BY CHRIS MCNULTY
EAMON McGee shudders at the very hint that Donegal turned in a near-perfect performance in the first half of the win over Armagh.
Donegal led by ten points at half-time and ended up winning by nine with their machine in cruise control for the second half.
McGee switched on the Sunday Game that night, but ‘nearly had to mute it because it was so cringy’. Donegal’s display dazzled pundits, who suddenly had new admiration for Rory Gallagher’s side.
It takes McGee back to a team meeting in the autumn of 2012. Donegal had just put Kerry to the sword in an All-Ireland quarter-final and McGee felt they’d done all they could against the Kingdom.
Kieran Donaghy got in ahead of the Gaoth Dobhair man for a late goal and Donegal were nervous in the late minutes, but a Karl Lacey point steadied the wobbles. They met a few days later for video analysis.
“You never get the perfect performance,” McGee says.
“I remember after we beat Kerry in the quarter-final, going in to the video analysis of the game thinking: ‘Jesus, there’ll be nothing to give out about here’.
“Jim (McGuinness) was going off his head. It was one of the worst actually. We soon realised that we had plenty to work on.”
It was a night that made McGee take note and it immediately came to mind as the garlands were flung at Donegal in the aftermath of what was an admittedly impressive display against Armagh.
“All of a sudden we’re this great big team,” McGee says dismissively.
“We’ve still got a lot of stuff to work on. We’re a work in progress still.
“I’d pay no heed to what’s being said and it’s the same with the negative stuff. It is easier to take the positive stuff alright, but we have the panel of players to stay focussed and not let that stuff get in the way; it won’t make a blind bit of difference.
“But the way people are talking about us, I think Derry are sitting in an ideal place.
“We’re about long enough to know that we can’t go into the Derry game with the chests out thinking we’re great. We’re not kidding ourselves.”
There was a time, though, when McGee nor Donegal had that sense of maturity. He thinks of the day they beat Tyrone in 2004 and were hammered by Armagh next time out; or in 2007 when Tyrone put them to the sword on the back of defeating Armagh in Ballybofey.
“Back then, we were so naïve,” McGee says.
“We beat Tyrone and those were the days then when we did have the chests out going: ‘We’re here now’. We were so far off against Armagh it was unreal.
“It was the same when we got the Armagh monkey off the back in ‘07 and we got hammered by Tyrone. We were miles away.
“From the day you start out playing county football, the aim was to win Sam Maguire – we just never knew how to do it.
“Every game now is a part of the path to doing that. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about winning the All-Ireland; it’s about winning whatever game is next.”
This year, for the first time ever, Donegal have beaten both Tyrone and Armagh in the one summer. Two of the heavyweights are already sliced by Donegal’s blade, but McGee again reminds himself of more recent times of promise that didn’t have happy endings.
“Listen, we went out and beat two Division 1 teams in 2013,” he points out.
“We got over Tyrone – that was a game we were gearing for months beforehand – and Down, but we lost to Monaghan in the Ulster final.
“That Monaghan game sticks out. It never seems to be games that you win that stick out. We got to an Ulster final, but we lost. The point is: You can’t pat yourself on the back midway through the season. That only comes at the end of the season.
“We’ve set ourselves such high standards now that it’s games like those defeats to Monaghan and Mayo (the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final) that stand out.
“Obviously we have to get credit for the games we’ve won and the amount of them, but we just haven’t been happy with those defeats so they’re still there in the mind.
“There were a couple of really bad sticking points from 2012 as well, you know – the goals against Kerry and Cork.
“We were a tight defensive unit and we gave away two soft goals. I was actually disgusted when I saw them. Goals are a huge score in today’s game so keeping them out is a priority now for defenders.
“There have been bad days, but I’d like to think that I retain reasonably high standards.”
The United Healthcare employee was unlucky to miss out on an All-Star both in 2012 and 2014 when Donegal reached the All-Ireland finals.
Although withdrawn injured at half-time with an ankle injury he hopes to have shaken off by Saturday evening, McGee contributed to a defence that conceded just two scoreable frees across 70 minutes at the Athletic Grounds.
“Everyone is working hard to improve,” he says.
“You look at Michael Murphy pointing frees from 60 yards out, so we have to raise our standards. We have to take the same kind of pride in what we do as defenders and that was something we were very happy with the last day.”
Donegal have won 15 of their last 16 Ulster SFC games and Fermanagh are the only county in the province not to have been stung in that time. A suggestion was floated before the Tyrone game that Donegal might have been ‘better off’ taking the scenic route of the qualifiers to get to Croke Park.
McGee scoffs at the notion: “The best thing you can do for an All-Ireland is to go through the front door.
“A lot of people say that going through Ulster would take a lot out of you, but you’d be better geared going into an All-Ireland quarter-final from winning an Ulster title.”
McGee is now one of the last lines of defence where once he fancied himself playing further out the field – “ I used to think that I was a footballer, but I’m resigned now to the fact that I’m a defender,” he says – during the days when Brian McIver was Donegal’s manager.
McIver is now working Derry’s corner, but McGee holds him in high regard, even if he did drop him from his panel for a disciplinary breach in 2006.
McGee says: “There’s a lot I owe to Brian McIver. He was well within his rights to get shot of me but, at the same time, he believed in me and he stuck by me.
“It is definitely a regret that I didn’t buy into the whole elite athlete thing at the time. I didn’t really lose any sleep over it, but I didn’t repay the faith Brian showed in me.”
When Jim McGuinness came along in 2010 with his masterplan, McGee took more convincing than most. Whether it was the sceptic or the maverick in him, he didn’t come back until just before Championship the following year.
McGee remained on the periphery, but played in the All-Ireland quarter-final win over Kildare as a sub and started the semi-final loss to Dublin.
He hasn’t looked back, but McGee had to fight with himself more than anyone to stick at it when the going got tough.
He says: “You had no choice but to buy into it with Jim. Of course, I was in with notions of doing it my way, but Jim was quick to dispel that.
“I wouldn’t be fond of hard training and a lot of nights it was unbelievably hard. You ask yourself: ‘Do I want to do this to myself?’ I said at one stage: ‘I can’t be f****** bothered with this’.
“That wee voice gets louder as the training gets harder. You just have to not give in to that wee voice. There’s something very satisfying about 30 men just putting the whole thing on the line like that. There’s a lot of energy coming from that.
“There were days when I felt really sorry for myself. I was playing well in training, but I doubted myself.
“I was at the top of my game, marking Murphy and Colm (McFadden). The tighter I was marking them, the more they had to raise their game. It made me realise that the man at number 30 on the panel was as important as anyone else.
“That was a good education for me. I just kept knocking on the door.”
Practice doesn’t make perfect; rather, it reduces the imperfection: Just ask Eamon McGee, the footballer and the man.