BRIAN FRIEL called Glenties ‘the stage’.
The fairgoers of the town, he referred to as ‘the players’.
The late playwright was a regular visitor to Glenties, the hometown of his mother, Chris McLoone. Friel would spent many summers in Glenties and nearby Narin.
Glenties was the setting, or the ‘stage’ for Ballybeg, the fictional location in one of Friel’s greatest works, Dancing at Lughnasa.
The boglands, rolling hills and the intricate, winding country roads of Glenties and its hinterland helped shaped Friel and his works.
The same could be said of Jim McGuinness.
Growing up in Ard Patrick, the terraced housing estate on Glenties’ outskirts on the road to Narin, McGuinness would have been well versed in the make-up of his parish and county.
It was something that he touched upon the first night he sat down with the Donegal senior football panel in November 2010.
He chose Downings as the ‘stage’ for a meeting that was a watershed moment for manager and for players; for ‘the group’.
At the launch of his autobiography, Until Victory Always, last night in Glenties, McGuinness – who managed Donegal to an All-Ireland and three Ulster titles – explained that he chose Downings because of ‘the backdrop, the landscape, the cottages’.
“This was Donegal, the people of Donegal were waiting for a team – and we were going to be that team,” he told the gathering of in excess of 500 people in the Highlands Hotel
“We got the buy-in on the very first day.
“We had a very powerful meeting. A lot of people were very honest and bared their souls. They spoke about things that had stopped us previously. A lot of things changed on that first day.”
McGuinness first put his name into the ring in 2007 when Brian McIver announced his resignation from the position.
A subsequent u-turn by McIver saw him re-appointed, but when the Derryman walked out of a fractious meeting of the county committee a year later, the vacancy appealed to McGuinness again.
He submitted an application, but felt harshly treated in the interview process when he was infamously denied the chance to deliver a PowerPoint presentation to the panel.
The contents of those slides would be under wraps until two years later. Persuaded to take up the Donegal Under-21s in 2010, he took them to an Ulster title and they only lost the All-Ireland final to Dublin by the width of the Breffni Park crossbar.
John Joe Doherty stepped down for the senior role after a 2-14 to 0-11 qualifier hammering by Armagh. Donegal football and its footballers were on the floor. “Lord Almighty wouldn’t manage those players,” was Anthony Molloy’s take on it.
“I went for it three times: I didn’t get it the first time, I didn’t get it the second time and I was the only person in for it the third time!” as McGuinness put it last night.
McGuinness was the baby of Donegal’s All-Ireland-winning squad of 1992. He was involved for Ulster final losses in 1993, 1998 and 2002, as well as the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Armagh in 2003.
A deep-thinker and close follower of the games, McGuinness believed he could work the oracle.
“I seen something in the players,” he told MC Charlie Collins of Donegal Sport Hub at the launch.
“I had played with a lot of them and I just knew that there was a lot of negativity and a lot of people questioning their character: did they want it? It was time to move on, time to start from scratch and rebuild.
“There were men in that squad and I knew they were better than that.
“The talent was there. Fantastic players. We always produce stylish, talented players in Donegal. That will always be the case.”
Little more than 7,000 turned up to his first Championship game as manager, against Antrim in 2011.
“There were periods where supporters could see how far the players were prepared to go to win a match,” he said. They could see the commitment, hunger, desire and the will.”
Just over a year later, they were All-Ireland champions. Four years – an ‘Olympic cycle’ as he has previously said – was always his timeline aim in the Donegal job.
“It had to be a life experience. It had to be about more than football. Respect, character, humility and loyalty were a big part of it,” he said.
A passage from his book, magnificently ghost-written by Keith Duggan, Chief Sports Writer of The Irish Times and a native of Ballyshannon, shows just how much Donegal – his county – means to McGuinness.
It is a Thursday morning, the day after Donegal brought Sam Maguire into Glenties in 2012 and McGuinness is explaining his thoughts as he walks his daughter, Toni-Marie, to school.
“Thinking: All of this is about place. Who we are. Where we are from. Deep down in all of us. Buried sometimes so deep you don’t know if you can find it.
“The boys tapped into that. All feeling the same about Donegal. Proud of the music, the Irish language, the coast. The beauty of it. Knowing we are a big county, a football county. Knowing we need to be showing that.
“People need things in life. To give people something powerful and positive and uplifting; that can change things for people. The county team can do that. It belongs to everyone. Players are the representatives.
“They get the cheers at the rest. But the team belongs to everyone. Look. That’s where I am from. That is my county. Look at that team. Look at how far they are willing to go. For us. For Donegal. No difference between the players and the supporters. No difference between Michael and Leo and Papa and all those children in the towns and an old man watching on television in Frosses or somewhere in America. It is a connection. Belongs to everyone equally. A week like this just twice ever in Donegal. Sacred to us all. Photographs of 1992 still everywhere in all the bars.
“Photographs of 2012 now. All-Ireland champions. It is just a day. It goes by in a flash. But it stays, too. These are rare days. A chance to step outside of life. Outside of time. To celebrate. To stand back and to look at ourselves.
“To say: This is Donegal. This is us.”
On the day of his first game with the Donegal under-21s in 2010, he gave Pat Shovelin, the goalkeeping coach, a lift to the team bus. They played Armagh at Brewster Park.
“Are we ready,” McGuinness asked Shovelin.
“If we were beaten that night I’d never have been managing Donegal,” McGuinness remarked.
The wheel came full circle last night.
Shovelin collected McGuinness – now working as Performance Consultant with Celtic FC in Glasgow – from City of Derry Airport and drove him to Glenties, where he recalled those four, magical summers and a personal journey that has been every bit as eventful, if at times harrowing.
It was only right that Glenties was his ‘stage’.
Until Victory Always: A memoir is published by Gill & Macmillan is available to buy in shops and online, priced at €24.99.Tags: