Christy O'Connor: The top coaches can move between sports

Jim McGuinness and Fintan O'Connor have shown that the best will find a way
Christy O'Connor: The top coaches can move between sports

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness shouting instructions in 2011 at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

FINTAN O’Connor’s first introduction to hurling arrived when he started in Blackwater Community School Lismore in September 2003.

O’Connor, Kerry hurling manager, never played hurling. He had no background in the game but Denis Ring, Blackwater principal, showed O’Connor some drills and they took it from there. O’Connor grew to love the game so much that he immersed himself in coaching around Waterford.

After being involved with Waterford IT Fitzgibbon Cup sides, Fourmilewater and Cappoquin, Derek McGrath brought O’Connor on board as a coach with the Waterford seniors in 2015 and 2016.

O’Connor’s pathway from having no involvement in the game to coaching at the elite level in just over a decade underlined his willingness to learn and adapt.

In 2019, Colm Bonnar, who recruited O’Connor with Waterford IT, spoke of his strengths. “Fintan could do anything really,” said Bonnar. “He had a lot of knowledge of different sports. 

But sport is sport, and once you’re able to get lads together and work with them, whether it is rugby, hurling, Gaelic football or soccer, the only thing that’s different really is the skills. 

"It’s about being able to manage people and get the best out of them.” 

O’Connor’s early background was in rugby but his experience, especially in such a technically skillful game as hurling, has shown the potential for crossover in sports coaching and management.

Former Waterford selector Fintan O'Connor. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/SPORTSFILE
Former Waterford selector Fintan O'Connor. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/SPORTSFILE

The brand leader in crossover-sports coaching and management in the GAA is Jim McGuinness, whose career path since leaving Donegal in 2014 has had little precedence. There have always been players who excel in multiple sports but McGuinness’ thirst to reach the next level in management in another code displays the single-mindedness which saw him pick Donegal up from their knees and lead them to an All-Ireland within two years.

McGuinness was always unburdened by convention. Despite Dublin’s dominance, McGuinness was the most influential footballing figure in the last decade, in how he changed and shaped the game during his time with Donegal.

McGuinness still hasn’t cracked soccer management but that hasn’t removed his name from that frame. Last week, Dundalk sporting director Jim Magilton confirmed he had spoken with McGuinness as the club continue their search for a new manager.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of Jim,” said Magilton. “I’ve always loved GAA and I liked his approach to Donegal. A winning brand. Jim has been a successful manager, albeit in a different sport. I believe there are crossovers, no question about that. I treat these guys with the utmost respect. They’ve been at the highest end; they’ve dealt with pressure. They know how to get the best out of individuals and teams.” 

Magilton would have seen how McGuinness identified and executed a game-plan to devastating effect when leading Donegal to victory against Dublin in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, Dublin’s last championship defeat.

Magilton also met McGuinness a number of times when he was at Celtic, initially as a performance consultant on a part-time basis, before graduating to a full-time role as the assistant with their U20 team. McGuinness also became increasingly involved – up to the point of first-team duties – under the subsequent management teams of Ronny Deila and Brendan Rodgers.

In 2017, McGuinness was appointed as the assistant manager to Roger Schmidt at China’s Beijing Sinobo Guoan. McGuinness became head coach of Charlotte Independence in the USL Championship two years later, but he lasted just six months of a three-year contract after Independence won just once in 14 league games.

It was a tough gig for a rookie manager with a young club. McGuinness spoke about having a clear vision of how the team needed to play but bridging the gap between that style and the players at his disposal was different from any team he had ever experienced before.

Some of the reaction to his dismissal at home was cheap and petty, scoffing at his lack of experience, but McGuinness’ ambition to coach at an elite level has always been the same, irrespective of the sport. His academic roots in sports psychology opened the door for him at Celtic while his ability to get the most out of players was the reason Paul McGinley sought out McGuinness for the benefit of the 2014 successful Ryder Cup-winning team.

Being as inventive in soccer as he was with Gaelic football is bound to be more difficult, but McGuinness has always felt that soccer can learn from Gaelic games.

When he was with Celtic, McGuinness discussed kick-outs in detail with first-team goalkeeper Craig Gordon. “There might be things that I’m talking about and I know the boys might never have heard it,” McGuinness said in 2015.

Craig Gordon grabs the ball for Celtic. Picture: AP.
Craig Gordon grabs the ball for Celtic. Picture: AP.

“Kick-outs are massive in Gaelic football – games are won and lost with the kick-out. In soccer, if you can’t get it short to build from the back then everyone goes into the middle and it’s about not conceding off it. But with us, it was a platform for attack.” 

It will still always be difficult for McGuinness to convince those in another sport that he can make that transition successfully. Yet that attitude is framed more through those who make the appointments, and those in and around the game, than for many players, especially younger players.

“Inexperience is irrelevant to younger players,” said Bonnar. “I don’t think they judge you on that anymore. 

They’ll judge you on how you set up your backroom team and their professionalism.” 

Last October, McGuinness said he sees his future in soccer coaching and management rather than Gaelic football. It’s unknown if he will make that next step with Dundalk but McGuinness continues to demonstrate a desire for change unprecedented amongst managers within the GAA.

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