Fourteen years ago, while still a student in IT Tralee, he convinced Seamus Moynihan to bring him to Kerry training one night in Killarney.
This was unheard of, but the pair were footballing colleagues on that Sigerson Cup-winning squad, and they’d have Mike Frank Russell, William Kirby and Barry O’Shea for company.
It wasn’t that coach Páidí Ó Sé objected per se — but no-one could remember an outsider being invited to train with the Kingdom unless they were auditioning. Vinnie Murphy’s ‘trial’ had lasted only one night, for instance.
And so as quickly as McGuinness jogged onto the field, he was sent from whence he came, slightly embarrassed and frustrated by football’s wise guys.
The masters degree, though, was only beginning. Yesterday was Graduation Day.
“Commit, focus, believe, achieve,” he chimed in the bowels of Croke Park, as he ticked the stages of development he has brought his Donegal players through.
“The hardest thing is the commitment, and then you ask what are you committing to? The third thing is belief, and when you have those things together, achievement is the by-product,” McGuinness explained, as he savoured the 2-11 to 0-13 All-Ireland final success over James Horan’s Mayo.
“Every morning I have woken up (recently) seeing the cup at the front of the team bus. And when the door closes on that bus tomorrow (Monday), it is going to start the best journey our boys have ever experienced.”
As a journey, it may have competition. Donegal’s tale from party boys to peerless champions is unimaginable without someone of McGuinness’s direction and bar-setting. An uncomfortable peek behind the velvet smile of the Donegal coach was afforded to those of us who attended his post-match briefing to the media — one he was determined to share without the presence of writer, Declan Bogue who McGuinness believes penned some “vile” things about him in the book, This is Our Year.
Refusing to begin unless Bogue left the room brought a surreal and sour atmosphere to the telling of a fairytale — and was, in my view, the first tactical mistake McGuinness has made this year — but it underlined that line you dare not cross with this manager. “I won’t be two-faced about it,” he said.
When he did begin talking about 70 shuddering minutes, he made the surprising revelation that the new champions’ performance had betrayed signs that the hype had got to them.
Within 10 minutes, Donegal were 2-1 to no score in front, on a plateau no opponent has yet managed to dislodge them from. But from McGuinness’s eye, they then got sloppy.
“We started forcing balls inside from the wrong areas of the pitch. I know we got joy off one of those balls (for Murphy’s goal) but we went away from our own natural game.”
Mayo’s game-plan was evident from the get-go. James Horan had detected a chink in Donegal’s rearguard that fast, low ball into the full forward line would expose. It might have — if Messrs Varley, O’Connor and Conroy were able to make the ball stick.
“A lot of our fundamentals weren’t as strong as normal,” was Horan’s best practice explanation for same.
There was nothing wrong with Michel Murphy’s fundamentals when the first diagonal ball of the afternoon was arrowed into his domain after two minutes and 20 seconds.
Mayo defender Kevin Keane and their keeper David Clarke were about to discover the sporting meaning of helpless as Murphy claimed the goal of the season rosette. Nine minutes later, and Kevin Keane had his head in his hands as Colm McFadden capitalised on a fumble by the defender to net a second.
There are worse places to be than in a living Croke Park All-Ireland nightmare like Keane’s — though I can’t think of one. Therefore it’s worth reporting that the 22-year-old from Westport not just survived the ordeal, but composed himself to turn in a competent second half.
It’s glib to be offering James Horan consolations but that Keane and the rest of his Mayo players claimed a toehold in the game after such a traumatic start must provide a cornerstone to work on for 2013. By the interval, they had chipped away at Donegal and trailed by one score (2-4 to 0-7).
The second period was pregnant with possibility for 82,269 fans in the ground. Mayo were turning over Donegal ball with a frequency and a neglect for their own well-being that must have both impressed and concerned McGuinness.
With 20 minutes remaining, the gap was still three points (2-7 to 0-10) which might have been of further concern to Donegal, the best third-quarter team in the Championship. Right to the death, Mayo’s aptitude was complete, with substitute Seamus O’Shea scrambling a desperate effort goalwards in the third minute of injury time. But their scoring return had dried up. Richie Feeney’s 64th-minute point was their first from play in the second half. They had moments but they never developed into momentum. The first half recovery had drained Mayo of their fight.
“I could see the photographers coming in around me, and I was thinking ‘get away, this game is still in the melting pot’,” McGuinness explained afterwards. “There was still so much going on around the field.”
What was evident as the third quarter ticked by was that Donegal, shaken and stirred by Mayo’s recovery from that early torpedo blow, had regained their shape and composure. Murphy landed two frees, the second from a typical piece of selfless scavenging from Colm McFadden, the footballer of the year in waiting. When Murphy fisted another point, you could stick a fork in this year’s football championship. It was done.
“I never once thought we were going to get beaten,” explained McGuinness in that matter-of-fact way that doesn’t transmit well to cold print. It was more a statement of self-belief. He added: “I couldn’t go there. It’s just so far removed (from where our beliefs stood). You can’t get motivated by negatives. The visual in your mind has to be positive all the time.”
The positives for everyone else is that Donegal are now The Hunted. McGuinness must find new ways to refresh the desire that drove Donegal to the edge of beyond this season. That applies to himself as much as his players. “These lads are not Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden any more. They are All-Ireland winners Michel Murphy and Colm McFadden,” McGuinness said. That may bring its own pressures and problems in 2013. But after 20 years, they’ll take that.