Sunday 8 December 2019

Donegal's enforcer Magee in the eye of an aerial storm

Eamon McGee admits it took time to get over winning the All-Ireland in 2012 but they are now back to their best
Eamon McGee admits it took time to get over winning the All-Ireland in 2012 but they are now back to their best
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The voice in Eamonn McGee's ear wasn't much, but his own fragility ensured it was enough.

Sunday, September 22, 2013, the day of the All-Ireland football final between Dublin and Mayo, and McGee is reflecting on the ocean of self-pity that he found himself swimming through.

He didn't bother to watch the game. Couldn't face it. Instead he took himself off to some far-flung soccer field in the county for active duty with Gweedore Celtic.

An opponent knew what buttons to press however and got to him.

"Some boy was mouthing to me about Croke Park or something and I ended up getting a straight red," he recalled. "That was the height of my All-Ireland final.

"I was just that upset. I was still so sick from the performance against Mayo that I couldn't have been bothered either being involved in GAA or watching it.

"It was just self-pity to be honest. It wasn't a case of staying away from it."

Had the red card been justified?

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"Oh, fully justified. It was off the ball. It was fully, fully justified. But I have made peace with it!"

It took a while to make peace with where 2013 with Donegal tossed him. For McGee it ended with a red card against Mayo to compound a 16-point defeat.

No need to ask about justification for that one, his stamp on Enda Varley a clumsy and pointless act dripping with frustration.

"A few of the lads were talking after the Mayo game. Self-pity is a useless emotion. It doesn't serve much (purpose).

"A lot of that was going about but when we sat down together, we quickly realised that we have a bit of unfinished business to do."

So they got to work and repairing the damage done.

When McGee reflects on 2013 he draws the conclusion that they had always left themselves with too much to do.

There were injuries but there was a need to draw breath too and properly acknowledge a first All-Ireland title for the county in 19 years.

"You have to celebrate it," he admitted. "What's the point, otherwise. Ask any of the Gaoth Dobhair lads, they put the hard work in.

"Neil (McGee)...no better man, he leads the runs and puts his body on the line every day but when he gets the chance, he enjoys it. And you have to enjoy it. There is no point in putting your body and soul into it if you can't have a wee release after it."

It makes an All-Ireland defence all that more difficult but impossible? He's not so sure.

"I am second guessing here but it is different for Kerry because they are used to seeing Sam Maguire.

"Our boys aren't. So you are calling to houses and doing events and it is hard to keep that focus and edge It definitely affected us last year."

Winning breeds confidence though, maybe instils a bit of arrogance, McGee accepts. He hopes that word isn't taken up the wrong way.

"We thought we had it last year and we got hammered out the park. It's just a gradual thing. It's something I think you have to instil at underage level that kind of ... I don't want to say the word, but I suppose it is that wee bit of arrogance. That you have to believe that you're going win."

"I think that tradition is part of it. When you go into these big clubs in the north, or you go into Crossmaglen, they have tradition. These big counties have it too. It's basically belief. They know they should be there."

It's why they'll keep repeating how McGuinness means so much to them, how he has urged them to think about themselves.

McGee always dreamed of these days and always sensed they could do what they did. But it was their manager who joined the dots.

"Every year we set out we always said that this is going to be our year," he recalled. "And we believed that, like. We believed that we were going to do it.

"I have said before that (Kevin) Cassidy, Neil and I have spent hours upon hours in the car travelling up and down to training, talking about what we were going to do if we won the All-Ireland. All this partying we would be doing and where we would be visiting.

"And maybe that was part of the problem. We were prepared to talk about it but not prepared to put in the actual work and the attitude wasn't there.

"But we wouldn't have bothered like. We wouldn't have dogged ourselves going to training if we thought we were going to be way off the reckoning.

"We were just so far off the pace when it came down to it, it was unbelievable. And thankfully Jim has come in and turned that around and we are eternally grateful."

It amuses him to still hear so many analyse this Donegal team in terms of a system only, that they can lose component parts and still thrive because of how they do what they do.

"I was reading a soccer book there recently that is all to do with statistics and it emphasised at the start that all this will only add so much to a team," said McGee.

"You still need 11 good players. That is an important part with Jim too. He has given us those extra percentages but the players are there. You have Christy Toye who would walk into any county team in Ireland in my opinion. It is about getting the best out of the players."

The impetus from McGuinness' 2010 under 21 team was the other significant factor.

They brought a winning attitude, they even opened the eyes of old soldiers to "Snapchat and this craic!" he joked.

"No, in fairness, they have put the pressure on and we have lifted our game. The likes of Neil Gallagher has lifted his game massively, Rory Kavanagh and myself. It is all part of it. You do need that wee bit of worry that your spot is in bother and you need to take that onto the training field. And the lads have been amazing.

"There is no point in saying otherwise. Michael) Murphy and Leo McLoone, Declan Walsh and those lads, their winning attitude coming into the set up was a big help to us and added an edge to training. It was a big step."

That belief in their ability fortified them when they found themselves under pressure against Dublin. McGee likened it to the Ali/Foreman fight afterwards but knows how close they were to a knock-out.

"I distinctly remember Neil shouting to me, 'Jesus, if we keep out the goals here, we're all right.' And he went on to be proved right.

"All you do is ride the storm, and try and stay in it, tag on a point here and there and just keep at it."

On Sunday he'll be back in the eye of the storm with a probable watching brief on Kieran Donaghy, provided Kerry deploy him so far forward.

He likes the "big bucks" coming his way.

"I don't like the small, speedy bucks coming! I played against Kieran in 2012 and was relatively happy.

"He got in for a goal but it's something I look forward to."

Big bucks, small bucks, you sense that he'll be ready anyway.

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