WHEN his iPhone buzzed at around 10.50pm on Friday, Eamon McGee felt like he’d been ‘hit by a bag of bricks’.
Somewhere in his mind he’d expected the news, but when it came the confirmation cut deep.
The ‘journey’ was over.
Jim McGuinness’s group text to his players, backroom team and county board officials brought closure to his successful four-year term as Donegal senior manager, a sojourn that lasted five years when the Under-21 campaign of 2010 is included.
For McGee, the journey was as much about a personal battle as the war on the swards of Ballybofey, Clones and Croke Park.
The Gaoth Dobhair man didn’t last those initial months and he was playing for London in Division 4 while Donegal were making noises on their way to winning Division 2.
When Championship 2011 came around McGee was back in the fold, but game time was limited to a substitute’s role against Kildare in the All-Ireland quarter-final and a start against Dublin in that much-discussed semi-final.
Since then, McGee became one of McGuinness’s bedrocks.
In many ways, McGee’s life turned around when McGuinness came knocking in the spring of 2011. It’s why Friday night’s finality felt so raw.
“I was just kind of shocked,” McGee said.
“It was like when the girlfriend walks out on you – there she is, gone, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“I just felt shocked. We had a meeting in the club and I wasn’t long back when the message came through. When I read the text if felt like getting hit by a bag of bricks. There was probably an inkling that it was coming, but when that becomes reality…
“It is testament to the bonds we have made that we feel the way we do.”
When Donegal won Sam Maguire in 2012, McGee – even in the euphoric minutes with 40,000 Donegal people dancing around them – could find time for a quiet moment with his manager in the middle of Croke Park.
With three Ulster Championships and that All-Ireland won in the last four years, it is striking that this is the very moment that stands out for McGee above all others.
“Myself and Jim shared a minute after the final whistle in 2012 when there were celebrations going on – it was a very powerful moment,” the defender said.
“Maybe we will look back on that in years to come. It was vindication of everything Jim did and the faith he had put in me. It was just me thanking him for what he’d done for me.
“I have three Ulster medals and an All-Ireland, I’m playing good football and I’m happy with where I’m at, but, looking at it outside of football, I would have struggled, if Jim hadn’t come to me the second time, to play senior football.
“I was going in a bad direction in my life and there was a lot of work for me to do. Jim showed belief in me and he brought focus to me. I owe him so, so much.
“He had plenty of under-21s he could have turned to and he already had a good squad of players so it would have been easy for him to turn his back on me. I will be eternally grateful to him.
“He came and met me here in the sitting room. He said he had belief in me and had good time for me and that’s why he came back.”
McGee played his 100th game for Donegal in the 2012 final. There were times previously when he wondered if he’d line out for the county again. That year he was unlucky to miss out on an All-Star award and he showed All-Star form this summer again as Donegal recaptured their Ulster title.
McGee is glad his head was turned by that visit from McGuinness.
He said: “I had always believed in myself. Sometimes that was warranted and sometimes it wasn’t. Once I saw the mentality of what Jim wanted and saw what he was bringing it completely switched my way of thinking.
“It’s been phenomenal, unbelievable actually. To think that we’ve win three Ulsters and an All-Ireland, but also to see the stuff that goes on behind the scenes and men emptying their bodies, men being sick, all that hard training and also the craic, it was unbelievable.
“It will stick with me forever.”
In the early days, when he rain swirled and the wind in Castlefin howled in their faces, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Some nights the drive back around Errigal seemed to have lengthened.
McGee said: “It wasn’t enjoyable and there were many times where I thought about saying: ‘will you f*** off!’
“It was just so tough and you were asking yourself why you were doing it. When you break through that wall, that’s what makes it worthwhile. We will always share that. We were on the limit and we could go no further.”
McGee believes that Donegal is perfectly poised to kick on and continue in the successful tone started off by McGuinness’s reign, unlike in the years after the 1992 capture of Sam Maguire – a famine that only ended in 2011.
He said: “I don’t think the county built on ’92 the way it should have. The structures weren’t put in place and we have to be careful we don’t go the same way again. We have a great opportunity now. The culture now is there where kids want to wear the Donegal jersey and every kid wants to play for Donegal. When you have that it is inevitable that you’ll get good players.”
McGee still feels the All-Ireland final pain, just two weeks on from the three-point defeat by Kerry. The haunting images are still spinning in his mind.
He said: “For the first few days after the final it didn’t sink in. On the Wednesday and Thursday I’d day I was at the lowest point ever in football. I couldn’t put into words the disappointment. We just didn’t reach that level and we will have to live with that.
“We gave it our all and we trained very hard. We got ourselves to come back from the Mayo defeat last year. We were going from very early on and we put massive effort it. We put it in for ourselves to say that we weren’t finished. It was going well for us but it just didn’t happen for us on the most important day.”
McGee understands McGuinness’s reasons for stepping aside and will take time now before making his mind up about his own inter-county future.
He said: “When you sit back and look at it logically you can see why he’s not stayed. Look at what he has put on hold this last five years. It was very hard for him and he gave his absolute heart and soul for Donegal.
“If Jim had stayed it would have been very hard to walk away. It’s not a decision that will be made today or tomorrow. I’ll just sit and see what the craic is.”