GAA Football

Neil McGee hoping to bring an end to barren spell with Donegal

Neil McGee played 51 consecutive Championship matches for Donegal
Andy Watters

THE morning after the 2014 All-Ireland final, journalists descended on Donegal’s base in the CityWest Hotel in Dublin.

The big story would be whether Jim McGuinness would confirm the end of his four-year reign as county manager and while we waited Donegal’s players – who had been beaten by Kerry the previous day – drowned their sorrows over a few quiet drinks.

Requests for interviews were turned down by all and sundry, bar Neil McGee.

McGee – who had held 2014 Footballer of the Year James O’Donoghue scoreless in the final - answered our questions.

Would he retire?

“No, sure I’m only a young fella.”

Would Eamonn (his brother) retire?

“I dunno, you would need to ask him.”

Would McGuinness retire?

“Och, I hope not.”

A while later, McGuinness entered the lobby but he was giving nothing away.

“Now’s not the time for making any rash decisions…”

Fast forward to today and McGee, having lost two Ulster finals since, is still searching for his fifth Championship medal with Donegal.

McGuinness has gone, Eamonn and several others have departed too, leaving him one of the remaining old-hands in the Tir Chonaill ranks.

Aged 31, he is at the peak of his powers. Quick over the ground, rock-hard and tenacious, he is a physically-intimidating defender whose footballing ability is often under-rated.

Suspension last year after a red card against Fermanagh broke a run of 51 consecutive Championship games that had yielded three Ulster titles, the 2012 All-Ireland and three Allstars too.

Nowadays he makes the trip from his native Gweedore to county training with fresh-faced clubmates Kieran Gillespie, Michael Carroll and Cian Mulligan in the car. All three have graduated from the U21s to the senior ranks.

“I give them plenty of tips,” says McGee with a chuckle (he doesn’t elaborate on what those tips relate to).

He was even younger than his new car-share buddies when Brian McEniff first called him on to the panel. The old hands back then were the likes of Adrian Sweeney, Michael Hegarty, Brian Roper and Barry Monaghan and 18-year-old McGee had to bide his time, watch and learn, until Brian McIver replaced McEniff and threw him into the fray. The Ballinderry man took Donegal to a National League title but couldn’t crack the Championship code and, after his exit, John Joe Doherty had an ill-fated one-season spell in charge.

Doherty bowed out after losing to Armagh in a Qualifier at Crossmaglen but his unsuccessful tenure had the effect of holding a mirror up to the squad and the players realised there was much more in them than they were producing. So when the Jim McGuinness era began later in 2010, he inherited a group of players who wanted to commit to the cause and knew they had to work for success.

“Jim came in and everyone came in behind him and I suppose the rest is history,” McGee recalled.

“The first day he came in he spoke to us and everybody was fixed in and focussed straight away. When we were heading home we were just looking forward to getting down to training. We first met at the weekend and we were training on a Tuesday and everyone was looking forward to getting started.”

One of the few who remained sceptical was his brother Eamonn who soon found himself out of the panel. For a while, Neil was under orders not to discuss county training with his brother and even had to tell him to stop asking about it.

Eventually Eamonn was brought back into the fold and the group knuckled down to the McGuinness principles of hard work and absolute commitment.

“We got down to training and hard work,” says Neil.

“There’s no real secret to it other than that.

“You can do all the talking you want but you have to put in the hard work or you’ll get nothing out of it. A lot of teams will meet at the start of the year and say they’re going to do this and they’re going to do that but, when it comes to it, people don’t want to put in the hard work. If you have 30 boys willing to do the hard work you’re on a winner then.”

The work ethic that McGuinness brought in has been carried on by his former assistant, Rory Gallagher. Gallagher is managing the transition between the glory days of the past and success in the present and the future.

“Rory has put his stamp on things,” said McGee.

“I suppose the likes of myself, Frank (McGlynn), Karl (Lacey), even Michael (Murphy) are probably the elder statesmen. It’s just another phase of your career.”

McGee was bitterly disappointed to lose the last two Ulster finals (by a point against Monaghan in 2015 and by two against Tyrone last year), and he has targeted an Anglo-Celt Cup this year.

First up is Antrim, then the winners of Tyrone v Derry and the consensus is that it will be Monaghan in the final. He sees winning Ulster as the ideal platform from which to kick on to the showdowns in Croke Park, but whatever route Donegal take to Dublin, he’ll be the man tasked with keeping the oppositions’ best forward in check.

Football has changed, but throughout his time at county level McGee has been a constant in the centre of defence.

“I never really got much of a chance out the field because there was that many good footballers about – I turned up and got put at full-back and I was stuck there,” he says.

“I’ve played midfield, full-forward… all over for the club. I’m more full-back or centre-back now but it depends on the opposition. I’m comfortable enough out the field.

“Full-back suits me too, it’s not an easy job and you have a different task in every game – you could be marking a big man or a small man… There’s all sorts of different players but you take nobody for granted, particularly at county level.

“The day you start standing off a man, even if it’s against a weaker county, you’re in trouble because he can still pop the ball over the bar.

“Nowadays there’s not as much ball being directly kicked in to the full-forward line – the forwards are playing off loops and living on scraps so you just have to stand with them the whole time, they’re just looking you to stand off them and then, the next thing you know, the ball’s over the bar.

“It’s more about concentration than anything now.”

He has covered a lot of miles – on the road and on the pitch – since he began but his commitment has never dipped. He still loves training and the buzz of the game.

“When we started we weren’t really that successful,” he says.

“But now we’re in the top five or six teams in the country consistently and we have a good environment there with the county scene, so it’s a good thing to be part of.”

There was nothing to celebrate that day in the CityWest and there hasn't been since, McGee intends to end that barren run this year.

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