Posted by Ewan MacKenna


2012 Donegal individuals 520x280

They haven’t just come a long way on the field, you know. Back at the tail end of 2008, Donegal was busy tearing itself apart.

Brian McIver stepped down as manager suddenly at a meeting where he was due to outline his plan for the following season, but the suggestion of a motion of no confidence from some club delegates caused him to walk away.

After interviews by the county board, John Joe Doherty was surprisingly offered the job but when he asked to meet about expenses and other issues concerning the running of the team, he was told by the board the offer had been withdrawn.

Shortly after, Charlie Mulgrew and Declan Bonner were told the job was theirs, apparently without ever knowing about the Doherty offer. But at a meeting to ratify their new positions, Doherty showed up to clear his name, saying people had accused him of looking for money.

Having been told he couldn't speak by the board, a club delegate stood aside, gave Doherty a forum and by the time he'd finished his speech, he'd attacked Brian McEniff for attempting to influence matters in his newspaper column and attacked his opposition for accepting the job after what had happened to him. As he sat down and drew breath, the floor voted to give him another chance and he left that meeting as manager. Again.

So much was happening, it’s easy to forget that the best man for the job went for it too only to be humiliated in his mind. Having been told he would be able to use a PowerPoint presentation, Jimmy McGuinness showed up to find there was no such outlet and by the time he had set up equipment, some members of the selection committee are said to have spent their time looking at everything from the roof to their shoes.

McGuinness left that day having found them dismissive and rude yet less than four years on, they are at worst the second best team in the country, heading into an All Ireland semi-final with so much more than the historic Donegal plan of arriving and giving it a go.

It’s a story that should give everyone hope because regardless of what goes wrong, one right move and one dedicated group can make it all okay again, and quickly.

After all, it’s just two years since Donegal were torn apart on the field. Paul Durcan, Paddy McGrath, Neil McGee, Karl Lacey, Frank McGlynn, Neil Gallagher, Mark McHugh, Rory Kavanagh, David Walsh, Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy all started a round one qualifier in Crossmaglen in 2010 and were humbled.

They were a mess with Armagh players laughing out loud during the warm down as Colm McFadden was presented with an award on the side of the pitch to mark his 100th game.

At times it’s all happened so fast that McGuinness himself has been taken aback. “Patrick McBrearty for instance has only trained with us about 25 times in the last two years and he has two Ulster medals,” the manager observed after this year’s provincial final victory. “Before the game myself and Rory Gallagher were just saying that it would be a good book to write – how to win two Ulster championships and train 25 times.”

After that hammering to Armagh, Doherty was retired and most of the team was as well, in the minds of the public. It wasn’t down to age, it was down to talent but from the very beginning with McGuinness two factors have been key.

Increasing performance was about working on individuals rather than the team in order to get tangible improvements. But what can’t be measured but what has clearly been instilled has been belief.

McGuinness’s own background in sports psychology has been pivotal in turning this group around and convincing them the work they were doing was for something. Take Paddy McGrath as the perfect example. He was taken for two of the easiest goals Jamie Clarke has ever scored in the first half that day in 2010 and they were strikes that could have destroyed McGrath as an intercounty footballer. Yet here we are so soon afterwards and you can be sure Clarke wishes he could swap places.

If McGuinness knows his talents when it comes to massaging the mind, he knows his limitations when it comes to maximising the body and just like Pat Gilroy and James Horan, he’s placed trust in others around him.

At that Ulster title homecoming this season, McGuinness read a list of 16 names from the stage: Assistant manager Rory Gallagher, video analyst Maxi Curran; goalkeeping coach Pat Shovelin; strength and conditioning coaches Adam Speer and Eugene Eivers; Mr Kevin Moran and Dr Charlie McManus; physio Dermot Simpson; physical therapists JD McGrenra and Donal Reid; kitman Joseph McCloskey; logistics manager Michael McMenamin; as well as Gavin Ward, Charles McGuinness, Charlie Molloy and Paul Coyle.

In his mind each has been as important as the next. Paul Caffrey was criticised for the numbers he had on the line and perhaps they were a little obvious, but you cannot have enough expertise behind the scenes and Donegal have shown as much with their tactical and physical evolution to the point they are the most intense team and one of the most feared teams about.

“It has been incredible,” said Colm McFadden of it all. “It’s a credit to Jim and Rory that they have got us focussed and every man is now pulling in the right direction.”

But it’s a credit to the players that they have done what's been asked of them because what is expected of a Donegal footballer is frightening. They’ve had gym sessions at seven in the morning before work and training again that evening after work.

Some players had their diets altered to the point they were eating plates of potatoes for breakfast. Rory Kavanagh, having been earmarked for a midfield role, was told to eat six meals a day with lunch at 10.30. Ryan Bradley via a personalised running programme lost just under three stone. And it’s caused every player to improve as an individual and by extension the team has become unrecognisable from what so pitiful before.

It would have been impossible to imagine this scenario two years ago, never mind four years ago. But the Donegal county board finally stumbled upon the redemption man and as a result have become the redemption county.

In the most remarkable of turnarounds, they’ve proved with a top-class team behind the scenes, a dedicated team on the pitch, focus on the individual player and delegation to individual coaches, anything is possible, no matter how far back you start.

It should provide others with hope. It's provided Donegal with genuine and deserved expectation.