HE WON’T lose much sleep wondering what might have been, but Eamon McGee is determined not to have any more regrets.
He’s contented as he talks of the lost years; relaxed as he mentions the All-Star he could’ve had; and the years when he was the cover image of the group he famously dubbed Donegal’s ‘tracksuit ravers’.
McGee will play in his fourth Donegal SFC final this afternoon, his first having been the delayed 2002 decider against St Eunan’s that was finally played in early 2003.
He was a sub and introduced, still a teenager, for his first taste of the big stage. They beat St Eunan’s to end a Gaoth Dobhair famine stretching to 1961.
In 2006, they did it again. And then the curtain fell again.
“Looking back, we wee a good bit off, but we managed to get a Championship,” McGee says as he readies himself for a battle with Naomh Conaill in Ballybofey today.
“We should have got another Championship out of that group.”
It is that knowing that is driving him not to leave it behind today.
Gaoth Dobhair put it all on the line at Sean MacCumhaill Park. Dr Maguire is pushed to the middle of the table and they have the Seamus McFerran Cup – the Ulster title they won last December – adding considerable weight to their stake money.
Gaoth Dobhair went where no Donegal team since the St Joseph’s amalgamation in 1975.
“We didn’t give a hoot about Ulster in ’06,” he points out.
“We just partied hard. Declan came in and started talking about giving Crossmaglen a good rattle. We didn’t appreciate it. We just assumed that we’d get beat so we figured that we’d just enjoy it.
“There was a mentality that we accepted in Donegal. It is how you approach things.
“Do teams just accept that they’re below Dublin? Do teams accept that they’re below Kerry?
“Our young bucks just came in and didn’t accept that they couldn’t do well in Ulster. It was about a mentality.
“It’s like the Roger Bannister thing. Once he broke the four-minute mile, everyone did it. It was all to do with a mentality.
“It’s not as if we had different players from Tyrone or Armagh. It was just the approach. It was like an inferiority complex. Jim talked a lot about that when he came in, where we were almost in awe of these players and these teams. That was part of the problem for Donegal teams.”
The necks always craned in Gaoth Dobhair’s direction.
That was down to their history. Even through the barren years, the county waited and wondered when their next would come. 2002/03 was a massive moment and 2006 should have been the start of something special.
“We didn’t know how,” McGee says.
“There is a lot of talk of game plans, but we were very basic. You have to learn how to win – and we’ve done that over the last few years.
“We had to do that with Donegal, too. You have your game plans and your structures, but you have to learn how to win, too. We just didn’t know how to win big games.
“We thought that we ticked every box. It’s only now when you win that we realise how far away we were in training, set-up and attitude. Everything just wasn’t conducive to a successful dressing room.”
In February, the night Gaoth Dobhair lost out to Corofin in the All-Ireland club semi-final, they toasted the historic season in Teach Mhicí. McGee was absent. Instead, he was at the 3Arena in Dublin at a show by Brian Cox, the physicist whose performance featured a talk on, among other topics, ‘man’s origin and the evolution of the solar system and the universe.’
He says: “Even when we won the Ulster, I enjoyed it on the Sunday night..I’m at a different juncture now to a few younger boys.
“I just got out of town once the hard partying started.”
It was not always the way, but he’s certainly not going to be weighed down by regrets.
He knows how fortunate he was to be given another go by Jim McGuinness in 2011. McGuinness became the latest Donegal manager to give McGee the wrath for a breach of discipline, but the player proved his worth and was a central figure in the 2012 All-Ireland win.
“I’ll sleep easy,” he says.
“Ideally, I’d like to have given everything and conducted myself better. Don’t be an eejit and all of that. The fact is that I don’t have an All-Star…”
His brother, Neil, has three of them.
You wonder if the absence of his own is an annoyance.
“If I had played my career right and loved the way I could have, I think I would have one,” he says.
“Will I lose much sleep? No. That’s just part of the path I could have taken and the path I did. I got medals out of it and it was just a part of the journey of life.”
His own journey mirrors that of Gaoth Dobhair in so many ways.
They, too, are grabbing another chance.
When the nights darkened in 2016, Kevin Cassidy pulled the plug. Gaoth Dobhair hadn’t made it out of the group, their campaign ending with a damaging 2-18 to 0-11 loss to Naomh Conaill in Glenties. The 13-point defeat left searching questions around Magheragallon.
Of the Gaoth Dobhair team that started that night, 14 of them will be vying for starting spot this afternoon. Jamie Reynolds, now in Australia, is the sole exception.
McGee wanted to give something back and offered his assistance to Mervyn O’Donnell, who became the latest man to sip from the poisoned chalice when he succeeded Conal Sheridan as team manager.
“We always hear that we’re different,” McGee says.
“There’s a wee bit of rawness there and I actually learned that too.
“I came in with this crazy idea of getting the lads out at seven o’clock in the morning and go for a job, real military stuff. It failed miserably. About six players turned up and two of them were half-cut. I just thought: ‘We need a different approach here!’”
On duty with Donegal, McGee roomed with Michael Boyle and struck up a close relationship with the Termon goalkeeper.
McGee could sense something stirring in Boyle’s coaching career.
In the first year under O’Donnell, 2017, Gaoth Dobhair reached a semi-final – their first since 2006 – that they left behind having built up a handsome lead.
Boyle had barely passed the 30 mark when he was appointed as trainer that winter. Cynical eyes looked and wondered how it would work.
“There were plenty of f***** egos in there,” McGee agrees.
“It could be intimidating, but Michael backed himself. He knew what it was about. He had a plan and said: ‘This is it, listen to me’. There were plenty of times, I’d say, where he was ready to walk up the road. He learned how to deal with us.
“I’ve roomed Boyler. I have a good insight into what Michael Boyle is capable of. I remember, we were sitting in a group, chatting about different things and I said to him: ‘Listen, you keep educating yourself and keep going at it because I’ll get you on board in Gaoth Dobhair’. He has fast-forwarded that.”
The personnel has hardly changed since 2016, when Gaoth Dobhair suffered the ignominy of not making it through the group phase.
They had become soft; a trait rarely known to teams that wore the famous green and white.
“We hit rock bottom and that’s what changed us,” McGee says.
“The successful group came through the slumber and added energy. Mervyn was open to new ideas. We laid solid foundations in the first year. Glenties beat us, but that was a part of it. We had progressed.
“Part of me, maybe the biggest part of it at the time, giving up county football was that I wanted to give something back to the club. I could have played county football for another year or probably two. I wanted to give something constructive in. I said I would give Mervyn a hand out.“
The group had another chance – and boy did they grasp it.
The near miss of letting a six-point lead slip against Naomh Conaill in a 2017 semi-final proved something to Gaoth Dobhair: They could compete again.
Knowing the years they left behind is perhaps motivating Gaoth Dobhair to succeed even more now.
They’re living in the moment, but the meaning of what’s at stake this afternoon is by no means lost. Nor, indeed, are the stories and the history that has gone before them in Magheragallon.
McGee says: “Back-to-back would be a massive thing and a great notch to have.
“To be part of a team that does a back-to-back; I’ve never been part of a team that’s gone out and won it two years in a row, be it college, club or county. For us to do that would be massive.
“Also in terms of this team, that we have something that will reach across years and people will talk about the Gaoth Dobhair team of this era.”
McGee is mature now, a thinker whose strong-minded views on various topics have led to all sorts of clashes and charged debates.
He has relayed his own story to the class of tomorrow at times.
“I just try to keep them on the straight and narrow,” he says.
“I remember saying it to one of the ‘problem children’ in the club, one of the younger bucks: ‘You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to create all that hassle, live like a wild child and miss out on so much. You can actually mature now, just do things the right way instead of going against the tide all of the time.’ That’s what I try to impart now.
“I was really, really lucky that things worked out. A lot of people don’t get the second or third chances.”Tags: