Bitter experience proves the making of new Donegal
By Paddy Heaney
Jim McGuinness is a bitter man and he would tell you as much himself.
He’s not angry about his life or the cards he has been dealt. The deep unrest within Jim shoots to the surface when he reflects on his playing career and the history of Donegal football.
His most prestigious medal was won from the subs’ bench. An exceptional underage talent, he was only 19 when Donegal won the All-Ireland title in 1992.
But when he was big enough and strong enough to play at midfield for his beloved county, Jim won nothing.
If Donegal had been beaten by better teams with superior players, Jim probably wouldn’t be quite so rueful about his days in the green and gold.
But Jim McGuinness cannot accept that assertion. He knows that he played with Donegal footballers who were every bit as good as the opponents who smiled down at himself and his team-mates from the winners’ podium.
As a player, McGuinness was with Donegal when they lost Ulster finals in 1993, 1998 and 2002. A decade ago, he scored Donegal’s only goal when Armagh beat them 1-14 to 1-10.
When he hung up his boots, he watched helplessly from the stands as his county lost another two Ulster finals, in 2004 and 2006.
McGuinness would contend that Donegal always had the players. Talent has never been the issue.
Donegal’s major failing was that they weren’t as organised or as well-prepared as their northern rivals.
As Armagh lifted weights and practised their diagonal ball game, Donegal were playing what McGuinness calls “off-the-cuff” football.
Confronted by well-drilled Armagh sides that were physically stronger and tactically more astute, Donegal relied almost exclusively on their talent. And talent only gets you so far.
So, when Jim looks back on what has happened to Donegal during the past 20 years, the regret and disappointment is never far away.
There is an overriding sense that huge potential was left unfulfilled. The question which must haunt him is this: What would Donegal have achieved with a Joe Kernan or a Mickey Harte at the helm?
Now that McGuinness is in charge of his native county, it is abundantly obvious that he is trying to be the footballing Svengali he never had.
Commenting on the achievement of guiding Donegal to their first Ulster title in 19 years, it was telling when McGuinness said the victory “righted a few wrongs in my own career”.
But anyone who thinks that last year’s Anglo-Celt Cup will have sated Jim McGuinness’s ambition is badly mistaken. The six provincial finals and All-Ireland semi-final (2003) that Donegal lost between 1993 and 2006 have left lasting wounds. Last year was only the start of the payback.
As everyone now knows, Donegal are working on a five-year plan. There is already evidence that they have improved significantly since last season.
A Derry footballer who played in Ballybofey last Saturday told me he never came up against anything quite like Donegal before.
The Donegal players talked non-stop from start to finish. They had their own glossary of words and phrases which they all understood perfectly. “Squeeze” was the command used most often.
They also spoke in code. The defenders kept referring to an outfield team-mate called ‘Paul’. There is no outfield Donegal player called Paul.
The Derry player said their level of choreography was astonishing. Whenever a defender would break up the pitch, there was always a spare player waiting to drop back. The transitions were seamless. And through it all, the Donegal players kept talking and talking.
Unlike other Donegal teams of old, the current edition combines large doses of aggression with a sprinkling of cuteness (The absence of this vital blend often cost them dearly in their Ulster final encounters against Armagh).
For instance, whenever Neil McGee would launch a counter-attack, another Donegal player would deliberately block Emmet McGuckin and prevent the forward from making a tackle on the full-back.
Three Derry players were forced off the pitch with blood injuries.
Michael Friel received eight stitches to a head wound.
It needs to be stressed that the Derry players wasn’t complaining about Donegal. Derry employed similar tactics on Mark McHugh. He was just making an observation about the transformation that has taken place in Donegal’s play.
Interestingly, he insisted that the Oak Leafers were reasonably fit. They only looked sluggish because Donegal’s conditioning is off the charts.
The Ulster champions have taken the game into another dimension.
Derry spent the last three weeks preparing a plan for Donegal. They went to Kildare and the players said it was a superbly organised training camp.
The problem for Derry was that Donegal have been working on their system for nearly two years.
Whenever Jim McGuinness wants to introduce a new facet to his team’s gameplan, he works off a rule of thumb that it needs to be practised during eight successive training sessions. And that’s only the first building block.
The Donegal players aren’t told what to do in a meeting. They have to do it themselves, night after night, until the technique becomes learned habit.
And when his players are performing a particular move at 100% perfection in training, McGuinness works off another theory based from experience.
Even when they’re able to do something with their eyes closed in training, the Donegal manager reckons he will be lucky if his players will achieve 75% success during a competitive game.
Critics of Donegal have accused them of being too methodical and too defensive. They have been ridiculed for the emphasis that is placed on fist-passing and retaining possession. But to understand Donegal, you must first understand their manager and two decades of underachievement has left Jim McGuinness badly scarred. He wholeheartedly despises ‘off-the-cuff’ football. He believes it has left him, and other Donegal men like him, stranded in too many quiet changing rooms. And as Donegal blaze another trail of destruction through this year’s Ulster Championship, there will be a growing number of people coming round to Jim’s way of thinking.
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