By John O’Hara
Jim McGuinness’ increasingly insightful articles in the Irish Times have been a massive hit with the GAA fraternity throughout the country. This week’s article focused on the easy wins for Dublin and Kerry in their quarter-final ties and Jim has created a little bit of controversy with his comments about Fermanagh GAA fans. Even Fermanagh players like Sean Quigley and Tomas Corrigan have lambasted the former Donegal manager for his comments
He noted that Fermanagh fans were over-joyed with their team’s performance in the Croke Park encounter with Dublin, despite losing by eight points. He was appalled at the reaction of the players and the fans.
“I stayed in the stadium after Dublin had left and I was looking down at the pitch and the Fermanagh boys came back out and they were hugging their family and friends and the scene was one of joy. And that spooked me because they had been well beaten in an All-Ireland quarter-final.”
He questioned the attitude of people applauding an eight point defeat and people were quick to admonish him for criticising fans that knew they were going to get beat but came to support their team nonetheless. People were highly critical of his analysis, saying that Fermanagh knew they would be beaten and everyone was just happy at their performance. The romantic in people saw this as a good news story, a tale of the underdog not quite triumphing, but going home with their heads held high, but Jim McGuinness is not a romantic, Jim is a born winner.
I was torn between being happy for the Fermanagh fans, who have had little to cheer about in recent years and the logic behind McGuinnness’ article. Reading the article reminded me of the Republic of Ireland game in 2000 away to Holland, where they played out a 2-2 draw. The players and management were jumping around at the final whistle, celebrating the point they had earned, while one Roy Maurice Keane stormed off the pitch, with a face like thunder, appalled at how his side had thrown away a 2-0 lead. Keane’s entire career in the green of Ireland was spent trying to convince others that second best was not good enough, that if you settle for mediocrity, that’s what you’ll get. McGuinness and Keane are cut from the same cloth. Keane suffered the wrath of Irish fans in the 2012 European Championships when he criticised the fans for singing even though the team were 4-0 down against Spain, saying that that type of attitude did not help the Irish cause.
Again, the romantic will argue that there is something honourable in backing your team, when the chips are down and hope is all but lost. The likes of Keane and McGuinness did not achieve success by being a romantic, it is their one dimensional, tunnel vision approach to their chosen sports that have made them such a success. Keane, as the angry, ferocious teenager who went to Nottingham Forest to prove himself to the world, while McGuinness inherited a team of party animals, deemed to be a lost cause and instilled a belief so strong that they did the unthinkable and won an all-Ireland. Not only did McGuinness change the mind-set of the players but he changed the mind-set of the entire county and forced people to refuse mediocrity.
‘Commit, Focus, Believe, Achieve.’ Those four words are the cornerstone of McGuinness’ many public speeches and it’s clear from it that no amount of dedication will yield success unless you believe in yourself. This is what he was trying to convey with his article. Fermanagh never believed they could challenge Dublin, therefore they were never going to win. Some critics have called McGuinness a hypocrite, saying that Donegal went out with a negative attitude, trying to stop the other team playing, rather than going out to be a better team. This over-played argument just doesn’t stand up. The aim of the game is to win and the best manager utilises his best assets in order to win games. Jose Mourinho does it, Alex Ferguson did it and McGuinness won Donegal an All-Ireland after a twenty year gap with it.
Donegal fans will remember the various drubbings they received throughout the noughties, as Armagh, Dublin, Tyrone and most painfully, Cork slaughtered them in various stages throughout the summer. These defeats were demoralising but as they continued, Donegal fans began to accept them. It got to the stage where they were happy with a quarter final and a day out in Croke Park, just like the Erne followers last Sunday.
Fermanagh fans who were incensed at McGuinness’ comments should also note that when McGuinness took over Donegal in 2011, they had just been mauled by Armagh in a qualifier in Crossmaglen and their Ulster record had been abysmal in the years before that. They have now contested the last five Ulster Finals, winning three of them. McGuinness wasn’t being critical to be nasty, he was being critical to highlight that you need to aim higher and not accept a moral victory as a marker for success. If Donegal lose on Saturday to Mayo, you can be sure the Donegal fans will not be celebrating or that the Donegal players will be hugging their families. McGuinness has changed the psyche of the Donegal players and its people.
A few critics I’ve met didn’t even bother to read the whole article, instead choosing to focus on the out of context sound bytes that paint McGuinness as some kind of pantomime villain. He spoke about the value of coaching and that players’ ability is very often the result of good coaching and not just ability. He pointed out that his club, Glenties never had a senior player until he joined the panel in 1992 and now they have representatives at every level and challenge in the senior championship every year. There is only one reason for this turn around and it’s coaching and better quality coaching. He is telling weaker counties that Kerry and Dublin players are not born as better players, but they are better because of the tradition of coaching and the investment in youth structures within the county. The premise of his article was that counties need to stop feeling sorry for themselves and put changes in place that will see better players coming through.
Even looking at his own personal life and the journey he has taken and it gives you a picture of a man driven to succeed. He left school without an education, went back as an adult, was stuck with the ‘eternal student’ tag throughout his twenties, before going on to become one of the most influential GAA managers of all time. Not content with that, he took a role with Glasgow Celtic as a psychologist to the youth players and now travels with the senior team, wherever they go. Still not content, the Glenties man is doing his coaching badges for soccer. Could it be possible that an all-Ireland winning manager goes on to manage a professional football team?
One last thing that Fermanagh fans and players should remember when discussing this article and this is borne from experience as a Donegal man; when McGuinness speaks, you listen.