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Eamon McGee: A safe pair of hands

DON THING: Eamon McGee protects possession during Donegal’s 2012 All-Ireland final victory over Mayo. Picture by Colm Reilly 
Gerry McLaughlin

Slán go fóill, Eamon... It felt a bit like Paul Brady’s ‘Long Goodbye’ as Donegal Gaels sad Slán to Eamon McGee and Colm Anthony McFadden in the packed Abbey Hotel.

Naturally the deserved tributes flowed like water and were richly deserved. But it must be stated that Eamon McGee was always much more than a very good defender who could stop opponents from playing.

He was also an extremely skilful player, an outstanding soccer player, who seemed to glide over the ground, was marking space long before it became fashionable and could pick out a colleague with an inch perfect pass.

Eamon was never the fastest, but he could read the game as easily as his taste in books, which could only be described as eclectic.

And in an era of bland, rehearsed soundbites that mirrors the fear of losing and making a mistake, he always had something to say.

Even better for journalists, like his equally iconic Gaoth Dobhair comrade Kevin Cassidy he liked to sometimes live on the edge.

For true mavericks and free spirits always make memories brighter on these long winter nights when there is no more football, just an odd “debate” (they are becoming scarcer as the dreaded consensus infects the gentle persons of the press).

‘Safe’ was never a word you could use about this tall, lean, graceful citizen of Dore in the kingdom of Gaoth Dobhair as you could never quite guess exactly what he was going to come out with next.

Maybe Eamon was not too sure himself, but who really cares? It only added to his humanity and life would be very dull if we did not have that je ne sais quoi, that frisson that keeps you mostly awake, alert and expectant.

For example there are not too many players who could seriously get away with telling a journalist on one occasion that “he wished he had Ricey McMenamin’s vocabulary”.

But ‘safe’ was certainly a word you could us about his defensive qualities and he perhaps does not quite get the credit he deserves for that outside his team-mates.

He immediately had a few ‘focail on gcroi’ for the late great Seamus Mac Geidigh who “was always very good to me” in answer to Charlie Collins’s question about how it felt to win that elusive All-Ireland medal at last in 2012.

Also, he remains brutally honest about the pain of the one that definitely got away in 2014.

When Charlie throws in the line that “there was a few hairy moments in your career”, the question is not ducked, deflected or answered in a way that makes the questioner feel like a real numpty. 

“There have been ups and downs in the career and I have probably made every wrong decision a young fella can make,” he says.

And then he swiftly acknowledges the role of Jim McGuinness in helping him to “turn around things”.

And while he is looking forward to getting back to Gaoth Dobhair and hints that he might like to have a coaching role, there is room for another quip.

“Unfortunately, Ryan McHugh and Murphy and the boys have lost out on the two best card players on the team.”

When asked about what the night means to him, he immediately references a text message of good wishes from his old friend Neil Gallagher.

“I was there for 13 years, there was stuff about the team environment, shared moments with the lads over the years,” he said.

“That is one of the biggest things I will miss, seeing the lads every week and it’s testament to the trip we have been on.”

Of course, winning that All-Ireland title in 2012 was extra special.

“We were thinking we were never going to win one and 2012 was a big relief,” he adds.

“But it was not all about winning the medal, it was the journey to getting the medal that was most special.”

Yet 2014 will always be like a sharp stone in the shoe.

‘I have never experienced an atmosphere like the last five minutes in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin,” he states.

“You knew you were beating an unbeatable team and it had got through to you and it was some feeling.

“And then there is big regret that you just don’t go on and finish the deal.

“But it is not going to keep me up at night as we did everything right and it just did not work out for us on the day.

“It wasn’t that we messed about, we just did not play well on the day”.

And he is happy that he had given it everything. But in typical McGee fashion, he throws in the line that “he probably could have played for another year at county level”.

But now his aim is to “get something going with Gaoth Dobhair”.

When asked if there is county championship in Gaoth Dobhair, he replies: “We have only won two county championships in the past 50 years and we have a great tradition.

“Everybody knows the players are there so it is up to getting the best out of the players that we have.”

He has not ruled out getting involved with county development squads either.

‘The coaching is something I enjoy and I love learning about the game, and I will chat to a few people and dip my toe into it during the next few years,” he said.

“Once things settle down a bit at home and Daisy [his daughter] gets a bit older.

“I want to get into coaching and I feel I have something to pass on.”

These days he is experiencing the “joys” of being a columnist as the “feedback” comes, and he makes an interesting observation that might be very hard to keep.

“I don’t want to fall out with anybody, I don’t want to attack anybody, I just give my honest opinion,” he insists.

“This last few weeks there have been times that people have been upset with what I have said.

“It is something I was not prepared for and it is something I will have to learn and will have to develop a slightly thicker skin. I am sure that having been about the Donegal squad will have helped a bit.”

So are Donegal still serious contenders without Eamon McGee? Once again the response is direct and frank.

“Kieran Gillespie has come into the squad instead of me and if he keeps at it and keeps the head down he is going to be far better than Eamon McGee ever was,” he says.

Some would say Kieran Gillespie is built more in the mould of a different colossus, one called Neil McGee.

‘The future is good, we are competing in Ulster and All-Ireland minor finals and we are knocking on the door in the U21s.” McGee says.

“I think there was an inferiority complex with Donegal for a long time.

“When I was minor or U21 it was a case of we might win, and we very rarely did win, but there is an expectation now for minors and U21s to be getting to finals and that can only breed success.”

And will they win a badly-needed Ulster title?

“Donegal in my opinion will be in the Ulster final in 2017 again,” he says.

“Ryan McHugh, Michael Murphy, Frank McGlynn and Karl Lacey are all still there and Kieran Gillespie  and Ciaran Thompson coming on. When you have talent like that a provincial title is very much within their grasp.”

But he bemoaned the fact that the championship is “so lop-sided”.

“Ulster is so competitive but the best route is to go and win it, but we expend so much energy on winning it and the best route is route one.”

Slán go fóill, Eamonn...

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