Back around Christmas time in 2011, Jim McGuinness was the better part of a year away from the title that would cement him in Gaelic football history. Football of the association variety, he recalls, wasn’t much more than a blip on his radar save a lifelong affinity for Celtic.

Then he met up with Irish golfer Paul McGinley for an exchange of sporting viewpoints. An introduction to Celtic owner Dermot Desmond followed. A couple of visits to Glasgow came off the back of that meeting. A rare All-Ireland Senior Football Championship as manager of Donegal later, and McGuinness found himself part of the Celtic Park coaching staff as a performance consultant by the time 2012 was out. It was an unlikely passage, his swapping of codes from Gaelic to association football at the coaching level unprecedented.

Since, there’s been steady progress. The unorthodox journey along a route less travelled recently saw the affable Irishman take charge of a club under his own steam for the first time. Late last year, the 46-year-old signed up to manage Charlotte Independence, who compete in the USL Championship, the American second tier.

“In many respects, it was all out of my own hands,” he says, going way back to the outset of the move from one sport to the other. “It’s something that would never have been on my radar. I was a Gaelic football player. From the age of four or five, all I ever wanted to do was play Gaelic football and nothing else, and represent my county. That’s what all my goals and ambitions were geared towards. I was lucky enough to do that and we were successful. Then on the back of that the only thing you want to do is manage your county and I was lucky enough to achieve that.


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“In the process of doing that I suppose I came to the attention of one or two people who have been very influential in my life. Paul McGinley – he’s a good friend of mine now – but at the time Paul had aspirations of becoming the Ryder Cup captain, which he did.

“In the winter of 2011, myself and Paul met up. He was interested in the team approach that we were implementing in Donegal at the time when I was managing them. He was keen to pick my brain and I was fortunate to be in his company so I was picking his brain as well. We had a great conversation.

“On the back of that he mentioned to Dermot Desmond that maybe you should keep an eye on this guy as the year progresses. Fortunately for us, the following year we went through the whole season, we were very, very successful. We won Ulster, and the All-Ireland championship for the first time in 20 years, only our second ever.”

Over the course of half a decade at Celtic in various coaching roles with youth and senior players, McGuinness learned the nuances of a game at once familiar and foreign. At the same time he was also working through his coaching licenses. In 2017, McGuinness then took a further step into the unknown when he became an assistant coach at Beijing Sinobo Guoan in the Chinese Super League under German Roger Schmidt.

A cerebral portrait emerges as McGuinness works through the thought process that led him first to China and eventually to Charlotte, North Carolina.

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“I’d been with Celtic five years when the opportunity in China came up and I’d seen a lot of the methodology, the way Celtic play, what they do and how they do it – very much possession-based, keeping the ball, using the ball, being good on the ball, breaking lines and breaking teams down,” he says.

“Whereas Roger Schmidt’s team – with Bayer Leverkusen – then obviously in Beijing, it was almost the opposite. He didn’t want the ball. Everything was played in behind, everything was deep. Really, really forcing the game. That appealed to me in terms of my own development because I was conditioned into the Celtic way. So it was about seeing another way. Now that I’m here in Charlotte I’m trying to make both of them work at the same time.”

In his short time so far in Charlotte it’s been a tough baptism as the person ultimately responsible, though the campaign only started in March. His Independence side have won just once, also slipping out of the US Open Cup in the second round to a semi-pro outfit.

But McGuinness believes the slow burn of his philosophy and squad assembly is evident in the shading: lots of chances created, goals in almost every match, but not quite ruthless enough. “I have a clear vision of how I want the team to play but we haven’t got to that level yet,” he says.

Celtic remain omnipresent. In his squad he has a couple of Celtic loanees: American left-back Andrew Gutman and club youth product and midfielder Mark Hill. “If it weren’t for Celtic and people within the club – Dermot, Peter Lawwell, Chris McCart, John Kennedy, Neil Lennon and Brendan Rodgers – I wouldn’t be here, that’s the bottom line,” McGuinness says. “I’d be back in Donegal still coaching Donegal I would imagine… if I was still in a job!”