A meeting of minds revives the dream
McGuinness gauged room and knew panel craved more
"DO you want to be remembered for being beaten by 16 points?" That was the stark question posed by Jim McGuinness to a room full of All-Ireland medallists last autumn.
If he'd got the wrong vibes, if he sensed that his players were no longer up for the inevitable sacrifice entailed in rejecting the above question, McGuinness would have walked away.
And in that scenario, would Donegal be counting down the days to a dream All-Ireland final with Kerry next Sunday?
The man who led Donegal to back-to-back Ulster titles and then the crowning glory of Sam Maguire, in his first two seasons as manager, had just endured a horror-show end to a third year blighted by numerous trials and tribulations.
If losing their provincial title to Monaghan was bad enough, capitulating to Mayo by 4-17 to 1-10 was surely the ultimate ignominy for a manager who prided himself on impregnable defence. Against that uncertain backdrop, Team Donegal decamped for a no-holds-barred review of 2013.
"We needed to know what we wanted to do," McGuinness explains. "A half-baked attitude wasn't going to win anything this year. Everybody had to be either fully in or not fully in.
"There is no point conning people and saying, 'We'll start training in a couple of weeks and everything will be okay and we'll pick up the pieces and build momentum.' It isn't about that. It's about 'Do you want to be remembered and how do you want to be remembered?' ... or 'Do you want to be remembered for being beaten by 16 points in a quarter-final?'
"That was the question that had to be answered and then it was about what was involved in that and 'Are we prepared to do that?' I wanted that out in the open. I didn't want anybody going into anything blind. I wanted to gauge the room. If I felt that it wasn't genuinely in the room, then I probably wouldn't have gone on."
At that stage, the Donegal manager had yet to recommit for 2014; the mid-September schism that led to the departure of his managerial sidekick, Rory Gallagher, had yet to happen.
Results aside, it had been a troubled campaign for McGuinness as he battled the county board over the early-summer scheduling of club championship matches while striving, in vain, to keep his players off the casualty table.
Last year, he explains, "Neil Gallagher missed 68pc of all training, Karl Lacey 69pc, David Walsh was up around 60pc, Anthony Thompson missed a lot, Mark McHugh missed a lot. So we had too many players in the middle lines that missed so much."
This year, by contrast, the average is 93pc.
So he commissioned a medical report prior to meeting the players, to crystallise what had happened last year in terms of fitness, injuries, how and when they happened. "I did the medical side of things and strength and conditioning side of things. I wanted to know where I stood with the county board and I wanted to know where I stood with the players. Once I had all the information, then I met the players."
Once again, the Donegal boss would require his players to sign a pact for the coming season.
"It just will not work if everyone is not moving in the same direction," he stresses. "It wasn't a gun-to-the-head situation. I re-evaluate every single year. The first thing I look at is myself: What have I got to offer, can I bring it forward and where are my energy levels? Then it's about whether the players are prepared to bring it forward. If there's a red flag there, it probably isn't right.
"I wanted to know where I stood with the players. I didn't want the Mayo game to be the one that defined that team, because that wouldn't have been fair on them."
But if he had stopped then, would it have defined them?
"I dunno," he demurs. "Maybe that was an emotional reaction on my part ... but I was very angry and very frustrated with what had gone on. On some levels, I felt the carpet was pulled from under our feet and we didn't get the chance to prepare properly.
"That wasn't sitting comfortably with me and I made that very clear at the county board meeting. If you were going rectify that and turn it around, you needed to know that your men were with you," he underlines.
"I didn't want an answer at the meeting. I don't believe in snap reactions and I don't believe in lip service. I wanted them to think about it. What I said was: 'You need to think long, hard and deep about this, you need to look inside yourself. You need to decide if this is the road I'm going down, I'm prepared to sacrifice the next ten or 11 months out of my life' ... they went away and we met again after a week."
And the rest is history.