Clubs stall key to bid for sam - Jim
McGuinness: 'Critical' vote led Donegal to the final
TWELVE months ago, almost to the day, the clubs of Donegal voted to postpone this year's local club championship until after their county team had exited the race for Sam Maguire.
According to Jim McGuinness, but for that decision, Donegal would not be preparing now for an All-Ireland final against Kerry in 10 days' time. That, he maintains, was "the critical decision".
The clubs had voted by a comprehensive margin - 20-6 - in a hugely controversial move predicated by a desire to convince McGuinness to stay on for a fourth year.
Only the previous month, Donegal had surrendered their All-Ireland crown with a humiliating 16-point defeat by Mayo, coming at the end of an injury-disrupted season that saw vital club games go ahead in the middle of Donegal's Ulster campaign and a souring of relations between management and county board.
Still, the decision to park an entire county senior championship until after the inter-county season - which could stretch to September, and now has - attracted heavy criticism. The already disenfranchised club player, so it was claimed, was now an afterthought.
McGuinness has a very different viewpoint, as you'd expect.
"Our clubs made the decision to postpone the club championship, not Jim McGuinness," he stressed, speaking at Donegal's All-Ireland final press day in Ballybofey.
"I proposed two rounds of the championship early in the season - one at the end of April and one at the beginning of May. And the clubs said 'That's too early, Jim, it's not going to work, and then we'll propose putting it off.' And that decision has brought us to the All-Ireland final. That's the critical decision.
"So if we had club championship in the middle of the Ulster championship this year, you've got fellas like Glenswilly and St Michael's paired, and Kilcar, going toe-to-toe with one another.
"We had a situation last year where we had picked up injuries the night previous. This was two weeks out from the Ulster final ... and half of our players had been knocked out of the club championship, heads were down, we had the injuries then that had to be dealt with. And then on top of that we had fisticuffs - in the Michael's/Glenswilly (match), I think it might have been. County players going toe-to-toe with each other. And that's the same boys then that are going in to battle with each other two weeks later.
"So you'd all these negative dynamics. You're losing players, you're not getting traction in your training, you're picking up injuries ... you're managing a situation, not a team. The clubs have given us the opportunity to manage the team this year."
Despite his own traumatic experiences last season, McGuinness is adamant that defending Sam is "definitely not" an impossible dream. But, he adds, it's utterly reliant on "the ability to train".
"We didn't even have our players, to train them, for four weeks out of the eight of the Ulster championship last year. We didn't even know where they were," he recounted. "Glenfin - what are they doing in terms of training? Or St Eunan's? Sure we hadn't a clue. Are they doing a kick-around or tactical work or doing 400s? Not an iota did we have for that four-week period.
"On top of that we had nine injuries. So you are haemorrhaging on one level and you are not building.
"And, for me, championship football is about building. If you win, it buys you four weeks and you build again."
By going through the front door and with no club distractions, Donegal have enjoyed that luxury this summer. Yet McGuinness steps well short of describing the strange scenario in his county as best practice.
Stressing the "unbelievable" importance of the club, he reminds you that he, too, was once a club manager in Donegal and the "one thing that I wanted to know was 'When's the game on?' ... so we could plan."
He continued: "Last year, and when I was managing club teams, you're building up championship training for, say, six to eight weeks. Then you play your game or your two games. Then there's a three-month gap, where everything you built up is lost. Boys go away to America. Boys come back from America. And then you pick up the pieces again at the end of the summer, and you get into championship football then again. I don't think that's right.
"I'm not saying there's a right or a wrong way here. I'm saying the whole thing needs to be looked at. The calendar needs to be looked at. College football, inter-county football and club football have to be condensed."
While insisting he's a big advocate of higher-education football, this much-travelled graduate believes the spring scheduling of the Sigerson Cup must be reconsidered.
"A lot of the time you very rarely saw your players in the lead-in to the National League - and I don't think that's right," he said. "You've got lads coming off the back of summer football, starting college in September ... they've got a high level of fitness built up anyway with their clubs. If you played (the Sigerson) in November you've got a 10-week period where they could prepare intensely, like we did, to play in that competition.
"And then maybe you could shut the whole country down for a month, instead of people hiding around corners pretending there's a training ban ... there is none. And everybody conning, and county treasurers rubbing their hands because they don't have to pay out expenses!
"You know it and I know it and everybody else knows it; it doesn't make sense."