JACK MADDEN: Magician or demolition

JIM McGuinness. One man’s messiah, another man’s Satan. A tactical genius, and the man who damaged the game beyond repair. Marmite. Take your pick.

The origins would slip your mind, the man with the laptop and a Powerpoint presentation in a room with no socket. Maybe it was quite Jim McGuinness of him to get up and leave that room in 2008. Maybe it was quite Jim McGuinness of him to come back and be appointed at the third attempt in 2010.

Back then people hardly knew what Powerpoint presentations were. Lesser still sweepers, kickout concession, and blanket defence amongst other phrases that now drive football purists to the gates of hell in search of some respite.


Kevin Cassidy could probably direct a new Love/Hate series in Tír Chonaill. 2011 anseo, 2012 as láthair. His final act was the pinnacle of the McGuinness regime, and close to the pinnacle of his success. Dublin 0-8 0-6 Donegal. Close but no cigar.

Michael Murphy, the talisman, part of a defensive system. Colm McFadden, like the kid in the playground with no friends up top. Come the final quarter, Donegal could well have pushed on. They didn’t.

“I remember roaring to him ‘Michael, get the fuck up the pitch, we can win this fucking game if we get another score.’ However, Michael’s orders were to help out in defence and he was going to do what he was told.”

Do what you’re told, the moral of the story. Cassidy learned that lesson the hard way, but McGuinness is more than a systems operator. He is a football man.

He strikes you as the stubborn type, and still he came crawling back. He knew what he was missing. Declan Bogue was keen to pick the flaws of a mastermind back in 2020:

“If it was that ballsy then why go up to Kevin’s school at Easter and ask Kevin to rejoin the panel? The truth of the matter is, and Jim has never acknowledged this, he behaved childishly.”

Perhaps it proved the right call when Michael Murphy climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand just over 12 months later. Perhaps Donegal were going to win that day no matter what.

Fast forward to 2014 and the defeat to Kerry, and maybe the consequences arose. Mark McHugh and Rory Gallagher had since had fallouts, or breakdowns in communication of some kind. Speaking to Gaelic Life in 2020, you get the sense that Cassidy feels those losses were felt:

“If you look back on that 2014 All-Ireland final with Kerry, if Jim McGuinness had Mark McHugh and myself on the pitch and Rory Gallagher beside him on the sideline could we have helped? Possibly so.”

Colm McFadden is among those who go wild for a slap of marmite. Back in the U-21 days, Leo McLoone and Michael Murphy were the two big names on an unfancied outfit that made it the whole way to the All-Ireland final.

“People thought he was mad taking them.

“They got to the All-Ireland final but then the team got hit by the flu. Three or four of them didn’t play. Most of them were out on their feet. Murphy hit the bar at the end from the penalty.

“We thought that if he could get that out of them, what could he do with us?”.

A football mad county with no expectation was suddenly expecting a renaissance. Getting over Tyrone in 2011 was a massive hurdle, the team McGuinness described as “the standard bearers”.

That 2011 Dublin defeat, for many a car crash, was described by McFadden as “one of the most enjoyable games I have ever played in”.

When Dublin waltzed into Croke Park in 2014, they got the shock of their life in one of the most memorable upsets in recent memory, if not all-time. Ryan McHugh was 80/1 for first goalscorer, Donegal at 10/1. A surprise perhaps, but no shock as panellist Dermot Molloy recalls: “Jim had a plan. We had spent three hours of watching [Stephen] Cluxton’s kickouts. Those tactical sessions were intense. You wanted to go to bed after them.”

After all that, the final ended in defeat to Kerry. Let the naysayers re-emerge. What might have been the greatest All-Ireland success in Donegal history became a once-off ambush. Dublin were naive and arrogant. Donegal were not the team of 2012.

Fast forward to 2021, and McGuinness was the man to take issue with the state of the game at a Sky Sports’ launch, off the back of a Monaghan-Armagh shootout in Ulster. People in glass houses….

“It’s the old Newcastle strategy where we just outscore everybody. To be fair, the only team in the country to my mind that’s not fully buying into that is Dublin.

“Going back to the point I made earlier about myself and Kieran (Donaghy) being at the games last year, Dublin were probably the most defensive team in the country. There’s absolutely no doubt about that. They had 15 men inside their own 65 almost every time the opposition had the ball.”

McGuinness’ quotes led to much debate, with his own coaching coming into question in some circles. Naturally enough, Joe Brolly had his say:

“When other teams began to copy them (Donegal), the game generally deteriorated into a travesty of laborious build-ups, kick-outs to the unmarked corner-backs, endless keep ball, probing for a scorable free and not fouling.

“2012 was a one year ambush, based on an ingenious idea that could only work until other teams got wise to it.”

2024 sees the return of a man you either love, or love to hate. The Jose Mourinho of the GAA world. Donegal front and centre, exactly the way they would want it. And whether it’s going to be for good news or bad, you just won’t be able to keep your eyes away.

Alexa, play “Jimmy’s Winning Matches”.

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