When I was a young fella, one of the things that fascinated me about Donegal footballers was that a large majority of them appeared to have the same haircut. Whether it was a similar scenario to Tyrone when they made a pact regarding beards a decade later is unknown but the similarities were striking.
Brian McEniff’s side didn’t go all out for the Brian May look, but it was damn close to it. From memory, Barry Cunningham, Noel Hegarty, Tony Boyle, Declan Boyle – who was also a fine soccer player with Finn Harps – and a certain J. McGuinness all had different stages of the same ‘do’. Incidentally, that Tir Chonaill panel also contained the only inter county footballer named Sylvester (Maguire) I’ve come across.
Anyway, back to the hairdressing. In a forerunner of what was to come, Jim went a little bit further on the hair front than the others. To the extent that yours truly used refer to it as the “second coming of Jesus Christ” whenever he was on the pitch. By the way, the resemblance was stronger than that of Samcro to Our Lord!
Jim could quite possibly be the longest serving student in the history of the country. Certainly in I. T. Tralee anyway. Seriously though, it was in the Kerry learning institution – as far as can be recalled – that he also got his initial grounding in management.
Mind you, it was in guiding his native county to within the width of a crossbar of winning an All Ireland U-21 title that he officially announced himself as a serious operator in the management sphere.
Purists – wherever they may be – are unlikely to be jumping for joy at the prospect of Jimmyball returning to the horizon. His detractors will, no doubt, zero in on the All Ireland semi final of 2011 as Exhibit A of what they would call Jimmy’s crimes against football.
You remember it. Donegal 0-06, Dublin 0-08. Yes, you did read that correctly. Back in 2003, Pat Spillane described Tyrone’s usurping of Kerry as “Puke Football”, which it was. But one wonders how the Templenoe legend would have depicted the 2011 dross.
However, despite an alarming number of teams – even at club level – who tried to mimic Peil Sheamus to the point that football became the height of tedium, I for one was left with a completely different view of how Jimmy was winnin’ matches back then having seen the system in action in the flesh.
Done right, it was actually a compelling watch and, as the record shows, McGuinness took the blows and did it his way. That said, by the time the end was near and he was facing the final curtain first time round, he had to some extent, evolved his methodology.
Yes, intricate defence was still the foundation of what he built throughout the 2014 season, but there was absolutely more fluidity in their attacking play. And the altered system took them within one misfired kick out of lifting Sam Maguire for the second time in three seasons.
It was that very fact which made the manager’s decision to exit stage left after the ’14 final more than a bit surprising. Nine years have passed since that day Kieran Donaghy asked Joe Brolly what he thought of his goal in the All Ireland final. In that time, the football landscape has changed considerably in the interim.
Dublin took Gaelic football into a world all of their own, then the phenom that is David Clifford and Kerry began to show rumblings of rekindling the rivalries of old. And in the midst of all that, Tyrone snook down in 2021 and brought Sam home with them.
From their point of view, it wouldn’t take a lot to conclude the O’Neill County are in something of a transitional period. The two principal stars of their last outright success, Cathal McShane and Conor McKenna, both all but out of the picture and others like Ronan McNamee, Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly having more good days behind them than in front. But offsetting such concerns is cognisance of the Red Hand’s recent enough victory in the All Ireland U-20 FC. From that amalgam Ruairi Canavan has already not only graduated to the senior setup but taken to it like a duck to water.
Derry, of course, will take quite the degree of knocking off their perch, but, before Donegal could even think about turning thoughts in that direction, you’d imagine a county where confidence and morale have obviously been decimated, chances are the first item atop the In tray will be to make the county feel good about themselves in a football sense again.
Sources in the Hills tell me there’s good work going on with underage teams and such like but there remains effluent on the administration side which needs dredging. Getting Karl Lacey back in the fold could be one positive knock on from the return of the Mc.
He’ll certainly get them winning matches again, no doubt about that, but whether he has the magic wand to do all which needs doing remains to be seen.