It was almost 20 years ago today that Ger Loughnane taught his band of men to play — and win.
On an October Sunday in 1994 he oversaw his first league match as Clare manager. It was against Kilkenny, in Sixmilebridge, the kind of venue you’d hardly get for a league game now.
He handed six players their debut. Michael O’Halloran from the local club who’d never played minor or U21 for Clare was given a shot at corner-back. Frank Lohan was tried as well while up front was Eamonn Taaffe, the goalscorer and hero of the following September. Clare would edge Kilkenny that day in the Bridge but only Loughnane could have foreseen the glory to come.
In recent days as we’ve tried to comprehend the remarkable achievement of Jim McGuinness, Loughnane has frequently come to mind.
For starters we can’t think of two men who so openly agitated to manage their county in the face of previous rejection. Everyone knows about McGuinness’s interview when a couple of officers nodded off and there were no facilities for his PowerPoint presentation. Loughnane was fired as U21 manager but a year later took on the role of being a senior selector to Len Gaynor on the proviso he’d succeed him as manager. Both McGuinness and Loughnane craved the top job, but what differentiated them from tens of others on that score was their conviction that they were precisely and uniquely what the county needed. For their counties to be transformed they needed transformational leaders; they knew just the men.
McGuinness would continue to risk it all to win it all. It’s not widely known but for the first half of his tenure with Donegal the man essentially had no day job, no income. He’d closed his performance consultancy to dedicate all his energy and time to Donegal. The reward of such a risk is that he’s now a performance consultant to one of the most famous soccer clubs in Europe.
The same summer Loughnane was going about winning his first All-Ireland, the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner published the book Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership.
Instead of taking the usual approach of studying the personality or qualities of the leader, Gardner was more concerned with the mind of one.
The first thing he found was that great leaders achieve success “through relating stories to their key audience in a refreshing way which features language and symbols that reflect the longing and needs of others”.
Over time, Gardner noted, there has to be some flexibility in the vision and presentation of the story. Loughnane had it — “It takes a good team to win an All-Ireland, a great team to win two” — and McGuinness had a similar capacity and flexibility.
From the outset he created a vision, famously and rhetorically asking his players four years ago this month how they could jump from being ranked 19th in the country to first. Before their opening 2011 championship game against Antrim he showed them pictures of them on their knees after losing their opening championship game the previous three years, then declared, “it’s time to get off our knees and win a championship game”. After that they’d play Ulster standard-bearers Tyrone, a team and game he’d been telling his players all season they’d be playing and winning. Twelve months ago he was selling them on another vision and story: did they want to be remembered as the team who lost to Mayo by 16 points? They won’t be now.
Gardner also maintained that leaders should in some way embody the story. Loughnane, driven by the hurt of never winning a championship medal as a player, personified Clare’s.
McGuinness embodied Donegal’s; as a player he’d been to the mountain top in ’92 but had then under-performed and perhaps partied too much for a decade afterwards. By educating himself he’d reinvented himself. If he could, Donegal could too.
He had to talk more than a good game though; as Gardner identified, for leaders to have the necessary credibility, they had to be experts within their domain. McGuinness is probably the best-rounded coach-manager football has known for his prowess in all four domains of preparation: technical, physical, mental and especially the tactical.
In doing so, he, like Loughnane before him, ticked another box of Gardner’s: he didn’t just directly transform his own county, but indirectly, the very business and sport he operated in.
Look at how Kerry had to set up to win an All-Ireland final. Look at how Dublin will go about trying to win next year’s. For good or bad, that’s another part of the McGuinness leadership legacy.
For everyone else, there’s more to digest. Enda McEvoy once wrote that after Loughnane other counties no longer had excuses; consequently Wexford would soon win their All-Ireland and later, Waterford their Munster titles.
You look at football now and while we may never again return to the semi-egalitarian days of the 2000s when a Fermanagh could reach an All-Ireland semi-final and a Westmeath could win a provincial title, what excuse have Meath and Galway and Kildare got not to rejoin and challenge the very best? They just need a vision, a story, their own Jimmy or Ger. Good luck finding or developing him.
But somewhere, out there, maybe biding or serving his time, he’s there.
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