Donegal’s Jim McGuinness on beating Antrim: “It felt like more like a defeat than a victory.”
IT’S Tuesday evening in Letterkenny at O’Donnell Park, the home of St Eunan’s GAA club. Jim McGuinness has arrived to talk football. For a long-time student of gaelic games and sports psychology, a six-point win against Antrim in the minefield province of Ulster should’ve been seen as a commendable championship debut. On Sunday, that spluttering 1-10 to 0-7 win was Donegal’s first in the Ulster championship in four years. Those losses were before McGuinness’s conscription as senior manager, but he was left to pick up the pieces.
Perhaps bettering their own expectations, Donegal’s league season had gathered momentum. After defeating Tyrone by seven points in Omagh, winning in Derry, having scored 2-18 and sauntering to a simple defeat of Meath in Navan, promotion to Division One was ascertained. The media began to grab the scruff of their tails for a piggyback. “It was only on Sunday night I realised the expectation of Donegal is higher in some places than we might’ve thought ourselves,” McGuinness says in relation to the barrage of criticism received after beating Antrim. “It felt like more like a defeat than a victory. I know it was a poor game but in all my time playing I can’t recall winning by six points in the Ulster championship.
“There was a wee bit of first day nerves and it was a bad day, wet and windy, and Liam Bradley and the Antrim selectors felt as though Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy were our most dangerous players and they decided to double-up on them and drop men back. That made it difficult for us to get quality balls in. We tucked over a few scores and were fully expecting Antrim to throw caution to the wind but it never happened. We were ahead and relatively comfortable.
“Of course people will criticise Sunday and say it’s ultra-defensive but I can assure you every night we go to train we work more on the offensive side of things than the defensive. We haven’t done a tackling drill for the last six weeks. That might surprise some people but I can assure you it’s the truth.
“In the preliminary round of an Ulster championship some people felt Donegal had to be at the level of Cork, Kerry and Dublin. That’s not reality and it wouldn’t have been if conditions were perfect. We are so far behind in terms of development. To think there was going to be a finished product on view was optimistic, to say the least, but people can make up their own minds. For me it was like comparing apples with oranges.”
With its geographical remoteness tucked in behind the six counties and clinging only to Ireland’s shortest coastline in Leitrim as the Atlantic batters its rugged coast, Donegal is considered the forgotten county. On Sunday, with nothing else doing, Ballybofey’s press box window fogged up with the weight of media inside. An unhealthy crowd of 7,835 huddled underneath crackling umbrellas outside, while the stay-aways watched the first live championship transmission on television.
“The media need a story and on Sunday, with the way the fixtures were, we were the only story in town and the conditions, tactics employed and bad weather made for a bad spectacle,” McGuinness says. “It’ll be another story this Sunday and we won’t be a part of it and that suits us. We have a young panel and in all aspects of our game — in strength, in fitness and in terms of game plans or whatever — we are all trying to move up the ladder together. It will take a while for things to embed..
“Now, we are happy to focus on Cavan. You might well find Breffni Park might have the sun splitting the rocks with sunshine and we might have a few players back. Cavan might employ different tactics and as a result we might, and you might see an entirely different championship encounter. The thought of summer and what it can bring is exciting.
“When you have lads running up and down the road from Galway and Dublin and trying to juggle study and football you feel as though you are impinging on their time, so this weekend we have them at home for the first time and they can relax a little outside of football and that will bring a new dynamic. We just needed to get over the first hurdle and we did it.”
For now, the avalanche of provincial fixtures speckled around the county will give those in-the-know, and many who aren’t, plenty to discuss long into their Sunday evenings. Despite their critics, Donegal are already ahead of schedule when it’s considered their championship was over last year before June was. As for Jim McGuinness, he should be judged not on what he does, but how he does.