Watching Celtic last night against Benfica, I couldn’t help notice the shortcomings in the physiques of most of their players, or the alarming gaps in their blanket defence where Mark McHugh would normally be.
Now that Jimmy is bringing his show on the road, all that will soon be a thing of the past. The Celtic players may brace themselves for new experiences. Alarm clocks going off at 6.30am. Burning stomach muscles. Intensive sprint work. There will be no hiding places, as Jimmy makes them confront their deepest selves.
In January 2011, shortly after he had been announced as the new Donegal manager, I found myself standing beside Jim McGuinness in the queue of mourners at Michaela Harte’s wake. We were 500 yards back from the house and as the crowd shuffled slowly forward, he told me a fascinating story. A few years earlier, a young man who had come into a fortune as a result of a business transaction contacted him with a proposition. He explained to Jim that he no longer needed to work and wanted to have a serious crack at Gaelic football. He had played a bit of football and regretted not sticking at it. McGuinness told him that he would work with him, but only if he was prepared to follow his instructions to the letter. Terms were agreed and the work began. For a budding manager wanting to put his sports science and psychology skills on the line, this was an irresistible experiment. As Jim put it to me, “He was the perfect guinea pig. I had a blank canvas to work with.”
McGuinness harnessed his only client to a gruelling regime. Over the course of the next year, early morning weight sessions, running, core-work, afternoon skill sessions and intensive psychological work transformed him into a lean, mean Gaelic football machine.
“He’s a senior inter-county footballer now” said Jim. Tantalisingly, he refused to be drawn on his protege’s identity. Those two hours I spent in Jim’s company that dark evening in Ballygawley persuaded me that he was an extraordinary human being. I knew as I drove back to Belfast that Donegal were coming after the big boys and coming soon.
It is not in the least bit surprising that Celtic’s hierarchy have also seen his abilities. What is genuinely shocking though is that such a huge professional club have never had a sports psychologist. As Neil Lennon put it when he stood before the cameras with the Donegal man, “Jim has a skill set that we don’t have here, in terms of the psychological side of the game. Nowadays it is a huge part of sport.” You don’t say Neil.
Judit Polgar, the first female chess grandmaster is in England next week in the run-up to the London Chess Classic in December, where she will compete with eight of the world’s top male grandmasters. Lennon nor anyone in Celtic’s backroom staff will have a clue who she is. McGuinness however knows all about her, since she herself was part of an experiment that has become the foundation stone of his approach to sport. Her dad is Laszlo Polgar, a world renowned psychologist who destroyed what is known as “the talent myth”. In the 1960s, his ground breaking idea was that success was achieved from hard work rather than natural talent. The world’s psychology community rubbished the notion, one eminent expert saying he needed to be “healed of his delusions”.
So, Polgar proposed an amazing challenge. He publicly announced that he would marry any woman who came forward and turn any children they had into world-class achievers. Soon after, a young Ukrainian woman called Klara wrote to him offering her services (She later said “I thought he was crazy.”) and in April 1967 they married. Within a year, Susan was born.
“I need Susan’s achievements to be dramatic,” said Polgar, “So I can show people their ideas about excellence are all wrong.”
He chose chess. When she was three, he started her on a big chess board, just fooling around with pieces. By the time she was 14, she was the No. 1 female chess player in the world. His two other daughters Sofia and Judit followed suit. Judit has defeated Kasparov, Karpov and all the other legends. She is widely considered the greatest ever female player. Polgar did it with his daughters. McGuinness tested the same experiment with the young man from nowhere, before repeating it with Donegal.
Winning an All-Ireland with that group of boys is perhaps the most extraordinary sporting achievement I have seen. It took only 18 months, start to finish. After all, this is a county with one of the worst coaching infrastructures in Ireland and a very weak Board who initially rejected McGuinness for the job, only taking him when they had no option. They have no recent tradition of any kind, at club, underage or schools’ level. Yet out of nowhere, they simply destroyed all-comers in this year’s championship. Make no mistake, it was all McGuinness’ work, no-one else’s. I have seen their training. Jim personally supervises every second of it. He is the fitness scientist, the psychologist, the planner, the tactician, the motivator. He puts them on the rack in every sense and yet they do it with all their hearts, because they believe in him.
For €150,000 per annum, Celtic are getting an unbelievable bargain. Lennon said this week that he will predominantly work with younger players but if he feels there is a first-team player that would benefit from Jim’s skill he would “have no hesitation in using him”. You can take it that as he sees Jim’s methods working, Lennon will be using him a lot. For all their tradition and fanatical support, Celtic are a half-assed outfit. McGuinness will change all of that. He is starting off on a part-time basis, but this will become permanent as he transforms them into a modern, progressive club. He doesn’t have a soccer coaching badge, but he’ll accomplish that with his eyes closed. Interestingly, he was a superb amateur soccer player and won a Donegal Premier League title with Kilmacrenan Celtic in the 90s. He won’t be long catching up.
Dermot Desmond knows a thing or two about good investments. McGuinness will quickly turn out to be one of his very best. Donegal will not hold onto him in the longer term, so their Golden Era will be shorter than it might have been. Celtic however, are holding the tail of a (real) tiger.