Wednesday 21 August 2019

McGee: When Jim came in, I thought he was full of nonsense

Former defender on pride and regret in 12 roller-coaster years with Donegal

Eamon McGee at last week’s Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour launch. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamon McGee at last week’s Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour launch. Photo: Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

If Eamon McGee needed a reminder that he was on the outside looking in after his Donegal retirement, it was always likely to come from his brother.

It's the spring of 2017. McGee, just a few months retired from the set-up, is on the way to the pitch in Gaoth Dobhair for a run when he bumps into Neil, who was due to line out for Donegal in a league match later that evening.

"Well, are you starting tonight?" Eamon asks.

"No," Neil replies.

"And low and behold a few hours later he was starting, so you just learn," Eamon reflected.

"Because you have been telling that spiel yourself, telling people close to you just lies, wee white lies, but you have been telling lies.

"So you know there's no point asking because they are not going to tell you. We call (Michael) Murphy and Neil McGee and these boys 'North Korea'," he smiles.

He put down 12 years with Donegal and looks back on it all now with a mixture of pride and regret.

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Last month, Christy Toye's wedding offered a chance to reflect on a career that yielded three Ulster titles, an All-Ireland and a National league crown.

It was a fine innings by any standards. Yet there might have been more to talk about, more big days and medals won, but for the first part of McGee's career, where Donegal refused to get out of their own way.

Brendan Devenney recently spoke of his regret at having missed out on championship silverware in his time with the county. But he wasn't alone.

Devenney and several other classy players from the county hung up their boots without the awards to match their talent.

"We didn't have the mindset," McGee said of those early days.

"And Devenney has to hold the hands up and say he was one of the boys that didn't have the mindset. We were young fellas, came in and these boys were showing us the path. Kevin (Cassidy), Devenney and the older boys. And we just followed it. It was a joint effort.

"That's why we didn't win, because of that, and you have to hold the hands (up), you can't blame anyone else, it was just ourselves, that was the reason we didn't win anything."

Maybe Donegal's failure to play to their potential was a defence mechanism of sorts. When they never really tried their utmost to succeed, how could they ever really fail?

"Working with a few different underage teams they are nearly afraid to just give themselves completely to the thing.

"And if it fails they are worrying. If they are messing about that's their wee get-out clause but they are afraid to give themselves 100pc to it. And maybe that's what we were like too. Whenever I give out to any young player, be it in Gaoth Dobhair, or working with any underage team I can say I have made any mistake that any young player has made.

When Jim McGuinness arrived, the penny started to drop.

"It was a gradual thing, from my conversation with Jim, he was talking All-Irelands and I was thinking, 'this man is just full of nonsense' like.

"Because we had heard it from three or four different managers... it has to be gradual when you are changing the style of play and culture in the dressing-room. Jim had a lot of work to do.

"It had to seep into us that we were good enough. As good as Armagh, as good as Tyrone, as good as Dublin or Mayo, or any of these teams.

"The system made us hard to beat but he had to drill it into us most nights, nearly every night actually, that we were as good as what was about."

The Donegal dressing-room is a different place now. The team McGee joined and the one he left behind were diametrically opposed environments.

"Massive difference. Even on that point, everything got out. The unit wasn't tight in terms of respect for the jersey and for Donegal GAA.

"It wasn't where it should be. How we lived our lifestyle. We were away blaming managers, tactics, looking at Armagh thinking, 'they have a system, we don't have a system', looking at Tyrone thinking, 'they have a system, we don't have a system'. Very rarely did we look at ourselves and think, 'what are we not doing here?' or, 'where's our attitude here?'.

"McGuinness knew there were good players there, there have always been good players in Donegal and one of the debates at the wedding at the weekend was that team from the early noughties up to '08, could they have won more? Probably if we had the right mindset, we would have won more."

Those are the what-ifs. The memories will have to do.

"At the wedding there I was with (Colm) McFadden and 'Big Neil' (Gallagher) and we were chatting that they were brilliant times.

"It's only now that you can sit back and talk away about winning and medals and Ulster titles and that craic. But it's the moments, they're the most important thing."

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