GAA Football

10 years on: The Jim McGuinness legacy

Today marks ten years since Jim McGuinness's first game in charge of Donegal. Over his four year term, he would not only guide his native county to football's peak, but he would change the face of the sport forever. In a two-part feature, Cahair O'Kane speaks to Eamon McGee, Rory Kavanagh, Brendan Devenney, Kevin Nolan and Éamonn Fitzmaurice about whether he is the most influential individual in the sport's history…

It is ten years today since Jim McGuinness took charge of Donegal for the first time. He would not only leave a huge mark on his native county over the next four years, but his tactics would change the face of Gaelic football. 

THE picture in Monday morning’s Irish News showed Jim McGuinness open-mouthed, bellowing an instruction on to the sodden Ballybofey pitch.

The flecks of rain aren’t taking time to queue at his lips. Arms still folded, the floodlights reflect off the tassels that were once so distinctively black but are by now silvered.

On his first evening in charge of Donegal senior footballers, Jim McGuinness looks a fit for the messianic part.

January 15, 2011. Ten years ago tonight, Donegal beat Jordanstown 0-14 to 0-10 in a Saturday night McKenna Cup tie.

It wasn’t due to be his first outing but the tragic death of Michaela Harte had seen the postponement of the previous weekend’s fare, in which Tyrone and Donegal were due to meet.

Eight of the players he used that night would feature when the whole county of Donegal marched down from the hills and ascended the throne of Gaelic football 617 days later.

When he first met the players, McGuinness told them individually and collectively that they would win an All-Ireland.

He was Donegal manager for four seasons. In that time, they would win the county’s second All-Ireland and reach another final. There were three Ulster titles and a Division Two league crown.

The trophies he won were hugely significant but the manner in which his team won them was even more so.

His impact was, and is still, felt in every club dressing room in Ireland. His fingerprints fell on everything football from Malin Head to Mizen. Some consider the mark to be a stain. Others, a gift.

Whether Jim McGuinness is among the greatest managers in history is an open debate. But has there ever been a more influential individual in the history of Gaelic football?

* * * * *

BEFORE the manager, there was the player. Jim McGuinness was a serious footballer. A couple of years older and he’d have been enshrined in Donegal’s 1992 team, but few would even made the bench as he did at his age.

He won three Sigerson Cups, two with Tralee and one with Jordanstown. Two of them were as captain. He was on Ireland’s International Rules panel in 1998, and would go on to captain his county.

But more success never followed ’92. He would lose four Ulster finals and the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final, a game in which he was only on for the last 20 minutes and that Armagh only sealed with an injury-time Oisin McConville penalty.

“It was a strange experience, going from that unreal high point of having seen the glory to gradually slipping and slipping to the stage where we seemed to find new ways of losing those hugely important games,” he said in his book, Until Victory Always.

The 1998 loss to Derry, when Joe Brolly netted at the very death to snatch victory, was one that “wounded us as a county”.

His own game “fell apart”, in his own words, after the tragic death of his elder brother Mark when an unroadworthy lorry collided with their car as he drove Jim to the airport to head for America after that game. It would take a full decade before he could accept what happened that day.

Brendan Devenney and McGuinness were, during their playing days, the very best of mates. They went everywhere and did everything together.

The change in their relationship reflected the change in Jim the man. Nothing happened that broke it. No fallout, no words. Their paths simply diverged.

When Devenney last saw him in the Gravediggers’ pub in Dublin after a game two-and-a-bit years ago, their conversation was free and only interrupted by a lout who kept coming up and roaring at them both.

But he doesn’t have McGuinness’ phone number. There are very few who do. One conservative estimate put it at seven the number of times he’s changed it in the last few years.

When Eamon McGee last spoke to him, it was at Jim’s father’s wake on Boxing Day 2019. The time before that, McGee had managed to turn up his American number and called him to do an interview for his Irish Star column ahead of that year’s All-Ireland final.

“I had to laugh, when I was doing the column with him, it was all about ‘this is the way I want it’. It’s still McGuinness that he has to have a certain control. ‘Will you email me that?’ and yip, ‘will you make a few changes here and there?’ and I’m just laughing saying ‘not much has changed anyway Jim’.

“There’s still that connection. We were chatting away and having the craic. It was actually easier to chat to him because the manager thing was removed, it was just two Donegal men, no formality behind it.

“I’d love to be able to do what he does, cut himself off and move on. He’s not part of any WhatsApp groups or anything now and I think that’s deliberate from him, he wants it that way, to be hard to get and be removed from it. It’s definitely a conscious decision by Jim.”

Devenney would never deny that he, McGuinness and that Donegal team enjoyed life. He recalls how McGuinness was the soul of a party, how his friends loved it when Jim accompanied him to the local where he would hold court for hours, and how Jim was the one who never wanted the party to end.

“It’s 7am, 8am, you’re falling asleep, there’s an early house opening at 9am, he’s keeping everybody awake. ‘Hi, hi, hi, c’mon, we’re going to early house!’ That’s the type of vitality he had. He was some craic.

“When he took the job people asked about his credentials and he had his sports science and all the rest.

“The biggest thing for me he had was his ability in a crowd of people to interact, to be well got, he had that wit with him and a certain kind of magic you’d rarely see.”

They were the all-action midfielder and diamond forward of a generation that came closer than is often remembered. It’s said that Devenney retired with no serious silverware but winning a first ever Division One league title under Brian McIver would be a staunch argument. Regularly reaching All-Ireland quarters and semi-finals were proof that the raw tools were there.

When McGuinness broke out The Irish News’ championship supplement to the players in their first meeting and quizzed them on why they thought they were ranked 19th in the country, it was truly a false reading.

Their often-referenced lashing in Crossmaglen in 2010 was the bottom of the mountain but if this Donegal generation had never known the feel of the peak, they’d been close enough often enough to know the look on its face.

McGuinness the manager began his journey in 2005 and it put him and Devenney in diametric opposition, one heading up the St Eunan’s attack and the other teaching Naomh Conaill where to hide the keys to the posts behind them.

Their county final meeting was the real birth of ‘the system’. They drew 1-5 to 0-8 the first day, and Glenties won their first ever senior county title by emerging 0-10 to 1-5 winners in the replay.

Few have been more outspoken on the ills of defensive football in recent years than Devenney.

But while he admits he “absolutely despised” the way Naomh Conaill played under McGuinness, his beef with defensive football is slightly more nuanced.

“I hated it coming up against it, I saw it as complete anti-football. But take Naomh Conaill in 2005, they’d never won a senior title.

“I can understand it. Same with Donegal. They were coming from such a low ebb that I can understand the tactics.

“What I can’t put up with teams that are county champions coming out still playing out-and-out defensive crap.”

And yet he admits he would have absolutely loved to have played for Donegal in 2012. Not just for the glory of it. He believes the system, hitting teams on the break, would have suited him.

If he ran into McGuinness in the street tomorrow, the reception would be just as warm.

“I really missed him at that time when he went into the shadows before he took the 21s. We’d talk about him all the time.

“I miss the guy, I really loved him, but he went off doing his own thing and good luck to him for that. He’s had some fecking journey.”

* * * * *

BY the time the Donegal players walked into the meeting room of the Rosapenna Bay Hotel on November 6, 2010, McGuinness had done so much of the hard work.

The style of Naomh Conaill’s success had meant he wasn’t taken seriously as a prospective county manager. He unsuccessfully interviewed twice – “a tortuous and pointless process” - but he did land the under-21 job and took them to an All-Ireland final, where a missed Michael Murphy penalty in stoppage time was a shot at silverware lost.

That laid the platform and when John Joe Doherty’s reign ended with that nine-point hammering to an Armagh side whose sell-by date was closing in, the path cleared.

By the time he met the players collectively in November, he’d already held individual meetings at his house.

Initially, Eamon McGee’s meeting went well, even if he admits that he thought McGuinness’ ambitions were “f***ing mad”.

The dream of winning an All-Ireland was being laid out in front of McGee but knowing, and perhaps being able to relate to, the Gaoth Dobhair’s man reckless lifestyle, the necessities were spelled out: change or go.

“He’s put an All-Ireland in my pocket but he’s also put me on the right path where I’ve three kids, a house and all this stuff that were as far removed from this young fella in 2010 as could possibly be" - Eamon McGee on Jim McGuinness' impact

“He said I’d have to change and I’m nodding away and then I went for pints that night. I said to him I’d have one last blast, ended up going for three days.

“I met him on the Thursday night and there’s a disco on. I went to the disco, ended up doing the Friday and we’d a club game on the Saturday that I missed.

“Word got back to Jim that McGee didn’t turn up for the club and he just said ‘Jesus Christ’. Thankfully, he could have gone and done what other managers had and stuck with the culture that was there but he said no, we’re going a different route.”

McGuinness’s book claims that McGee’s weights programme was found on the floor of a bookmaker’s shop in Dungloe, though he disputes that part and even ribbed his former manager on it during the lock-in after the book launch.

What he doesn’t dispute is that he had to be pulled into line, and how grateful he is that McGuinness was the man to do it.

It was May 2011 before McGee was given the call to rejoin the panel, off the back of some serious club form and perhaps an acceptance that Donegal would struggle in the full-back line without him.

Roles reversed, McGuinness landed to Gaoth Dobhair and with both still living at home, his brother Neil sits in the kitchen while Eamon and Jim thrash out how it will work in the living room.

That Neil was Eamon’s brother mattered little to McGuinness when it came to decision making. Neil was one of the senior confidants and having got the green light from Michael Murphy and Karl Lacey, the manager left it up to Neil McGee to make the call on whether to bring Eamon back.

“That was the start of it for me, not just in football but away from it too. I’m forever grateful that McGuinness did come back to me.

“When I was kicked off, I was sure my county career was over, the thing I loved the most. You have to do a lot of soul-searching because your life probably isn’t going in the right direction.

“I’ve said before, I probably wouldn’t even have been playing club football now if I’d kept going the way I was going. I’m forever grateful for Jim starting me on the path. There was a bit to go but that was the start of it.

“He’s put an All-Ireland in my pocket but he’s also put me on the right path where I’ve three kids, a house and all this stuff that were as far removed from this young fella in 2010 as could possibly be.”

For the six months he’d been away, the Donegal squad had put themselves through hell.

Jim McGuinness was a serious footballer during his own playing days, representing Ulster and Ireland as well as captaining Donegal, with whom he won an All-Ireland as a young substitute in 1992.

It took the more senior players a while to fully embark on the journey.

When Rory Kavanagh met McGuinness, he weighed 12 stone 12 lbs. The new manager believed he had to be at least 14st 4lb by the time championship came around.

The Letterkenny man laughs when you suggest he’s near sick of the story now. Consuming over 4,000 calories a day, he crept up through but he’d be lying if he said he loved it at the start.

“There was a four or five-week period where you’re thinking I’m on a five-morning-a-week schedule in the gym and I dunno if I can stick the pace,” says Kavanagh.

“The fact that Karl Lacey was coming from Donegal Town, Colm McFadden was coming from Creeslough, Frank McGlynn over, Neil McGee, the fact we were all there together meant there was accountability on everybody’s behalf.

“You almost didn’t want to let them down as much as the management. You had the craic and that bond started to develop away from the training field as well, and you got a sense that Karl Lacey had two Allstars at the time, he’s making all this effort, f*** I have to do it too, I can’t let these boys down.”

Those early morning gym sessions built more than just a physical base. They toughened the mind.

Within a year they’d be Ulster champions for the first time in 19 years and go to the brink of an All-Ireland final.

And they did it by bringing bloody chaos from which Gaelic football took years to recover.

* See Saturday's Irish News for part two...

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access