By Harry Walsh
COMPETITIVE sport by its very nature is a selfish pursuit, one in which things such as dignity, grace and humility are often replaced by blood, sweat and tears.
Over the past five years, each and every member of the Donegal squad has made intensely personal sacrifices in order to fuel the desire to achieve.
Effectively, they’ve put their lives on hold and in years to come it is those three nouns – dignity, grace and humility – which will be remembered as the greatest gift this current Donegal squad has given the county’s sports fans.
Not every athlete possesses these qualities because sport is, by nature, ruthless and it’s ironic therefore that they’re best embodied within the Donegal camp by Eamon McGee.
There’s no more competitive man on a football pitch than the Gaoth Dobhair defender. He’s mean, he’s tough but most of all he’s proud.
Speaking outside the Donegal dressing room before boarding the team bus on Saturday evening his first thoughts were on the health of his brother Neil who had been taken to hospital earlier with a suspected punctured lung.
He was also full of praise for Mayo and he’s sincere when he says that he hopes that the Connacht champions can finally win an All-Ireland title this year.
“Neil is a big leader for us. Neil, Michael (Murphy) and Neil Gallagher are the three spiritual leaders of the team. He’s away to hospital with a suspected punctured lung. It’s not nice to hear about your brother. Hopefully he’ll be alright,” he said.
The younger McGee was injured when he was inadvertently the meat in a sandwich in a challenge between Donegal ‘keeper Paul Durcan and Aidan O’Shea. Bravely, he battled on until half-time and while he did return for the start of the second half his game was over within two minutes of the restart.
Reflecting back on the game, Eamon McGee said that he was disappointed by the nature of the Donegal performance.
“I’m sure everyone will agree it’s not a true reflection of the team and, on a personal level, it’s just very disappointing. I just didn’t get up to the level and, unfortunately, as a team were never got over the line,” he said.
The Gaoth Dobhair man limped out of action during the win over Galway at Croke Park a week later with an ankle injury.
“I was nowhere near the pace of it. The last few weeks have been a torture with the ankle. I’m not like Michael Murphy who has the natural ability to carry him through even if he’s not training. I don’t have that and I need to be training at a high level. It showed out there today. I didn’t train but I was fit enough to start and should have been able to go out there and perform but unfortunately it wasn’t to be,” he said.
While Donegal didn’t play well on the day, they very nearly went into the break just one point off the pace.
“We would have been happy enough but that goal was a big blow to take. The ball went into Aidan and Neil, in fairness, was having a good battle with him in there. It doesn’t matter what you do though Aidan O’Shea is going to win a few balls and, unfortunately, he won one in the danger area and it resulted in a goal. It was a massive lift for Mayo,” he said.
Still, the half-time whistle allowed Donegal time to regroup and gets themselves organised ahead of the second half.
“The plan was to come out and blow it out for the first 10 minutes and try and see where we were then, but then Lee Keegan scored a second goal,” he said.
Was the Mayo wing-back going for a goal or a point?
“It doesn’t matter. We can’t say it was a lucky goal. It’s a goal and we never got up to the level,” he said.
One of the elder statesmen within the Donegal squad, McGee was also asked about his future plans.
“The stand under Croke Park is never the place to make decisions on your future. We’ll see. There’s lot of factors to weigh up. It’s the same as last year after the final. We’ll wait and see,” he said.
“We didn’t do ourselves justice out there today and that would definitely be a positive factor to come back again but every year there’s more and more factors on the negative side. We’ll sit down and see what happens in time,” he said.
He saved his parting words for Mayo.
“Mayo are a good team. They have progressed under James Horan over the past four years and they’re back here again this time around.
“After losing the All-Ireland last year it’s given me a whole new level of respect for the likes of Mayo who keep coming back again and again and there would be no one happier than me to see Mayo go on and break their duck,” he said.
Few Donegal supporters would disagree with those sentiments but they would be happier again should Eamon McGee commit to another year in the Donegal jersey come the summer of 2016.
Donegal Together For Yes will launch its campaign at 6pm this evening, Friday, in Jackson’s Hotel, Ballybofey.