Ten years on: "Jim McGuinness didn’t ruin the game. A lot of shite coaches tried to copy and paste what he was about"

Ten years ago this weekend, Jim McGuinness took charge of Donegal for the first time. In the second part of this feature, Cahair O'Kane speaks to his friends, former players and adversaries to look back at his reign and the lasting legacy his team left on Gaelic football - for better or worse

Jim McGuinness pictured during the 2014 All-Ireland football final. Picture by Colm O'Reilly
Jim McGuinness pictured during the 2014 All-Ireland football final. Picture by Colm O'Reilly

EVERYTHING Donegal did on the field and in the gym for the first eight months of Jim McGuinness’ reign as manager revolved around meeting Tyrone in the 2011 Ulster semi-final.

Having dispatched Antrim and Cavan, and seen Tyrone overcome Monaghan, June 26 in Clones was the day they had built towards.

The benchmark was set by Mickey Harte’s team but as Brendan Devenney watched the recent Laochra Gael programme on Kevin Cassidy, he was surprised by the relative lack of reference to the Armagh sides that the teams McGuinness played on just couldn’t beat.

“Armagh created Jim,” says Devenney.

“What happened us when we played Armagh was their strength, their tactical awareness and their ability to enforce themselves on a game.

“He said in his book he went after Tyrone but that’s only because Armagh were on the way down at the time. Armagh had the bigger influence on Jim, there’s doubting that whatsoever.

“They were a force, not like a normal football team. They became a team you didn’t want to play against, and that’s the way Donegal were under Jim.

“They upped their training hugely, got into greater upper body shape, which was exactly how Armagh were. If they got ahead of you and into a lead, psychologically you felt they’d strangle you, which is exactly what Donegal did.”

Dermot Molloy’s goal to overcome Tyrone and Michael Murphy’s decisive penalty against Derry were the defining moments of an emotional first provincial title since 1992.

Eamon McGee hadn’t played at all in Ulster. He’d found the going tough when he rejoined the panel in May and it was only when Kildare proved stubborn that he and Murphy, who was struggling with an injury, were called down from their seats in the Hogan Stand.

Kevin Cassidy would become a central character in the story of Jim McGuinness, from the moment he kicked the glorious winner that night right through to last week’s show on TG4.

The debate over whether the manager was right to remove Cassidy from the squad over the Gaoth Dobhair man’s decision to contribute to Declan Bogue’s book, This Is Our Year will be never-ending.

It wasn’t the only disagreement of his time. There was also the breakdown in his relationship with Rory Gallagher that led to the pair going separate ways after the loss to Mayo in 2013.

Like most things managerial, the only time you find out whether you were right or wrong is when the tears of a final sting your eyes one way or the other.


KEVIN Nolan drills the ball down along the Hogan Stand into the sea of yellow. Bernard Brogan gets there and flicks it brilliantly down for Kevin McManamon. Off his left, the ball drops over the black spot and Dublin are level.

It is 0-6 apiece after an hour. The sky has already fallen in on Gaelic football by now, but neither side has yet been able to see their way out of the storm.

There were just 30 seconds gone in the second half of the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final when Colm McFadden’s silky dummy opened up a goal chance. It was still 15 yards out against Stephen Cluxton but had his shot gone under Donegal would have been five up.

They dominated the next fifteen minutes and led by four anyway before Dublin reeled them in en-route to a first All-Ireland for 16 years.

“It has to be the worst game of football I was involved in, as a spectacle,” says Nolan, who would be man-of-the-match in that year’s final.

In preparing for Donegal, they had done walk-throughs in training and played with extra numbers in defence. But nothing prepared them for having four men to mark Colm McFadden as the extremities of McGuinness’ plan were unveiled.

“Pat Gilroy tried to instil a bit of Nordie-style football on us,” he says.

“We looked at different teams and obviously Kerry struggled too with northern opposition, and we tried to create a bit more ruthlessness when we’re not on the ball.”

Despite Diarmuid Connolly’s red card Dublin took away a game that Donegal simply weren’t ready to win. When Gilroy came to shake McGuinness’ hand, he was already rueing that his team had “fell into a siege, trying to preserve what they had. But six points was never going to win a championship match,” he would recall in his book, Until Victory Always.

“That was the first or second year of Dublin’s journey and they were stumped,” says Eamon McGee.

“Only for the fact we had no offensive plan, we weren’t on that part of the journey yet.

“We’d never have won the All-Ireland final. Kerry would have blown us away, but if McFadden’s chance goes in, we probably would have got over the line against Dublin.”

It finished 0-8 to 0-6 and is the most infamous game of Gaelic football ever played. The worst? Quite possibly.

But the Donegal players were so bought into the McGuinness way that they never questioned what they planned to bring to Croke Park that afternoon.

“We didn’t debate the aesthetics of it at all. We had an Ulster medal, into the All-Ireland semis for the first time since the Armagh game [in 2003]. We weren’t thinking this wasn’t the way to play or we’d an obligation, like.

“That probably came for a few players later on, they had this debate when they were outside the bubble about whether there was a right way to play the game. But at the time, it wasn’t a hard sell at all.”

They’d spent year one catching up physically and defensively. When they returned for year two, the emphasis had moved towards developing the attacking side of their game.

Michael Murphy celebrates with Jim McGuinness after their All-Ireland final win over Mayo in 2012.
Michael Murphy celebrates with Jim McGuinness after their All-Ireland final win over Mayo in 2012.

McGuinness’s training was uncomplicated, repetitive and relentlessly driven by his own energy. That’s why it worked so well.

Donegal won the All-Ireland in 2012 because they were a very different, much better team to 2011. They were at their best when they turned teams over and went at the space.

In one training drill, they would line up in three groups. The middle group would have the ball and have a head-start on the flat-out sprint. The other two simply had to get past him.

The pace of it was so relentless that they had to ban the man in possession from soloing the ball during it as hamstring injuries started to become a problem.

“In 2012, we played a lot better football and it doesn’t get the credit it deserves,” says Rory Kavanagh.

“It was a good mix of attacking play and defensive play. We got the balance right.

“Whatever the opinions are from outside, and I would acknowledge the cynics would say ‘puke’ and all the rest, but you have to acknowledge there was a drastic change in 2012.”

They would retain the Ulster title in devastating fashion and with Mayo pushing the Dubs off the path, Donegal’s continuous work on kick-passing in case they met the westerners, whom they felt vulnerable, bore fruit in the first 10 minutes of the final.

Jim McGuinness had given himself four years to win an All-Ireland and achieved it in two.


THE fairytale almost had its perfect ending two years later.

Donegal were a busted flush in 2013, exhausted by two years of intense labour and distracted by the new-world possessions they found as an All-Ireland winning team. Monaghan took their Ulster title and Mayo knocked smashed them brick-by-brick until the house gave up and fell in.

McGuinness himself had been on a punishing schedule of travelling back and forward from Glasgow since being appointed by Celtic as a performance consultant in November 2012. He never missed a session in Donegal.

Rejuvenated by the longer winter, 2014 would threaten to be an even greater success only to end in crushing disappointment.

Dublin’s unbeatable tag was ripped up by a dossier Jim McGuinness had spent every spare hour he had compiling. They would survive the early onslaught and tear the All-Ireland champions apart in the final 45 minutes, winning a sensational game by 3-14 to 0-17.

It remains Dublin’s only championship defeat in the last eight years.

Their 2011 meeting changed the direction of Gaelic football. Their 2014 meeting had a different, but equally seismic, impact. Dublin haven’t left their own ‘D’ unattended since, and they haven’t lost a championship game since.

When the Dubs met up at the Gibson Hotel shortly afterwards to review the game, Kevin Nolan – a sub that afternoon – spoke his mind.

“I felt we were a bit naïve, expecting teams to play their way against us, we’ll play our way and sure we’re starting to get a lot better and having learned from the 2012 semi-final loss to Mayo, that we’d outscore teams.

“We looked at ourselves too much and ended up getting in a fight that we weren’t fully prepared for.”

What McGuinness hadn’t planned for was Kerry and Éamonn Fitzmaurice, who had been plotting ever since he was a selector under Jack O’Connor for the 2012 quarter-final that Donegal had won.

That day, they’d brought Darran O’Sullivan on for Killian Young before half-time and played with seven forwards, to little impact.

Tweaked plans for a Ballybofey league ambush in his first year in sole charge were undermined by Tomás Ó Sé’s red card which left Fitzmaurice smiling inwardly.

“Tomás gave one of the Donegal lads a bit of a jab, there wasn’t a lot in it. I copped Jim having a word with the linesman and the flag went up shortly after!” smiles the former Kerry boss.

“I remember thinking ‘we’ve a bit to go before we get there, but we’ll get there alright’. He had the bit of street smarts to get the job done.”

Fitzmaurice and his selectors travelled together to see Donegal pick off Dublin after they’d overcome Mayo in Limerick the previous evening. By the time they arrived home that night, the outline of a most un-Kerry plan had been drawn up.

Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden, Ryan McHugh and Darach O’Connor would be man-marked.

Kerry’s backs would sit and hold their position, with Killian Young as the first sweeper and Peter Crowley as the second.

Kieran Donaghy and James O’Donoghue would be told to drift in and out. Fifty seconds in, Neils McGee and Gallagher are pulled away by Donaghy’s dummy run, leaving Paul Geaney isolated one-on-one inside with Paddy McGrath. Goal, from a plan manifested inside a minute.

Over the next 70 minutes, they would play Donegal at something resembling their own game.

“After the final one of the lines of analysis thrown out was that we just mirrored Donegal, that this was the way to beat them. It wasn’t actually a mirror, it was just that we kept our backs in place,” says Fitzmaurice.

“The big thing when we were in possession was that we didn’t want to turn the ball over in the Donegal half. We wanted to avoid contact, keep it moving.

“We weren’t going to run into two or three Donegal bodies because they were at their best turning that player over and breaking up the field. It gave them oxygen and it gave their crowd oxygen, their supporters responded to every turnover they got and would nearly lift the roof off Croke Park as they’re going up the field.”

While they still had a pair of eyes up the tree in Killarney, the energy and excitement of the win over Dublin had taken Donegal’s focus away just enough.

The poison they’d been desperate to avoid had seeped into their system as they watched Kerry and Mayo do battle in Johnstown House the evening before their own semi-final. The Donegal players found themselves almost screaming at the TV for a Kerry victory.

They got what they wanted and then hours later provided Gaelic football with its biggest shock in years.

And even though they knew in advance from the spy up the tree that Kerry were bringing something very different to the final, it still became the perfect storm for the Kingdom.

“It pisses you off that we didn’t deal with it better,” says McGee.

“They deserve credit for the way they worked it out and ground it out. But I know I always feel it’s something we threw away. We just didn’t get to that level.

“It’s so hard to get it out of your head that you’ve done the hard work [against Dublin]. We trained well. It’s a sore, sore one.

“I remember chatting to someone involved with Kerry and he said they couldn’t believe we had set up the exact same way. That we didn’t offer anything different. That was part of it.”

If it’s a black mark on the McGuinness reign then it’s still far outweighed by what was achieved. He will forever be loved and revered in Donegal, by the players above all.

Celtic opened a door into another world that took him to China and America. There was irony in him being the man to turn his hand to management in the sport, given he never so much as dabbled into the county’s massive soccer culture when he was a player.

Regardless of how it turned out in Beijing and Charlotte, to go from being turned away twice by Donegal to working at one of soccer’s biggest clubs and managing high-level teams on his own in two far-flung corners of the world in less than a decade is frankly astounding.

He is back home now and alongside his punditry work with Sky Sports, he spent six weeks last autumn working with Naomh Mairtin, who won the Louth championship, before the great furore over his one-off training session in Galway.

There isn’t a single reference to the word ‘legacy’ in Until Victory Always but you can be assured McGuinness will be aware that he has one.

What that is? That depends who you ask.


SINCE 2011, Donegal have played in nine of the last ten Ulster finals. They have become a footballing heavyweight into a new generation, and that is all in no small part down to Jim McGuinness.

Beyond his own borders though is the measure of his real, lasting impact on the sport. No All-Ireland winning manager in history has had such impact far beyond what his own hands touched.

2011 is seldom differentiated from 2012 or 2014 when discussing Donegal’s legacy. But they were like different teams.

The game continues to evolve and while the inter-county game has found new ways to manufacture big scores, it will never again look how it did prior to 2011.

Every club in Ireland has adapted some form of defensive structure since. But without the time or the coaching tools, the club game has become more mired in a defensive mess at times.

“Jim McGuinness didn’t ruin the game. A lot of shite coaches tried to copy and paste what Jim McGuinness was about but without understanding the dynamic of the thing,” defends McGee.

“What made him great was the way he was able to build that belief into you without going down the road of taking 30 men into a room and chatting sports psychology waffle. He was able to do it as part of the training session.

“The fact that he had a vision and was able to sell that vision to us is where a lot of coaches fall down – they can’t communicate that across to the team, how they want their team to play and what they’re about.”

Many, though, would consider McGuinness’s lasting impact on the sport a negative.

Éamonn Fitzmaurice calls him a “ground-breaker” and is inclined to look positively on his impact.

“He completely changed the culture around Donegal football and what they expected of themselves, and what was expected of them nationally as a result,” says the ex-Kerry skipper.

“I think he deserves massive credit for what he did. I wouldn’t 100 per cent agree with how defensive he went at times and the influence that had on the game, but I don’t think that’s his issue or his problem.

“He wanted to win an All-Ireland and he felt this was the way to do it.”

Whether Gaelic football ever holds a permanent home for him again, the mark he left will endure.

Perhaps, though, his old friend Brendan Devenney summed it up best.

“It was surprising someone could change the game at that point to the level that he did

“There were tactics out there, Tyrone and Armagh dropping in sweepers, getting tougher strength and conditioning. But the jump Donegal took, I’ve never seen anything like that at county level.

“Thankfully the county game has evolved and is really high-scoring now, still with teams employing something similar to what McGuinness did. The forward play has really improved.

“Clubs can’t change to the same level, and it’s killing the club game. They’re like sheep dropping in, no real plan to come out.

“But from our perspective in Donegal, we enjoyed the ride. The Jim years were dreamland stuff.”