James Rogers chats to Stephen McGuinness
Nowadays Stephen McGuinness is best known in League of Ireland circles for his role with the Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland (PFAI)
However, long before the 44-year-old became general secretary of the players’ union, he was a tough tackling centre half who won all there is to win in the game domestic game. LeagueofIreland.ie recently caught up with him to talk about his career. Such was the in-depth nature of the chat that we’ve divided it in two – the first on his playing days and the second (to be released soon) on his work with the PFAI.
Having retired 13 years ago, there will be a generation of supporters and indeed players who don’t remember Stephen McGuinness playing but needless to say there would be many who would be happy to have the likes of St Patrick’s Athletic, Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers on their CV, as well as a handful of European appearances.
Given his role in trying to improve the league and rescue clubs in more recent years, it is perhaps ironic that things all started out for McGuinness at one of the side’s who have since left the league, Home Farm.
McGuinness would start out at the Drumcondra-based side aged 7 and would progress through the ranks into their first team. Indeed, his initial progress at Home Farm was such that there was even the opportunity of trials at Arsenal and Leeds United, the latter of whom won the last of the old First Division titles pre-Premier League in 1992.
While an honour to be given a chance to impress Howard Wilkinson and George Graham, McGuinness admits himself he lacked the quality to progress cross channel
“I was at Home Fram from when I was seven until I was 23 which is very unusual because a lot of fellas would move around a bit but I was there for a long, long time,” he said.
“I went over to Arsenal and Leeds United when I was 19. I had just broken into the first team and they came to have a look at me so I spent a bit of time over there at both clubs. Both times it was in pre-season but I probably didn’t do enough when I was over there. I think if you’re honest with yourself, I just knew pretty early on that I just wasn’t at the level of the players that I would have been competing against
“Arsenal at that time had the likes of Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Colin Tates, Dave O’Leary and a guy called Scott Marshall was the fifth centre back so I sort of had an idea that they’re a good bit ahead of me.”
While a move to Highbury or Elland Road didn’t materialise, it was a dream of its own for McGuinness to break through at Home Farm.
“I had played all my schoolboy football with Home Farm and broken into the League of Ireland team, which interestingly is a model being used right now in the league.
“I was very lucky to be able to stay at the one club which was brilliant from a continuity point of view, from knowing people and everybody knowing you and being able to build yourself up.
“I think there was huge satisfaction for the likes of Liam Tuohy, who was running the FÁS course at the time but who was involved in the schoolboy setup, that players managed to come out of the schoolboy ranks and get into the first team at Home Farm. That was a huge satisfaction that it was working when you’re able to do that. I was very lucky to be able to play the schoolboy football and to stay there the whole way through. We were quite lucky as well that we hadn’t a bad team at one stage.
“For the first few years when I signed we were always a team that when the weather was good and pitches were good we were always a good team but as soon as it went to a bit of a slog and when the pitches turned we always seemed to struggle. It wasn’t until Everton made a financial investment into Home Farm that things started to change. I was captain of the club at the time in my early 20s and that investment brought in revenue so that we were able to sign a better quality of player. It was no surprise that in the very first year that Everton made that financial commitment that we got promoted through the play-offs. We beat Athlone in the play-offs and we had some good young players at that time. Probably the best of them was myself and Owen Heary. He was playing right back at that time while I was centre back and even at that time you could see with Owen that he was going to be a really good player.
“Bringing decent players into the club helped get us promoted but it was a bridge too far the following year. We probably just didn’t invest in the right type of player. We went with a slightly older player because we felt maybe experience was required but we didn’t recruit the fellas we should have.”
It was around that period that McGuinness’ Home Farm dream turned sour following the arrival of Dermot Keely as manager.
“Dermot came in after only about two or three games after they sacked Martin Bayly. I couldn’t handle Dermot at the time. I just couldn’t get my head around him to be honest with you
“I get on really well with him now and I’d be good friends with him but at the time I just wasn’t able for him – for the way that he spoke, for the way that he coached. It wasn’t for me at the time and I struggled with that to be honest.
“He demanded something that I just couldn’t get my head around. He didn’t really fancy me either as a player so the amount of time I had spent at Home Farm was sort of for nothing.
“It was probably my first lesson as to how ruthless football is, especially at a professional level. I had been 17 years at the club at that stage but the service I had given didn’t stand for anything. Dermot just didn’t fancy me as a player so I was out the door and that was the first time that the penny dropped of how tough an actual game this is because up to that everything had been on the up for me. I had played with the schoolboy team and done really well, broke into the first team, was captain of the first team and suddenly then bang!”
There was a silver lining from his Home Farm exit though as St Patrick’s Athletic would come a-calling with a move to Inchicore ultimately leading to two league titles for McGuinness.
He revealed, however, that were it not for some bad mobile phone reception in North Louth at the time that he might have signed with Dundalk FC instead
“I was very lucky that Pat Dolan and Brian Kerr, who were at St Pat’s, tried to sign me the season before and had come to watch me a good few times. They felt that with a bit of help and development there was a good player in me. They felt Pat’s would be the right move for me.
“I had one or two offers from Dundalk at the time. Eddie May was the manager of Dundalk at the time and he offered me good money. It was funny though because wherever Eddie was living in Dundalk he was over a mountain somewhere and he couldn’t get a signal on his mobile. He had been ringing me and ringing me at that stage. I think it might have been Tommy Connolly who had given him my number. When he was in the town he could get people on the phone but as soon as he went back to where he was living he couldn’t get a signal. Eventually he got me and made me an offer. I said leave it with me and I’ll give you a shout back.
“I was thinking that Dundalk wouldn’t be a bad move. Eddie really wanted me to sign and the money was good but when I went to call him back I couldn’t get him. Between that Pat Dolan rang me and I went up to meet him in the Red Cow. I sat down with him and had a chat with him and decided there and then that I was going to sign with Pat’s but I said to him I needed to speak to Eddie May.
“Pat wouldn’t let me go though and he opened up the club at two or three in the morning. He got a lad who worked for the club to open it up to sign me that night because he was afraid if I went home I might have slept on it and changed my mind. I ended up signing for Pat’s but if I had been able to get Eddie May on the phone I probably would have been up in Dundalk and signed by the time Pat had rang me.”
Working with Dolan was a real experience for the young centre half and he admitted he struggled in the initial step up in standards from Home Farm to St Pat’s.
“It’s hard to describe Pat,” he said.
“What a lesson on professional football he gave me. We were training five days and we were at the club six days a week. There was only one day off which was a Wednesday. It was tough, really, really tough but he had a good eye for a player and he was very organised. He was probably the most organised manager at the time and you were under no illusion what was expected of you.
“It was a tough first year for me to get my head around the level that he wanted you at both physically, mentally and everything else. That was a big learning year for me and I didn’t play a huge amount of games. In the first year that we won the league (1997/98) I would have got a medal but I wouldn’t have played a huge amount of games. He actually played me in midfield and a few other positions but it was a huge learning curve in terms of what was required to be a top player in the league and to be at a top team that was going to challenge to win leagues.”
McGuinness felt he played a bigger role in the title success of 1998/99 when Liam Buckley came in to replace Dolan.
“The following year Pat actually left after the first game. I had started against Derry up there and he left the day after so after working so hard to get into the team under Pat now he was gone. Then Liam Buckley came in the following week.
“Colin Hawkins had an injury so I stayed in the team and the rest was history after that. From there on, my career really took off. The 3-5-2 formation really suited the way I played and we won the league that year by a record number of points at the time. I scored the winner down in Cork which was probably the most important goal that I ever scored. It was really enjoyable.
“I was playing really well and training was good. Liam gave us a bit of freedom whereas there was a very regimental style under Pat. It was successful and functional but under Liam it was more expansive and we had arguably the three best midfield players at that time, all left footed, in Martin Russell, Eddie Gormley and Paul Osam. We had a really good side with Trevor Molloy and Ian Gilzean up front. I really enjoyed it.”
Eventually a new challenge was needed though with a move to Dundalk finally coming about in 2001.
“The following season Liam went and Pat came back in again. I just thought ‘here we go again’ because I felt I had to prove myself all over again but I did okay and won the League Cup as captain.
“Then in the fourth year Pat came to me with a new deal but I just felt I was worth more than what he offered. I felt the offer should have been better and it wasn’t. That opened up a door then for Martin Murray and Dundalk.
“I went and met him and I was impressed about what he had to say about the club. There were other players there at the time who I would have played with before, the likes of James Keddy, Martin Reilly and a few others who were there and they were coming off the back of a good season. Martin, in particular, had just scored a lot of goals for them in getting promoted from the First Division so I just said to myself maybe a change of scenery wouldn’t be the end of the world.
“I felt the move to Dundak would be good. I had met the chairman Des Denning a good few times and eventually agreed to sign.”
Unfortunately a move to Oriel Park didn’t work out exactly as McGuinness had planned with the club relegated that season. There was a major silver lining though as the Lilywhites shocked Stephen Kenny’s Bohemians with Garry Haylock’s double on a sunny April afternoon in 2002 earning the club what was then at ninth FAI Cup success.
McGuinness felt had Haylock been at the club from the start of that season that Dundalk would have avoided the drop in a season where three teams went down.
“It was a tough season. Martin was a different type of coach to the ones I had had previously and maybe left a little bit to the players to do their stuff.
“There was a good few younger lads at Dundalk at the time. The recruitment of the players was good but I just felt we lacked a finisher. We signed Garry Haylock maybe eight or nine games from the end of the season and had we signed him a couple of weeks earlier I think we’d have stayed up because we went on a fantastic run at the very end. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to stay up.
“I think I scored the second or third goal in Monaghan which would have been enough to keep us up if Pat’s had beaten Longford but Pat’s drew 1-1 and we were relegated. Three went down that year and it was devastating.
“I suppose it was unlucky that three went down that year as we were a good bit ahead of Galway and Monaghan but it was one of those things where we probably should have done better, myself included.
“We kicked on at the end but from playing in the team I always felt that if we conceded first then we never looked like scoring. Then when we signed Haylock suddenly the whole thing changed. There was no fear. We knew he’d get us a goal and the mindset completely changed. If we conceded earlier on in the season we were gone but once we got him in we were flying.”
Relegation only made the Lilywhites more determined than ever to finish the season with a trophy and while few gave Dundalk a chance against a Bohs side containing the league’s top goalscorer Glen Crowe, McGuinness felt the Gypsies’ arrogance proved their downfall.
“I remember playing Bohs towards the end of the season and we drew 1-1 but I remember Liam O’Brien made a few derogatory comments from the line. I spoke to him after and he didn’t mean the way it was but I wasn’t happy at the time with the comments made.
“There was an arrogance about Bohs then and there was an arrogance about them when we got through to the final.”
Preparations for the big day went far from according to plan but according to McGuinness, the haphazard nature of the preparations actually helped Dundalk pull off one of the biggest FAI Cup shocks for some time.
“What I remember about the FAI Cup final and the day itself is that we had met at the Regency Hotel in the car park. I was good mates at the time and still am with James Keddy. James would go on to win our player of the year and was a very important player for us. He got a couple of great goals that year, including two against Bray and one cracker against Finn Harps in the quarter-finals. He was a top class player but I just remember pulling the car in to the car park and Garry Haylock was there. He had stayed in the hotel and he said ‘I’ve bad news, James is out’. He had failed a fitness test that morning.
“I was trying to ring him because he was one of the main reasons I had come to Dundalk and I was devastated for him. He didn’t want to answer his phone though. I spoke to him afterwards and he said I just wanted to stay out of the way because I wouldn’t have been any good to anybody. It was devastating for him.
“Then the coach came. I thought we were having food there at the Regency but we ended up heading out to, I think it was the White Sands Hotel in Portmarnock. “One of the directors of the club owned something out that neck of the woods but at the time the Port Tunnel was getting built and the traffic was absolutely horrendous. When we drove out there, we had our team talk and everything else. I always remember David Hoey finding €100 on the ground as well. The team was named and John Ryan wasn’t in the team and I remember him walking off. We were standing there at that stage waiting on the bus but what had happened was that Des and the rest of the board had a meal in town prior to the game. They hadn’t accounted for the traffic though on the way back and we were dead late. I remember thinking we were in serious trouble.
“By the time it came and got us to the ground, Bohs were out warming up. We had seen the Cat and Cage packed with Dundalk fans, which was great for us, but we weren’t even stripped at this stage. Looking back at it though it was the best thing that could have happened because there was no time to think about anything. We had no nerves or nothing. Everything was that quick, it was just in, out, have a look at the pitch, back in and get your kit on. There was no time to worry about anything.
“The thing that stuck in my head when we arrived was that a few of the Bohs lads had dyed their hair blonde. They were obviously bored the night before in the hotel because they had stayed over or they thought it would be a stroll in the park, that they just had to turn up. It was used by Martin then in his team talk. The place was packed with Dundalk fans too, it was at least two to one if not more. The other thing is when I went out on the pitch the referee came between me and Donal Broughan and said don’t forget this is my day today as well. It then dawned on me that he wasn’t going to screw anybody over, it’s his day too and he wanted to have the best final he could have because he may never get another one. Then I said to myself I may enjoy it too because I may never get another one and subsequently it ended up that it was the only final I ever got to.
“All those things just took a lot of the weight off my shoulders. The rest is history then. We played really well and won the cup.”
The famous win was celebrated in style back in Dundalk but relegation to the First Division meant that a promising side was split up with McGuinness amongst those to depart.
“I had a decision to make after the cup final because I had a clause in my contract which said if we got relegated I could go.
“I was on decent money at the time. To be fair to Des Denning he said to me I’ll honour your contract but it might be best for everybody if you and James moved and we did.”
McGuinness would join Shamrock Rovers as Liam Buckley’s first season but it’s a decision he regrets to this day.
“Hindsight is a great thing. Looking back I should have stayed. My move to Rovers wasn’t great. I shouldn’t have gone to Rovers. I hadn’t had a great relationship with the supporters at Rovers and it was just the wrong move. I shouldn’t have done it but I did and I suppose the main reason was that Liam Buckley had just taken over, who I had enjoyed playing with when I was with Pat’s. My gut told me not to do it but my head was telling me Liam is a good manager and he’ll trust you as a player and you’ll play and get your chance.
“I signed then and actually got Dundalk in the first round of the cup the next year. We beat them in extra-time after a replay in Tolka. I got sent off. We qualified for Europe and I scored in the UEFA Cup as it was then which was great from a personal point of view because I had played in the Champions League before and got absolutely hammered. It was something that always stuck in my head and I said if I ever get the chance again I’ll make sure to score and get a positive result. With Rovers we had won in the InterToto and then against Djurgadens I managed to score in the UEFA Cup which was a highlight from a personal point of view.
“The two years there, I enjoyed it to a point but there were huge issues at the club. We had no training ground, we went a few months without getting paid and even though we got to a cup final I just didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy the couple of years.”
McGuinness would end his career back at Oriel Park where he spent two years trying to get the club out of the First Division.
“Liam to be fair came to me with a new contract but Trevor Anderson had been on to me at that stage so I just said I’ll give Dundalk another crack. At that point I felt I should have stayed and tried to get the club back up so I signed a two year deal with them
“I enjoyed the two years with Trevor first and then Jim Gannon. He was very good, really professional and way ahead of his time for where Dundalk were at the time. I enjoyed my two season there but the astro pitch went in while I was there and that caused me huge problems because I had to have an operation on my hip not too long ago due to the astro. I just felt that it was hard on the body but the club was in transition and financially they were in a different place to where they are now. It was an enjoyable two years but at 32 or 33 the body had given up.”
Through all of that McGuinness was involved in the PFAI and he revealed how his role as general secretary came about.
“Through the last few years of my career I was chairman of the PFAI. I had been a member and a delegate at the clubs I had played with and then the chairman. I then decided to take a Liaison Officer role advising the General Secretary who was Fran Gavin at the time about what he should do and so forth.
“About a year and a half later after I retired I was working for an electronics firm but I was close to Fran at this stage and he came to me and said that an opportunity had opened for him within the FAI to become director of the league but he said he needed someone to take over the PFAI.
“At the time we weren’t in a good place financially and we had only one staff member who was on a three day week so I had a decision to make about what I was going to do. I decided to take it over and try to do my job and run the PFAI as well, which was fairly challenging especially with the financial situation it was in.
“Sharon Smith, who was working with us at the time, was brilliant and she managed to do a huge amount of work to keep it going with myself. Then two years later we got into a position where I was able to leave the job I was in and go full-time. I’ve been there ever since then.”
A leader on the field, McGuinness would have to become one off it as well as he dealt with one of the most challenging periods in Irish football.
Read his story of his days in the PFAI in part 2, coming soon to LeagueofIreland.ie