By Arthur Sullivan, GAA.ie
I think that the gap that is being spoken about by a lot of commentators and journalists and so forth, that gap is not insurmountable and I think we're the living proof of that.
On a day when the sun makes the Croke Park pitch look about as good as it possibly can, Jim McGuinness is back in a place which has served him well.
But this time he's not at Croke Park in his capacity as Donegal manager, not exclusively at least, as he is helping to launch an upcoming Youth Leadership Programme, a joint venture between the GAA and his employers, Celtic FC.
Since taking on the role as Celtic performance consultant last November, the Donegal manager has combined his two roles, seemingly with little difficulty.
On a day like today, McGuinness is in an especially unique position. He is here alongside Celtic FC chairman Ian Bankier and other representatives from Celtic. Yet this place is his domain, every bit as much as the Celtic training ground.
He can now move between the worlds of GAA and professional soccer effortlessly. He is in a position to interpret one for the other, and to take the wisdoms and lessons of both.
"You're picking up things all the time," he explained to GAA.ie at the event.
"For me, it's great to stand back and watch the first team coaches and the development squad coaches working with the players and how they go about that process. How they engage with the players, and how they get their message across and that's something that I'm very interested in.
"Then obviously you have the whole other professional element to it, and all the support systems that are in place. Particularly the sports science and the strength and conditioning and stuff like that.
"It's very enjoyable being in that environment and obviously you have your own job to do as well, in terms of working with the development squad players. So it's very, very good."
It might be a natural assumption to make that it is the professional environment that is informing McGuinness' work with Donegal, rather than his work with Donegal informing his new professional role, but he says the crossover is considerable.
His background in psychology, and in particular sports psychology, is a major part of his job with Celtic. Much of his expertise in that area has been honed working with the Donegal senior team over the last couple of seasons.
"You're working with people that want to develop and you're working on the psychological side of their game and you're trying to work through things with them, put systems in place for them and look at their overall development and see how you can impact on that and help them along that journey, and everyone else that inputs into that journey as well," he said.
"The more experiences you have as a coach or as a manager, or my own background in psychology and strength and conditioning stuff, the more beneficiial that can be to the people you're working with. You'd like to think that you're having some kind of a positive impact on them in a way.
"But I'm just getting up and running really. It was the middle of last season when I came in and we start now next week again for the next season so it's good to have the experience of last year under the belt and push forward for the season coming."
The logistics for his role at Celtic certainly appear to have worked in his favour. It takes him just 2 hours and 15 minutes to go door to door from his home in Donegal to his job at Celtic. A direct flight from Donegal Airport, in the Rosses, to Glasgow is a major help.
It means he can make the journey with great regularity, without much difficulty, and judging by Donegal's Ulster Championship quarter-final victory over Tyrone on May 26, there has been no disruption to their normal quality of service.
That victory was the first step on what is a very difficult road ahead for Donegal. Only the Kerry team of 2006 and 2007 have retained Sam Maguire since 1990, and retaining the All-Ireland football title in the modern era appears to be a mammoth task.
McGuinness is famed for his attention to detail and emphasis on the importance of structured planning, but he says no special plan has been made for the idea of retaining the title itself, or any of the extra challenges that may come with the task of defending such a title.
"Even last year it wasn't something that we talked about (the idea of winning the All-Ireland). We have a very simple model and that is take one game at a time," he says definitively.
"We are not talking about the All-Ireland series. It's not on our radar. The only thing that is on our radar at the moment is the Ulster Championship. We were fortunate to get through the last day against a very good Tyrone team.
"We play Down now this Sunday and we put a big emphasis on trying to learn as much as we can about the opposition and then focus solely on our own game plan, and trying to get that right. It's a matter then of hopefully getting the message across to the lads, and the lads executing that message.
"That's the formula that we have used for the last two years previous to this and it has served us very well so far, and we won't be moving away from that because ultimately we can't play in the Ulster final this year if we don't win the semi-final and that's the game that's ahead of us, that's how simple it is for us really."
Donegal's game against Tyrone was one of the few opening round championship games in 2013 involving Division I teams that did not end with a very one-sided result. Big wins for Dublin (over Westmeath), Mayo (over Galway and Roscommon), Cork (over Limerick and Clare) and Kerry (over Tipperary and Waterford), has led to much commentary from pundits and analysts about the gap now evident at the elite level of Gaelic football.
After Westmeath's defeat to Dublin in the Leinster quarter-final, their manager Pat Flanagan suggested that it might be time for secondary competitions to start up, in order to give counties from outside the so-called elite a chance to compete.
McGuinness and Donegal should surely form a very significant part of any discussion or debate of this nature. For when McGuinness took over Donegal less than three years ago, the last word anyone would have used to describe them was 'elite'.
They had exited the 2010 All-Ireland Championship in Round 1 of the Qualifiers, losing by nine points to Ulster rivals Armagh. This game came less than a year after a 14-point defeat to Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Yet, just over a year on from the Armagh defeat, Donegal were within a whisker of reaching the All-Ireland final, running eventual champions Dublin extremely close in an iconic semi-final. And just two years after the Armagh defeat, they were All-Ireland champions.
They are surely living proof, that big gaps can be cut down very quickly, even in the modern age.
"I think if you can get the resources put in place, and a group of people that are prepared to work very hard, to sacrifice a lot, to be successful...and if you can surround them people with a very high level support team, and everybody is heading in the right direction in terms of an overall plan, I think a lot can be achieved," he explains.
"I think that the gap that is being spoken about by a lot of commentators and journalists and so forth, that gap is not insurmountable and I think we're the living proof of that.
"The other debate that is going on is in terms of the provincial championships and stuff. But for us, the provincial championship is absolutely everything.
"There's a lot of people in Ulster, and I'm sure he won't mind me saying it, Benny Coulter, who would give his right arm for a provincial championship. There are Cavan men, and Donegal men who would have done the same for 19 years. So that competition is very close to our hearts and it's how you're judged in our province.
"For us, there's nine teams in it and any of the teams can win on a given day and it's a very sought after medal. So we're just delighted to be in a space within our own history, that we are competitive within our own province and we're getting success and we're enjoying it very much and we hope we can continue that now.
"But going back to your original question, I think that you have to continue to believe and you have to continue to work hard and I think if you stay true to your own convictions and work really hard, that a lot can be achieved."
With someone like McGuinness, the knowledge of what he has achieved with Donegal creates, to a certain extent, a mystique about how he could have inspired a team to such a remarkable extent, in such a quick space of time.
His professional and academic background in psychology, and the sense of drive and ambition he appears to have instilled deeply into his Donegal players, would suggest that it is the mastering of the mental side of things that is central to his philosophy.
But his response is clear and instant when asked if he thinks conquering the mental side of things is the key for a county looking to bridge the gap up to the elite teams.
"No, I wouldn't have said it's what's going to bridge the gap for them," he says.
He outlines what he believes is required for counties to make the kind of step up Donegal have, and while it is a complex and absorbing set of demands, it is not something that, as he said earlier, is insurmountable.
"You have got to put proper systems in place. You have got to have county boards that are supporting the teams 100 per cent in their quest, and there's a financial cost there.
"There's the physical hours there that are involved for everybody from the board down to the coaches down to the players. You've got to have buy-in. You've got to have high-level people that can educate people in terms of nutrition and strength and fitness.
"You've got to have coaches that have a very clear vision as to how they want to bring their team forward and, the game has moved to a new level in terms of tactics and there's a lot of very smart management teams out there, trying to work things out and trying to break teams down. It's never been more difficult I would suggest.
"You need to have people in place who are up to that challenge, so it comes back to coaching and it comes back to managing teams and it comes back to county boards supporting them management teams.
"I think if everybody is heading in the right direction in terms of their intention, and I think Cavan is a good example of that, than you can guarantee momentum. Cavan are now talking about two championship victories in a row, that could end up being three and that's the way things build.
"We played a certain way through the league in 2011 with a view to try and get traction and that traction gave us our first championship victory, which gave is the second, which gave us the third and resulted in a first provincial title.
"Everybody in the country now knows exactly their own perspective in terms of their own county and I think it's just about laying down a proper plan and trying to work towards it."
Jim McGuinness was at Croke Park on Wednesday to help launch ‘Let’s Go: Lead Through Sport’, an upcoming Youth Leadership Programme which will be piloted in two locations in Ireland in the coming months.
Click here for more details of the ‘Let’s Go: Lead Through Sport’ camps.