The night Donegal retained the Ulster championship, Jim McGuinness looked out over the Diamond in Donegal town and let his mind wander in whatever direction it wished to go.
Having become the first Donegal manager to retain the Anglo Celt, the celebratory mood reminded him of when, almost a generation beforehand, he was one of the gang bound for Clones on board the buses of the family coaching company, now run by his brother Frank.
“We were the ‘Straw Hat Brigade’,” he recalled.
“We used to head off on the Sunday morning — maybe three or four coachloads from Glenties — to make a day of it.”
McGuinness was not part of the entourage for the 1991 Ulster final when Donegal faced Down. That March he had gone to America, earning a few dollars labouring on sites whilst helping Donegal Boston win the New England Championships and almost the All-Americans.
After returning that Christmas for a holiday to see his parents Maureen and Jim, the 19-year-old accepted an invitation from Brian McEniff to attend a trial one cold afternoon in Ballyshannon.
“I went up and scored 1-3 from wing-forward, putting the goal past Gary Walsh and I was chuffed with myself,” McGuinness said.
“As I was going out the gate, Brian McEniff, wearing a sheepskin coat, called me back and asked me would I be interested in coming into the panel. I was flabbergasted.
“I couldn’t get home quickly enough to tell my parents. Sometimes your life can take twists and turns. I was just fortunate enough I played very well that particular day. I could’ve gone another day and it mightn’t have worked out and I might never have been heard of again.”
Life certainly can take twists and turns. It’s said things happen for a reason but that sat uneasy with McGuinness.
18 months prior to that trial he was a Donegal minor. He only gave the minors a serious go because of disaster following his brother Charles’ death from a heart condition aged just 16 in 1986.
“Charles was a very good player,” McGuinness recalls. “He was a four years older than me and was destined to be a county minor.
“That was a dream I carried on. One of the biggest moments of my life was making the minor team and fulfilling a promise I made to myself after Charles had passed.”
Taking on that dream he focused on the game with a new zeal. Training on his own he honed his skills and people started to talk about this young Glenties talent.
Having dropped the Boston dream to bed in with the seniors in spring 1992, McGuinness had the opportunity of more than a minor career. Rooming with Martin Gavigan and getting the chance to integrate with his team-mates on overnight away trips eased the transition.
“I was playing against grown men at the peak of their powers that weren’t holding back,” McGuinness added. “It can be daunting for a new player. I was trying to keep my head above water. But the lads were welcoming and that made a big difference.”
However McGuinness would not make his senior championship debut until 1993. For the starry-eyed teenager, just being a part of the All-Ireland winning panel was more than enough in 1992.
If ever something peaked too soon, though, it was McGuinness’s inter-county career. With Ulster and All-Ireland winners’ medals before the age of 20, he scoured the wilderness for 13 years afterwards. Donegal lost Ulster finals in 1993, 1998 and 2002.
“I have to make peace with it now and I’m content I was involved in the early stages of my career,” he said.
“There are players like Adrian Sweeney, John Gildea, John Duffy, Brendan Devenney, Brian Roper and Damian Diver who never got an Ulster medal. At least I did.”
A few weeks after the 1998 Ulster final, one which Joe Brolly won with a last-minute Derry goal, McGuinness was off to America again. Mark, his elder brother by two years, offered a lift to Dublin airport. The pair were almost inseparable, more like best friends than brothers. At Lisnaskea, Co Fermanagh, barely 10 miles from St Tiernach’s Park in Clones, the car spun and Mark lost his life.
“It’s something I live with on a daily basis and one I particularly think about when we play in Clones,” McGuinness said of that day.
“My relationship with Mark was also centred on football. He played club reserves and had an awful passion for the game. We’d chat for hours on end about football. Mark had a huge impact on my life.”
When Mark was alive he had a huge impact on his younger brother and it was the same after his passing. Life was heavy going for a while for McGuinness, who had left school before doing his Leaving Cert but returned to sit it at 24 years of age.
He continued his education and now holds an MSc in Sport Psychology from John Moore’s University, Liverpool; an Honours Degree in Sport, Exercise and Leisure from UUJ, and a Higher Cert in Health and Leisure Studies from Tralee IT.
As the leaves browned on his playing career, in 2004, as McGuinness went to play a ball one day against Killybegs and pain shuddered though his body. He had torn cruciate ligaments, broken a leg and smashed a kneecap.
“There was nothing really there of my knee. My friend met Roy Keane at a Manchester United function in Mayo and he got me a number of a specialist in Manchester. I got it operated on and was lying up in the house feeling sorry for myself when Hughie Molloy asked would I train the Naomh Conaill seniors.”
Having trained his club Naomh Conaill’s U12 teams when he was only 16 himself, McGuinness helped guide them to a first ever county title in 2005. Despite his growing reputation, twice he was overlooked in comical circumstances for the position of Donegal senior manager. It mightn’t have made sense at the time but perhaps these were again things that happened for a reason.
He was then offered the U21s for 2010 and shared a pot of tea with Martin McHugh and wondered whether it would be worth his while. Looking into the tea leaves, few would’ve predicted McGuinness’s taking of an unfancied team to an Ulster championship and within a lick of paint of an All-Ireland.
At the same time the seniors were the first side evicted from the 2010 championship. When John Joe Doherty walked, there was only one natural successor.
McGuinness let bygones be bygones and accepted the job, promising to do all in his powers to restore the Donegal peoples’ pride in the team. Two years later, with successive Ulster titles, he has remained true to his word. Tomorrow they take on Kerry in the championship for the first time in their history.
“Even if it was to end tomorrow, I would be content that at least I contributed something,” he said.
“I’ve said it all along and it was the same in 1992, seeing smiles on people’s faces makes everything worthwhile. I saw plenty of them in Donegal town last week and it reminded me of those nights we had there all those years ago after getting the bus from Glenties.
“I’m very aware and have always been very aware of what football means to the people of Donegal. You have to get out into the world and experience it and everything that happens to you in your life helps make you what you are today. Your past is your future.”
Jim McGuinness has helped Donegal’s future catch up with its past. Maybe soon he will be asked to recount his second All-Ireland. But Kerry will have something to say about that first.
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