Professional ambition versus parish pride. Which is more powerful?
Jim McGuinness is uniquely positioned to give an insight.
I don’t think there is an appetite for professionalism either. People are not getting into the GAA for that reason. They get in because they want to represent their towns, their county . . .Jim McGuinness
Possibly the most pivotal figure in modern Gaelic Games, his success with the Donegal county team redefined a game which is still feeling the fall out.
Ultra-defensive coach or revolutionary tactician depending on opinion, but while the rest of Ireland debates, the Glenties native has moved on with the uber-commercial world of professional soccer his next target.
McGuinness took up as role as Performance Consultant with Scottish giants Celtic in November, 2012 but has since progressed to Assistant Under-20 coach and is planning to complete his ‘A’ Coaching Licence next year having already gained his ‘B’ qualification.
It’s a rapid rise which in some respects mirrors McGuinness’ transformation of a previously under-preforming Donegal squad into the country’s most feared team, one which had counties all over Ireland scrambling to mimic their approach.
“The GAA’s biggest asset is the parish and the defensive place that has in someone’s own sense of identity,” explains McGuinness.
“You win an All Ireland and you’re not just winning it for yourself, you are representing where you come from and that is a unique thing in modern sport in many respects.
“At the same time, football is about people and people make it, so you are dealing with the same types of people, no matter what the sport you are involved in. When you are managing, people will be people no matter what the sport is. If you get that side of things right, it puts you in a really good position.
“With the GAA - the top teams anyway - there are things going on that people could learn from and when you come into professional sport, you expect the processes to be very professional and ingrained at a deep level. It means you are learning from both sides if you like.”
So does the Celtic coach - whose own soccer career was spent with Donegal’s Kilmacrennan Celtic - believe the demands of the modern county game at the highest level make professionalism inevitable for the GAA?
“The demands are really high because people want to win and they understand there are levels. A lot of the teams are very well resourced and it’s difficult to compete with those teams these days. That is the reality.
“Teams and managers understand that; players understand it and they understand they have to go the extra yard to make sure they try to close the gap and make themselves competitive against these ‘big’ teams
“The game has gone really professional in terms of preparation, managing players, strength and conditioning and nutrition. It is at a very, very high level but whether it has the capacity to go professional, I don’t know. At the moment I would say probably not. It is based on chimney pots more than anything; the number of people in the county and the demands of the game.
“The demands are high but it’s about the ability to sell that demand to the public in terms of revenues. That’s the big one. If there was something that you could definitely say would bring in £15 or £20 million on the back of selling the rights to all our games, you could probably look at that and say there was a decent wage for every county player in the country on the back of that but I don’t think it’s a reality at the moment.
“I don’t think there is an appetite for it either. People are not getting into the GAA for that reason. They get in because they want to represent their towns, their county and there is evidence that kids will choose Gaelic Games over other sports - soccer or rugby or whatever - just to play for their county.
“It is an interesting dynamic but I suppose as commercialism grows, you look at Dublin and they are able to find deals for £4million and £5 million and figures like that with AEG. If that type of money starts coming into it regularly, it might be a different conversation.”
For someone who plans things as meticulously as McGuinness has throughout his career, his assertion that he merely wants to see “where coaching takes him” within professional football should probably be taken with a lorry load of salt!
“Obviously coaching is my background but it has been very good to be involved with Celtic, to be working day-to-day with the players and Brendan Rodgers who has been excellent. The psychological stuff has been good as well but when you are coming from a coaching background, you like to be out on the pitch, designing sessions and trying to deliver them.
“It is a different slant now and there’s a lot of learning. It’s a new culture with a new game and there are a whole lot of aspects you have to try and master. In terms of my own development I just want to progress as far as I can and see where that takes me.”
And ominously for every other county in Ireland, McGuinness may not be finished with the GAA nor his native county just yet.
“At the end of the day, never is a long time and when you are passionate about something, you are passionate about it. I would never rule it out.”