‘There is a fear in the unknown…I’m going in as head coach, something I’ve never done before’

JIM MCGUINNESS FLIES out to North Carolina tonight as he begins the next chapter of his coaching career in the soccer world.

Former Donegal boss Jim McGuinness.

The former Donegal GAA manager is stepping into his first managerial position in his adopted sport at United Soccer League (USL) Championship side Charlotte Independence, where he has signed a three-year contract.

“I feel ready now and I’m really excited about it and looking forward to it,” McGuinness said at a press conference in Dublin this morning.

“There is a fear in the unknown and I’m going into an environment now, I’m going in as a head coach, something I’ve never done before.

But I had the exact same experience when I was going into the Donegal job, it’s the exact same feeling, you’re going in there, you’ve never managed an inter-county team before there are teams in the country winning All-Ireland’s every year and you’re… I don’t know what age I was, 36 or 37.

“Going in as a young manager and you are trying to take them on. Obviously, there is (some fear), but that becomes part of the excitement of it as well and the adrenaline of it.

“I think I would be as happy as Larry still managing Donegal had this challenge and opportunity not been presented. You’re in one environment and you are plucked from obscurity and transported into another world, another culture.

“Six years is a short period of time when you are involved in something like this, but it’s a long stretch as well in terms of the experiences that I’ve had. I think I’m out the other side of it now and I’m ready to stand on my own two feet now and move forward. I have a good coaching staff and playing staff around me and that’ll be it.”

McGuinness during his last year in charge of Donegal.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

After leading Donegal to the All-Ireland title in 2012, the 46-year-old had stints on the coaching staff at Celtic and Beijing Sinobo Guoan. He left China after six months for family reasons and has been on the look-out for a new position since then.

It was during that spell out of the game when he realised he was ready to step up and take on a team of his own.

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“There was an article I read in a magazine about Stevie Gerrard,” he said.

“He’d just taken over the underage team in Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp said to him, ‘Listen, I want you to get in and around the place (senior set-up) for a couple of weeks but that’s it, a couple of weeks. You need to get in there and start picking teams, you need to start kicking people up the backside, putting your arm around people, trying different systems, getting slapped in the face with certain things in terms of your system and learning.’

When I read that I just thought, ‘All my experiences have been in that environment of sort of observation when I went to Celtic originally, and then as an assistant.’ So that kind of resonated with me that maybe I just need to get in there and start standing on my own two feet myself.”

McGuinness confirmed there had been offers from the League of Ireland but the move to Charlotte came about after a chance meeting with Meath man Padraig Smith in Colorado.

The Glenties native visited a club in New York and then spent five days with the Colorado Rapids MLS team, who had Charlotte Independence as an affiliate team at the time.

He began speaking to the club about taking on the role “six or seven weeks ago” before meeting with the club’s board members in London.

“When I met them in London, one of the things they said as well is that, ‘You’re an outlier and we like outliers because we are a club, not with a huge budget, so we have to do things a bit differently and we have to look at things a bit left-field. We have a vision to move forward and we’re very positive about what we can do moving forward.’

“They liked that about me. That was good for myself in terms of them being a fit. They’re going in with their eyes wide open, they understand who I am, they understand what they’re getting and they’re still prepared to make that leap. All these things, feed into your decision.

“I spent a week out there and it’s just been the last couple of weeks trying to get everything over the line.

I’ve always said it’s not about getting a club, and this is a direct quote from Brendan Rodgers from a conversation we had. He said: ‘Jim it’s not about getting a club, it’s getting the right club’.

“So I had an open mind with everyone that I had spoken to and I wasn’t against coming to Ireland.

“When I met these guys and we sat down and we had started talking we started talking about the vision that we had for the club. In the short term, on the football side of things but also the long-term strategies and it seemed to make a lot of sense and that just made the decision a lot easier.”

McGuinness in his new club’s colours.

The USL Championship is officially recognised as the second tier of American soccer, sitting a level below Major League Soccer (MLS), although there is no promotion or relegation between the two leagues.

The professional game is growing in the country and USA, Mexico and Canada will jointly host the 2026 World Cup.

Charlotte Independence finished 11th last season, seven points outside a playoff place. The club, with their 5,000 capacity stadium, will begin the new season in March. The USL Championship contains 36 clubs that are split into two 18-team conferences.

Welcome to all of our new friends and followers from #Ireland 🇮🇪 ⚽️👍🏼 #WeAreCLT

— Charlotte Independence (@CLTIndependence) December 8, 2018

The club plans on moving into a new stadium located in the city’s downtown area by 2021 – prior to the final season of McGuinness’s contract.

“That’s obviously the club trying to lay down a marker that they would like to be considered for an MLS position,” he says. “There’s a lot of energy within the club and a lot of motivation in the club to move forward and develop. That was one of the things that caught my eye.

The location at the moment is about 15 or 20 minutes outside of the city and the new stadium will be downtown, walking distance for all the supporters and stuff.

“That will be exciting moving forward but obviously the short term for me is to try and build a team that can be competitive in the league and hopefully get ready for a move if that can happen down the line.”

McGuinness said Celtic owner Dermot Desmond has been a sounding board for him throughout his journey into soccer coaching, as have Mick and Paul McGinley.

“They’ve been people that have been really, really important to me. Personally, I’ve gone on this journey and they’ve helped facilitate and mentored me along the way.

Their support is really important to me and I continue to receive their support and every decision that I’ve made to this point, including this one and the last one to go to China, all those people would be really important points of counsel for me in terms of which direction to move in next.

“I think everyday is a school day and wherever you go, you will learn things, and I think if you get out there and meet people and see people coaching and see how they work, you will have own opinion and philosophy about how the game is, but you will always take something away from that environment that you feel will add value, or put a twist on it and tweak it to make sense of it to yourself.”

McGuinness at Celtic Park before a Champions League qualifier against Malmo FF.

Source: Jeff Holmes

In terms of his philosophy and the style of play he wants to employ, McGuinness will draw on his experiences from Donegal, Celtic and China.

“It was the same with Donegal – you’ve got to be good on the ball, you’ve got to be good using the ball. That is Celtic to a tee, their capacity to play really good quality possession football. I would characterise it, to answer your question, this capacity to play the game and to force the game.

“In China we forced the game really aggressively. I think it’s the emerging of both those aspects in terms of soccer and then everything I brought from home in terms of intensity and pressing and overwhelming the opposition and playing the game on the transition.

“Forcing the game and forcing the game in certain areas of the field where maybe it’s not as high risk, and creating as many chances as possible with the protection that everybody has bought into the system and thus you can actually do that. If I was to describe it in a few sentences I would say the capacity to play the game through the thirds but also always looking to be aggressive and dynamic and direct as part of that.

I think to an extent, Liverpool play that type of game. They can play ball, there’s no doubt about that. They can build the play and play it through the thirds. But you’d have to say they’re very dynamic and they like to play in the transition and in behind. They’ve got pace, they’re not afraid to play a vertical pass.

“Everybody will have their own take on it. (Maurizio) Sarri has come into Chelsea and has created a twist on the possession type of football. I think you’ll take experiences and influences from everywhere but ultimately you have to work out what’s best for you and then also what’s best for the players you have at your disposal.

“I’d like to play a high intensity and aggressive game. For that to happen you need a certain type of individual and athlete, not just the physical characteristics but also the physicality to go with that.

“I think that’s important as well and that’s where recruitment comes in and the type of players we want to bring in. Hopefully they will fit the system and the type of athlete we want to bring in. It’s one thing saying, ‘This is what we want to do’ but it’s another thing if they can or cannot do it.

“So it’s unfair to employ a system when your players haven’t got the capacity. With Donegal we had to build that capacity through the training. So hopefully with the transfer market, you can get players in that have those attributes at their disposal right now.”

McGuinness worked closely with Roger Schmidt at Beijing Guoan FC.

Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

He will be involved in player recruitment with the team’s General Manager Mike Jeffries, who was the manager of the side last season. Jeffries will primarily be responsible for managing the club’s finances and the transfer budget.

With the new season beginning in March, McGuinness has a relatively short time-frame to implement his ideas on the squad, but he’s not feeling under pressure to achieve immediate results.

“I don’t think it’s pressure. I’ve never gone down that road of ‘pressure’ from a coaching point of view ever. I think the reason for that is I’ve got a very clear vision in my mind as to what the thing is and also how to train it.

We’ll be looking to have a considerable pre-season. It’ll not all be there by the end of pre-season but I think we’ll get a lot of work done and I’ve a lot of work done on that already in terms of the phases of play that we’re speaking about and how that breaks down on the daily and weekly cycles running into the start of the season.

“There’s a saying in psychology that ‘fear lies in the unknown’. That’s why, from a coaching point of view and a philosophical point of view, if you know exactly what you want to do and how you want to do it, you could potentially eliminate that fear for the players.

“Because they understand all the different variables that can happen within a game and they have a game plan in their head for that, so you don’t get this ‘rabbit in the headlights’ moment and that for me is coaching.”

McGuinness during a training session with Donegal in 2014.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

What is it about soccer coaching that has made McGuinness determined to build a career in the game?

“I think it’s the challenge of it, you know. It’s just the challenge of it and to see where it takes you. Can it be done? I’m big believer in people. Your work environment, my work environment, the players will now come into work in our environment.

“If there’s a sense of self-value and self-worth and they’ve got a voice and they can contribute and they’re adding value to the overall process.

I don’t really believe in really big squads. A focused squad, everybody knows they have a part to play, everybody will be involved in this picture. When they slip in and they slip out, they all know that it’s for a period time because everyone knows that they’re really important and everyone needs to be used.

“Then, developing players, on the back of that, stretch out the numbers. They don’t need the same exposure but if they’re making strides, you’ve got to be fair to them and true to them to give them the chance.

“For me, that’s really important. A group of people that know and understand how much they’re valued and they want to be there. Hopefully, you get the best out of them as people.

I also believe that people want to be pushed and they want to be stretched. A lot of the time, people are in a comfort zone and players are in a comfort zone, it’s only when you move out of that comfort zone that you start making really big strides.

“You look back and you do, ‘Woah, we’ve moved to far in the last couple of months.’ I think if players experience that, you can get this feeling of, ‘This is special’ and that they want to be there. Then, when the offers come in, they’re reluctant to go.

“When we were with Donegal, very few people wanted to leave the group. Very few people retired because they were pushing hard and the harder we pushed, the fitter they got, the tougher the defenders are, the harder it is for the forwards to break it down,the better they become.

“These are all the things, that are important to be, anyway. That’s what I’ll be focusing on.”

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