicked a massive score and we responded. Same thing happened in the League final and against Tyrone as well so we have a habit of digging in. not losing their heads, trying to stay in the game, keep believing.

“They did that really well, particularly when that four-point deficit crept in. It felt like the Armagh fans thought that was their moment. And it felt like that to the Armagh players as well and even though that doesn’t mean anything, it’s an intangible – it’s a big thing.”

McGuinness explained how Donegal representatives “arrived at the door” to try to coax him back into the bainisteoir bib the day after his county lost to Tyrone last year.

“They never really stopped after that,” he said.

“Two days after that, there was a letter in the post box. It went from there, they never left me alone and that constantly pulls at you emotionally because you are sitting in the house going: ‘Could you make a difference?’ I’m not actively working at the minute so you have that scenario running in your head, eventually Paddy McBrearty broke me!”

And there wasn’t one single thing that improved the team from last year – there were many made by the entire group.

“It isn’t one thing, it’s everything,” said McGuinness.

“It’s personalities, it’s people, it’s belief, it’s the backroom team - it’s everything. You’re trying to find good people, you’re trying to find good players. We had a very extensive trial period, you’re trying to make all of it come together, trying to build good relationships if you can.”

And it was pride that dragged him back, he added. The emotional pull, the green and gold, his county, his people…

“That’s the whole thing,” he said.

“The whole thing about inter-county football is place and identity. where you come from, who you represent.

“They are out there today, very fortunate to be the 15 and the 26 that are representing.

“They’re the fortunate ones and we were trying to impose that on them last night and we were watching the hurling in the team room and it was amazing, amazing, and it was a brilliant way to set us up for the weekend. fellas leaving it all out there. just left it all out there.

“I’m so proud of them. There’s a lot of oul talk about managers - too much talk sometimes. They (the players) bloody done it, they’re the fellas that done it.

“They were out there kicking them scores and running themselves into the ground and so did Armagh.”

Clones town packed before the game, St Tiernach’s Park sold out and full of colour and noise through the sunshine and the rain. The Ulster Championship is alive and well.

“I think the Ulster Championship final should be played on January 1,” joked McGuinness.

“That is the way to go. No doubt about that.”

It was McGuinness’s fourth Ulster title (2011, 2012 and 2014) with Donegal and they had to win it the hard way. Dethroning three in-a-row chasing Derry in the quarter-final, then Tyrone in extra-time and finally Armagh on penalties.

“The quality of Derry and Tyrone,” reflected McGuinness.

“Time will tell how you feel about it. The first one is very special and this is quite special too.”