When Neil McGee read the list of names selected for a Donegal minor trial, he felt indignant.
His reaction, 16 years ago now, was typical of the Gaoth Dobhair man.
His brother, Eamon, was among the names on the page. Generally, the note in the local paper was how players learned of their selections.
Picture: Neil McGee in action for Gaoth Dobhair. Picture by Aodh Máirtín Ó Fearraigh
Neil, then a promising midfielder with Gaoth Dobhair, stared at the page and could come up with only one conclusion.
“I read them and thought: ‘Jeez, there must be a mistake there’,” he says.
He had a conclusion and a solution all at once.
When Paddy Hegarty blew the whistle on the Saturday morning in Drumboe, Neil McGee was on the field.
“I just landed up,” he shrugs now.
“I just went up because I thought I’d make it. I just thought I should be on it.
“I wasn’t asked to go up, but I went up anyway and they threw me in. I played every game from that.
“I’d been playing midfield up to then. They threw me in at corner-back. It was the only position that was open. I was flying at the trials and I didn’t move out of corner-back for a long time after it.”
With three All-Stars – all of them at a full-back – in 2001, 2012 and 2014, McGee has developed into one of the most feared defenders in the land.
He has played 170 times for Donegal with a record 66 Championship appearances for the county. He made 51 consecutive Championship appearances over an 11-year period before a red card against Fermanagh in 2016 meant he missed a drawn semi-final with Monaghan.
This year, he was sent off in the Ulster semi-final win over Down and watched the Ulster final win over Fermanagh from the Gerry Arthurs Stand in Clones.
“When you play on the edge, it’s a thin line,” he says.
“I play better on the edge. When you’re in there, it’s survival. You’re just taking on your man. It’s probably gone a wee bit from the game.
“I used to love going to play the International Rules for that reason. There was that direct combat. That challenge of one-v-one from direct ball in.
“I take great pride in it. I do play on the edge. Sometimes I go over it. It’s a thin line and you have to stay within the edge instead of going over it. Up to the last couple of years, my disciplinary record was A1.”
McGee is moulded from tough Gaoth Dobhair steel and never was one to shirk the big task.
He was only 16 when, in April 2003, he played for Gaoth Dobhair in the senior championship final win over St Eunan’s.
In those days, 16-year-olds were permitted to grace such stages.
In a final delayed from the previous year because of a boardroom battle, McGee was put on Brendan Devenney. The week previous, Devenney hit 1-6 for Donegal in a League win over Roscommon. In the final, he met his match as McGee kept him to 0-3 – with two of those from play.
McGee says: “Devenney was red hot. He beat Roscommon on his own the week before and I was thinking going into the game that the was the top man in Ulster.
“I held him well that day.
“I didn’t even think about it. I just came out of under-16s, like, you didn’t really think too much about stuff.
“I was always getting ready to play full-back. Back then it was a specialist position. You had to do you time at corner-back before you could step in. It was like an apprenticeship.”
Gaoth Dobhair have won only two of their 14 Senior Championships since 1961. In modern times, their record has been far from impressive.
In has first year at the helm in 2017, Mervyn O’Donnell guided them to a first semi-final in 11 years and the buds were starting to bloom. The addition of Michael Boyle to the coaching team has helped the Magheragallon men take the next step.
“Michael brings a lot of experience with him,” McGee says.
“Michael has been top class. he’s got a good future for him. Everything has to be right, on time and organised. I’d be like that too.
“We used to get that a lot: ‘Aww, youse are coming back from the county and expecting everything’. You just want the best.”
He describes himself as ‘cranky’ on the week of a game.
This Sunday, they stand toe-to-toe with Naomh Conaill – a side he says Gaoth Dobhair studied in a lot of ways.
He says: “We’re up against Glenties and they’ve been there and done that. We used to look at Glenties. They had county players and they came back to their clubs and gelled. They were able to do it every year.”
Gaoth Dobhair looked destined for a final last year, but were pipped by Naomh Conaill in a semi-final Gaoth Dobhair let slip.
“We’re smarter this year,” McGee points out.
Certainly, they’ve shown themselves to be quite adept at whatever has been thrown at them.
Just one hurdle remains now – but it’s a Naomh Conaill that will be in a sixth final in 10 years.
Gaoth Dobhair aren’t so much knocking at the door as ready to break it down from its hinges.
“If we could get one,” says McGee.
“There is a good crop in Gaoth Dobhair now. You see teams coming with a good crop of players, they don’t get one and maybe they just fade away.
“Everything is there. We have the youth, the experience. We’re ready for it.”Tags: