Eamon McGee enjoyed interesting Donegal adventure
By Michael Devlin
Eamon McGee reckons Michael Murphy will be ‘the next Jim McGuinness’.
The Donegal great believes his former team-mate and current Tir Chonaill captain Murphy has all the attributes to be a top coach in the same vein of McGuinness, the mastermind of the county’s 2012 All-Ireland triumph.
“I meet Michael for a cup of coffee every two weeks or so, not as much as I’d like to with family and that, but we still chat away if I’ve any advice or need anything sounded off in terms of coaching. He’s so knowledgeable, he’s going to be a brilliant GAA coach. He’s going to be the next Jim McGuinness in my eyes. If there’s something there I need a hand with, I go to Michael.”
McGee has stayed in touch with his old Donegal comrades after retiring from the county scene in 2016. A few are involved in Declan Bonner’s current backroom setup. His own brother Neil is still commanding the full-back line.
Just last week, McGee was best man at Christy Toye’s wedding, and the occasion gave his generation a chance to reunite again and take a stroll down memory lane.
“Frank McGlynn is there with Donegal at the minute, Neil is there, he’s godfather to my daughter Daisy and doesn’t do enough babysitting as much as I’d like! Karl Lacey is there too, boys you’d have soldiered with. I might not see Karl for another six months, but there’s a bond there that you’ll always have.
“At Christy’s wedding, there would have been a lot of the 2012 team. It’s nice to reminisce, have that bit of nostalgia and a chat about different stories. We had a good debate, ‘Was there much silverware in that team?’.
“We all came to the conclusion that from the early noughties to 2008, we won a Division One title, and there was silverware in us, but we didn’t know how to go about it. I think Jim McGuinness, based with a core group of those players and then Michael Murphy’s Under 21 team, built the successful team.”
McGuinness didn’t just simply win Donegal another All-Ireland. He revolutionised the county’s footballing ethos, and rewrote the manual on how the modern game is played.
He rejuvenated careers too, not least McGee’s. McGuinness spent hours on the end of a phoneline to various players worn down by the spent regimes of previous managers, convincing them that his new way was the only way. McGee was a recipient of such a call, however he required a good deal more coaxing than some of his fellow cohorts.
He had been adrift from the Donegal county scene, turning out for London in Division Four for a stint. He was back in the yellow and green colours in 2010, in time for Armagh to dump John Joe Doherty’s side out in the first round of the qualifiers by nine points, after an Ulster exit at home to Down. McGee appeared off the bench, only to return to it again in the 65th minute for a double yellow sending-off.
It marked a low ebb for Donegal football. Doherty exited the hot seat, but in came the ultra-optimistic McGuinness with a head full of ideas and grand plans.
“He was talking about winning All-Irelands, and I was looking at him and thinking, ‘Jesus this man is off his head’,” says McGee. “We’d heard all this before from [Brian] McIver and [Brian] McEniff and John Joe Doherty, and I didn’t really believe him, so I just kept going on living my own lifestyle.
“Jim just said, ‘Listen, I’m not going to change my ways’. Other managers might have changed their ways to accommodate me, but Jim just said, ‘Look I’m just going to plough on without you’, and we parted ways.”
It took a few months into that season for McGee to relent to McGuinness’ charms and get with the program. He describes the attitude difference pre-Jim and post-Jim as “night and day”.
“Thankfully, we came back together and I kinda copped on, and we chatted again. Jim was looking cover in the full-back line and I was playing well for the club. Thankfully - because I would have missed out on a lot of things.
“The way you approached it and the way you respected the jersey, different things like the way you lived your life, you thought you were living an elite athlete’s life, but it was only when Jim showed you the real way and what that was about, that’s what it was about.
“Before, we were getting delusional too. We were wondering what the answer is, ‘Do we need to change our tactics or personnel or management?’. It was nothing to do with that. It was to do with how we were preparing ourselves and our attitudes.”
‘The System’, as it came to be known, was Donegal's style of play based on smothering the opposition’s attack via a supremely co-ordinated defensive shield that shut off the route to goal and retrieved the surrendered possession. From there came a counter-attack characterised by relentless running from deep.
It brought Donegal the Ulster title in 2011, but didn’t entice many fans in the subsequent All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, where they lost by two points in a game of attrition that yielded only 14 scores in total.
The following year, though, McGuinness went back and tweaked the process, incorporating a more piercing bite to their attack. It brought the good times back to Donegal, 20 years after their first Sam Maguire.
It was Donegal’s second All-Ireland title, but remains their last following defeat in the final to Kerry in 2014. While it was his generation’s ‘1992’ moment, McGee does not put himself on the same pantheon as Brian McEniff’s - not yet anyway.
“It terms of the legend thing, I don’t feel like one, and I think it’ll be another few years, when we look back, the people that have followed Donegal and have been involved in GAA might see it differently. For the minute, I don’t see myself on those terms.”
Eamon McGee believes he could have had another year at the top, maybe two, before calling time on his county career in 2016. However, the responsibilities of family life grew more substantial. Another factor was his desire to give something back to his club, Gaoth Dobhair.
“When we started off in the Gaoth Dobhair thing, it was just about steadying the ship,” he explains when speaking about getting the club back on track three years ago.
Ten years had passed since Gaoth Dobhair’s last county title in 2006. They’d been to a semi-final in 2008, and quarter-finals in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013. By 2016, Gaoth Dobhair had failed to qualify out of their group for three successive seasons.
The drought made eventually made stalwart Kevin Cassidy take stock and call time on his 18 year-senior club career. For the new season, the club turned to one of their own, the relatively inexperienced Mervyn O’Donnell, to halt the stagnation. His task was to usher in a promising Under 21 team to the senior ranks, but he needed the help of a few old heads.
“I met the management and said, ‘Yeah I’ll help out and we’ll stabilise the ship, there’s a good crop of young fellas coming through’,” says McGee. “It might be too late for the older lads, but we’ll get this thing sorted.
"We got to a semi-final the first year, and I kind of realised then that when you have responsibility like that, and in terms of Mervyn, he needed help in training a team, and it wasn’t going to be me because I still wanted to play, I didn’t want to be just taking drills."
“I recognised there was a good opportunity there for a good friend, Michael Boyle, who was on the 2012 team as sub-keeper. I approached him and asked him if he’d be interested, and thankfully he took it on board. He really took it to a new level altogether.”
A new level indeed. Gaoth Dobhair returned the Donegal title back to Magheragallon last year after a 0-17 to 1-7 over Naomh Conaill. Then in December, they became only the second Donegal side ever to win the Ulster Senior Football Championship with a one-point victory over Scotstown in an epic at Healy Park.
Cassidy, cajoled back in by O’Donnell, played a starring role at full forward, while brothers McGee, Neil and Eamon, operated at full back and half back respectively, anchoring a youthful, exuberant Gaoth Dobhair line-up. The fantasy season came to an end in the All-Ireland semi-final with defeat to eventual champions Corofin.
“Kevin was gone, he was finished,” says McGee. “He came back to help out Mervyn, his brother-in-law, just to steady the ship until the young lads come through. It was so nice for Kevin after him missing 2012 and the whole hullaballoo that went with that, that we was able to prove to people that he was still a top player, and what an addition he’d have been to Donegal if he’d stayed about.
“The personnel we had just lent itself to the way we played. We have a lot of energy, a lot of young lads. It was married into myself, Cass, Neil, and we just fed into the energy and helped them along. It was a refreshing style because the way Kevin was playing, people were saying the day of the full forward was over and there’s no point having someone inside there.
“I think Kevin showed that the kicking game does exist, and you have to utilise it. You have to coach how you kick into the full-forward line, it’s still there.
“We probably gave Corofin a very good game. But it was a lesson for us too that Corofin is the level you need to get to. From the analysis we were doing coming up to that semi-final that, whoever won would probably win the All-Ireland.
“That was in the back of our heads too, that if we could get over Corofin that we’d have too much for Dr Crokes. Unfortunately we couldn’t get near Corofin, they gave us a lesson that that’s what you need to do, and they are the teams you need to learn from.”
“I’ve never experienced it playing any teams on down the country. I can’t really explain it, I’ve tried to reason it or use logic why Ulster teams go at each other like that. I can’t explain it, that’s part of the Ulster championship, there is that wee bit of needle to it, and probably why people enjoy it so much.”
Eamon McGee is at odds to explain the fire and brimstone of the Ulster Championship. The competiveness, intensity and rivalry on show in the full-bloodied clashes thrown up by the completion yearly is something the Donegal man can certainly attest to, and more so when casting his eye over next weekend’s semi-final tie against familiar foes Tyrone.
“The Tyrone thing, we’ve built up a bit of a relationship with them down through the years, you don’t like losing to them,” says McGee.
“There were a few tight moments there with Tyrone in the past. There was a melee, I think is the best way of describing it, at halftime in one of them. We were going down the tunnel, and me and Gavin Devlin were just roaring in each other faces. Big Neil [Gallagher] was running about there too, big Joe McMahon. It was tight, I think there are a few photos going about! It was always a feisty enough affair playing Tyrone and we just developed that relationship down through the years.”
Donegal had to be patient at the weekend to overcome a stubborn Fermanagh outfit and book a date with the Red Hands, but McGee has seen evidence so far this season to suggest that Mickey Harte’s men are a bit more susceptible than last year, when Tyrone shifted through the gears to see off Donegal by seven points up in Ballybofey.
“Coming out of the weekend, Donegal had done enough to get over Fermanagh. They probably struggled in the first half against the defensive blanket. The way Tyrone are playing though, they are conceding more goals.
“If Donegal can go on, they talk about the provincials losing their value, but it’s still a big thing if Donegal can get to another Ulster final and win it.”