McGuinness: Derry game is much more than mere ‘free-hit’

By Shaun Casey

MICKEY Harte was always the Everest that Jim McGuinness needed to scale. Go back to 2011 before the Ulster and All-Ireland titles, before the All-Stars and Player of the Year awards, before one of the greatest turnarounds in GAA history.

McGuinness’ first objective when he assumed the reins of his native county was to take down Harte and take down Tyrone. If they could do that, they could win Ulster. If they could win Ulster, then the sky was the limit.

McKenna Cup and National League meetings with the Red Hands carried more importance than ever. They were for laying down a marker. To show that Donegal were no longer going to be pushed around.

Donegal won the Division Two league title in 2011, pipping Laois by the minimum of margins, and had to see off a Tyrone team that were chasing a three in a row of Ulster titles on their way to the Anglo Celt Cup. Sound familiar?

Fast-forward to 2024 and McGuinness’ second coming eerily echoes the first. He has arrived in a Donegal changing room low on confidence and self-belief, and the job ahead of McGuinness is to build them back up to a team that can compete.

Once again, it’s Harte who Donegal have to dismantle. He’s not with Tyrone this time of course, and it still feels strange to describe the current Ulster champions as ‘Mickey Harte’s Derry.’ But they’re the provincial kingpins at this present moment.

“Mickey is a person that I, obviously, admire immensely,” said McGuinness of the three-time All-Ireland winning manager. “He has done amazing things, he’s an incredible competitor and always presents you with a really, really difficult challenge.

“For us now, we have to try and solve that problem and that’s the part you enjoy. We’ll try to get as many fellas back as possible and see how the pieces fall.

“We will go in, and we’ll enjoy that game, that’s one thing we will do. We will go in and enjoy the game and we’re going to give it our best shot.

“I think there is pressure, there’s always pressure. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a free hit. Donegal against Derry, you want to go in, and you want to win the game.

“If you look at Derry at the minute, they’ve beaten everybody, and they feel that they’ve let it slip in the last couple of years so their sights are very fixed on the big prize. That’s obvious but we’re part of that process, they have to eliminate us.”

Donegal climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand three weeks ago as they collected the Division Two league title and cemented their place in Division One for next season as champions, beating Armagh by one point.

From dictating the action along the sideline, McGuinness was then a spectator for the Division One decider and witnessed the titanic tussle that Derry and Dublin served up, with Harte’s side eventually getting over the line after penalties.

Rory Gallagher, McGuinness’ right-hand man when Donegal lifted the Sam Maguire in 2012, started Derry’s revival and led them to their first Ulster title in 24 years back in 2022, but Harte will be determined to go one better and get his hands on another All-Ireland title.

“We’re meeting a monster that are four years down the line,” added McGuinness when looking ahead to their clash at Celtic Park on Saturday evening.

“They’re very well organised, very well together. Derry has those experienced players, and their systems are very embedded and you can see that they’re reading each other very early.

“They’re organising each other on the pitch because they’re all managers because they all know what the job is. Derry have shown, with Dublin and Kerry, that they can go in and mix it with anybody, play with anybody, control games and make good decisions themselves.”

Donegal were missing a huge number of their first team regulars in the league final. Captain Patrick McBrearty, Ryan McHugh, Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Daire Ó Baoill and Brendan McCole all missed out through injury.

That has been a constant theme throughout the season. McGuinness added, “The most exhilarating part of management is building a team, but it’s also the most apprehensive time because the wheels can literally fall off at any moment and that’s reality.

“We’re very happy that we’re not perfect and we’re not fluid but we’re still getting results and putting up decent scores on that back of that. Wwe’re only scraping the surface with the lads because we haven’t had them on the pitch yet properly.

“We haven’t had the full complement. We have 40 lads involved, eight of them are u-20 and honestly, we’ve been playing with 20 players a lot of the time. You’re into nine-a-side and 10-a-side a lot of nights.”

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