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'Will We Go Back To The Way It Was When I Was Playing? Will It Go Back To That Rawness?'

'Will We Go Back To The Way It Was When I Was Playing? Will It Go Back To That Rawness?'
Donny Mahoney
By Donny Mahoney
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Jim McGuinness returns to the Sky Sports punditry box tomorrow when Monaghan take on Cavan in Clones. We haven’t heard much from McGuinness since he was fired as the manager of the United States League’s Charlotte Independence in June 2019 after his side won one of their first fourteen games.

On a conference call with journalists Thursday morning, McGuinness filled the gaps in time. He said that following his dismissal, he and his family remained in America as they had planned to do had he kept his job, and only returned to Donegal just before schools opened as covid-19 infection rates began to skyrocket across the United States. McGuinness said he couldn’t speak too much about his dismissal as Charlotte manager due to contractual reasons but called the experience a ‘steep learning curve’. McGuinness said he remains ‘open to anything that makes sense professionally’ in the next stage of his management career. He says the only coaching he’s doing these days is with his son’s U-11s team. 

Considering he has not been involved in elite GAA coaching for six years bar the occasional training session and has instead spent those intervening years living in places as different as Glasgow and Beijing and Charlotte in pursuit of his ambitions in soccer management, it is incredible how fluent McGuinness remains in the tactical language of gaelic football. No one in the recent history of gaelic games coaching has married tactical vision with clear and charismatic communication skills. At times during yesterday’s conference call, McGuinness spoke uninterrupted for five or six minutes on various trends in the game. It remains an absolute joy to listen to him speak about the sport he redefined.

Rather than chop up his quotes, we thought it would be more enjoyable to present some of Jim McGuinness’s off-the-cuff thoughts on gaelic football in 2020, in his own words.

Jim McGuinness on the state of gaelic football in 2020

The game is changing all the time, that’s the first thing you’d say. For me, from the outside looking in, what I would say is that a lot of teams are playing the exact same style, which I find interesting. You have everybody ‘man to man’, but it’s not absolutely man to man. It’s more ‘3 or 4 metres off the man’. Teams are struggling to get pressure on the ball. The team that has possession doesn’t face a lot of pressure, really. They can keep the ball as long as they want really. And the thing is all about being conscientious and making good decisions and catching the other team out and because it’s about that, tactically, because it’s set up that way, it’s harder to find players [to pass to], because everyone has a player 3-5 metres off them, if that makes sense. A lot of the passing, to my mind, is lateral...it’s going over and back, across the field. A lot of the support is behind the ball, it’s not ahead of the ball.

It’s about keeping it, and going forward a wee bit and going back a wee bit and going lateral a wee bit and then waiting for the moment when you’d see a player like a Jack McCaffery appear on the blind side, injecting that pace. That’s the moment. 

That’s the way the game is being played at the moment. It’s being played in moments.

The good teams that are setting themselves up are trying to do a couple of jobs. They’re trying to mark their man, they’re also trying to drop into their defensive structure but also keep on their man in case he makes a move and they have to shift across the structure but still cover the middle. The teams that are absolutely man-to-man - what I mean by that is the corner forward is standing out at the corner flag and the guy that’s marking him is standing right beside him -those are the teams that are getting exposed, because the opposition teams can manipulate them for different areas in the field.

I find it interesting in the sense that when Jim Gavin took over Dublin, it was a very powerful kicking game, and then it kind of morphed into possession-based football, which from their point of view cut down the percentages even more. They were hard to beat. They became almost impossible to beat because they’re such good footballers, they don’t give the ball away. And then, in that moment, when you get to that point when you get to the blind side and you’re injecting real pace, they have real pace and they have players who can punch real holes and they have players who when they see those holes, they can go through them and finish. 


Jim McGuinness on the challenges for Dessie Farrell and Dublin in achieving the six-in-a-row

There’s no question that there’s an awful lot going on. There was an exceptional manager that brought 5-in-a-row, and that manager leaves. So you’ve got that dynamic. You’ve got two exceptional players that were a huge part of that that are not involved. (Also) Dessie hasn’t had the run. The big thing in coaching in your first year is the amount of contact time. You need that ‘Tuesday Thursday Saturday Sunday’ consistently to get your message across, to understand players. To understand the very, very, very fine details about players and the nuances in their games, and it’s been very stop-start. Obviously Dessie will want to put his own fingerprint on it, and he’ll want to look at players, and that’s natural as well. There’s a lot going on. You’ve got a winter championship instead of a summer championship. You’ve got a Croke Park with no supporters, which is huge for Dublin in normal circumstances. 


So there’s an awful lot going on there from a Dublin point of view. But then the big plus is they know how to win All-Irelands. They know exactly what it takes to win All-Irelands. And everyone is playing the same way, but they’re playing the Dublin way. And you can look at how things are being done in other counties, but the way it is actually being done in the other county is a different thing.

That was the fall-out of us winning the All-Ireland, in my opinion. We won the All-Ireland with a defensive set up and a serious transitional game. When teams tried to replicate that, they weren’t privy to the mechanism that made that system work. And for me, a lot of the systems were lacking the intensity that we had. And the capacity to push up and get pressure and turn ball and break and how you broke and where you wanted the ball to go when you were breaking, and support men off that and runners to the side. It was a diluted version of what we were.

So you have a situation now where Dublin were this kicking team, they morphed from a kicking team to a 14 + 1 at the back in Cian O’Sullivan and then it morphed to everyone marking, but everyone dropping to the top of the D as well, but at the end of the day, it’s their system. It’s their system. It gives them an advantage in that regard.

But Donegal are a very good side. Tyrone are a very good side. Kerry are a very good side. You’ve got 3 teams in Connacht that on a given day - in this Championship - think they can beat anybody. You’ve got Monaghan. Two prerequisites to winning an All-Ireland is a top-quality goalkeeper and a marquee forward. And Monaghan has both of them. On a given day, they have a guy who can give you the ball in your hand consistently at the back and a guy who can put it over the bar consistently on the other side. They’re going to be hard to beat as well in Championship football. 

My big thing for this Championship is will we go back to the way it was when I was playing. Will it go back to that rawness?  There was always a lot of red cards and sending offs when I was playing. And that was down to the fact that you were building towards this one game and there was no tomorrow and that one game would have been six or nine months in the making. And people overheated sometimes. There was so much going into it that people couldn’t control themselves. 


The qualifiers have taken away that edge, to a certain extent. I know it always resurfaces around quarterfinals, semifinals, finals stages but now it’s going to be there from there from the very first game on the very first day and I’m just very intrigued to see how explosive these games potentially could be. There’s a part of me that thinks they could be. Then there’s a part of me that thinks that the way that teams are setting up at the minute and the serious focus on possession in football, it’s hard to see how that can happen. Because the sparks fly when the ball is 50/50 but the ball is never 50/50 now. The ball is 80/20 or 90/10 all the time.


The teams in possession are just really good on the ball and the other team is what I’d call shadow tackling, they’re two or three metres off the ball. It’s not really about that initial serious pressure to turn the ball over. It’s about can you get enough pressure on the guy kicking the ball or fisting the ball so the next guy can get the pressure on, and that’s a different model. 


I think if you’re going to beat Dublin or one of the top teams, you need to get pressure on. 

Jim McGuinness returns to Sky Sports as an expert analyst on the 2020 Senior Football Championship, starting with Monaghan-Cavan in the Ulster Senior Football Championship this Saturday. Throw in is at 1.15pm with coverage commencing on Sky Sports Mix from 12.15pm.

This year, Sky has made all of its live football and hurling fixtures more widely available on Sky Sports Mix, opening the games up to the majority of homes in Ireland.




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