‘I do think you need a bit of madness. Like, Eamon and Neil McGee. The gruesome twosome’ - Jim McGuinness

‘The most exhilarating part of management is building a team’

Donegal v Monaghan Dr McKenna Cup 2024. Donegal manager Jim McGuinness. Picture Mark Marlow
Jim McGuinnessis enjoying the challenge of being back on GAA sidelines with Donegal Picture Mark Marlow (" ")

IF you thought everything must be ordered in Jim McGuinness’s world, you’d be wrong. Since one of the last great scientists of the game was last here – 10 summers ago – Gaelic football has changed, tactically and culturally.

You don’t expect McGuinness to say it, but he misses the “bit of madness” of previous generations and the roguish characters in teams that often lit up dank training pitches in December.

He misses the craic the McGee brothers – Eamon and Neil – brought to Donegal during his first stint in charge of Donegal and big Neil Gallagher’s desire just to catch ball in the middle of the field.

Before taking his seat at a round table full of journalists at the Ulster SFC launch in the University of Ulster, Belfast McGuinness stopped to speak with Mickey Harte in the lobby area.

The conversation darted one way, then the other. Sworn rivals come Saturday April 20 when Derry host Donegal in the Ulster Championship at Celtic Park, the mood was free and easy between the pair.

“It’s definitely two different generations,” McGuinness says.

“There was a joke going about that players had to give up alcohol for a couple of weeks leading into the Championship and all this type of thing. We were playing Dublin in 1993 and we were staying in the Regency Hotel the night before the League final and the whole team went down to the Cat and Cage Pub, 100 metres from the hotel and had five or six drinks.

“There was no big talk about it and nor was there anything talked about it among the punters who were all Dubs.

“All of that has kind of gone. There were always characters in there as well and there was a rawness to those characters.

“I was speaking to Mickey about it when we came in there and was talking about the Monday club [among the Tyrone players] and [he was saying] if you could sort out those boys you’d have an unbelievable team. Now, all those boys are sorted out but the bit of madness is missing, that rawness, that edge is missing.

McGuinness adds: “I do think you need a bit of madness. Like, Eamon and Neil. The gruesome twosome! You need those types of people. Even Neil Gallagher, a different type of character, wanted to catch the ball. Now they all want to be the complete player.

“I think you’ll always have characters in the changing room but as a manager one of the biggest things is to embrace difference; get that out of them and understand that it’s okay to be yourself.

“That’s how you got here in the first place. Bring that to the table and impose your own personality on it – on the pitch and the training pitch. The training pitch is where it happens.

“People do a lot of sorting out on the training pitch and that’s where most people gain respect and earn their stripes, and it’s the conversations walking off the pitch about the 19-year-old that was fearless and kicked six or seven points and raising eyebrows with each other and thinking, ‘he’s on the move.’ I think all of these things factor into it and as a manager you want to embrace as much of that as possible.”

Ten years on from leaving Donegal to pursue a coaching career in soccer, McGuinness seems a more relaxed figure.

The Glenties man was already working with Celtic in his last season managing Donegal (2014) before rolling the dice and working as assistant manager to Roger Schmidt at Chinese Super League club Beijing Sinobo Guoan in 2017 but his stint there lasted just seven months due to personal reasons.

Later in 2018, he was announced head coach of Charlotte Independence – a third tier team in American soccer – but lost his job six months in.

McGuinness continued to dabble in soccer but was also drawn to his sporting roots and lent a hand at his native Naomh Conaill, the Galway and Down footballers and a brief spell with Naomh Mairtin in Louth.

Last year, there was managerial upheaval in Donegal. Paddy Carr departed before the end of an already doomed Division One campaign with backroom team members Aidan O’Rourke and Paddy Bradley taking the reins and guided Donegal to a respectable championship finish.

In 2024, the timing was right for both Donegal and McGuinness to be reunited.

“Never say never was what I always had in my head,” McGuinness says. “But in this instance, this moment, it is the timing of it, being at home. I was involved in a project that I was trying to get out of my head and I’m still doing that. I would still like to go back into it when that process is complete at some stage in the future. But I’m really, really enjoying this now.

“The most exhilarating part of management is building a team – the most exhilarating - but it’s also the most apprehensive time because the wheels can literally fall off at any moment, and that’s the reality.

“We’re very happy that we’re not fluid and we’re not perfect and we’re still getting results and putting up decent scores.

“We’re only scraping the surface with the lads because we haven’t had them on the pitch yet properly. We haven’t had the full complement.

“We’ve 40 lads involved. Eight of them are U20 and, honestly, we’ve been training with 20 players a lot of the time. You’re into nine and 10-a-sides at the end of the training because you’re managing ones, people are not there, people are trying to get back, people are not ready to be back, people who were in the system that weren’t ready for the training and have fallen out of the system.

“I suppose you’re trying to create a situation where you’re more robust. I’ve never worked with Conor O’Donnell, never worked with Eoghan ‘Ban’ [Gallagher], never worked with Jason McGee or Niall O’Donnell, Caolan McGolgan, until recently.

“So, there’s a lot of that going on but then the flip side of that is the likes of Ciaran Moore and these younger lads that have got opportunities and came in and done well. So, I’m looking forward to having them all and then the job actually starts.”