BY CHRIS MCNULTY
IT’S SIX years now since a Donegal team last flew to a National Football League game.
It was a freezing Saturday in early February and a night that Brian McIver claimed at the time a win he termed the ‘highest point’ of his managerial career until then.
A two-point win on a bitter night in Pairc Ui Rinn set Donegal up for a campaign that saw Donegal become National League champions.
Donegal have had some long journeys since, not least the draining bus drip to Killarney last year for a game against Killarney they’d lose heavily, not helped by the fatigue of the miles.
Tomorrow’s trip is not unlike a home game for some players as they can be in Cork as quick as they’d be in Ballybofey, but Eamon McGee, you feel, would gladly set off by road.
The Gaoth Dobhair man has a flying phobia, ‘kinda like Denis Bergkamp’ (the former Arsenal player) he laughs.
“I think I might just get big Neil to knock me out before we leave!” he says of his plans before take off from Carrickfinn tomorrow morning.
Donegal come up against a Cork team they stunned in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final when Neil Gallagher lorded it at centrefield against a side regarded as one of the most physically imposing Gaelic football had ever seen.
The stakes aren’t as high tomorrow, but still there are points at stake that could go a long way in ‘putting the mind at ease’ as McGee says.
“Division 1 is where you want to be,” the defender says.
“It’s the place to be. It would be different if you had a new manager in and he was trying to build some positivity.
“We are at a stage of being competitive now so we need to be playing against these teams.
“People say that the League doesn’t matter, but we’ve got a glimpse of what is hopefully ahead: We’ve got a glimpse of Sean Cavanagh and we saw Kieran Donaghy last week. He gave us bother when he went inside so we have that to work on.”
Donegal work now with the ‘bigger picture’ in mind and McGee was glad to get a close up of Donaghy last Sunday. Even if Donegal were winning comfortably, the game still afforded him a chance to get reacquainted with the Kerryman.
The graph has been somewhat skewed for teams this year; only Dublin have been consistently impressing in Division 1. But, for McGee, there is contentment with how the season has been advancing.
“At the end of the day, though, this time of the year is about getting performances, not results,” he says.
“You want to be heading in the right direction. Looking at the Tyrone and Kerry games, we didn’t go in that direction against Tyrone, we just weren’t intense enough; Kerry wasn’t 100 per cent or anywhere near it, but at least it was going in the right direction.
“We’re nowhere near where we want to be at the moment. There are a few men who are only coming back from injury now. It’s fair to say that we’re in good shape, not great shape.”
One of the highlights for Donegal in these early days of 2013 has been the manner in which the McGee brothers – Eamon and full-back Neil – have returned. The duo are in fine fettle, but Eamon has a very good reason for keeping himself in tune during those winter nights which previously would have entailed ‘nocturnal activities’, as Jim McGuinness once described them, other than a fitness regime.
“I want to win an All-Star and I want Donegal to win another All-Ireland – you need to be in shape to do that, you just can’t come in struggling and do that,” McGee says.
“Personally, I’m happy enough with where I am.
“I have a good bit of work done. It’s probably down to just nuckling down in the winter.
“I’m coming to an age now where I want to squeeze every last drop out of every season I play. It’s different when you’re younger – you can lift the foot off the gas in the winter.
“I’m looking after myself better now and doing more to get into and stay in shape.”
And yet, tellingly, he’s not resting on any March laurels that may be thrown upon him. Tyrone are laying in the long grass and there will come a time, in those days after the National League has been and gone, when McGuinness and Rory Gallagher, will ‘step it up’ – then, the ‘real’ work as it is will be in full flow.
“People are coming up to me saying ‘Jeez, you’re in good shape’, but he reality is I’m only about 70 per cent fit and I can’t get carried away with that. It’s a long way to go between there and being maybe at 90 per cent,” McGee says.
“In the last two years we did a lot of work between the League and the Championship. That work isn’t nice, believe you me, but it bonds the group and you could see it standing to us later in the year when we were able to dig deep in games.”
Cork roll into this game on the back of inflicting a first defeat of the year on Tyrone when they came away from Omagh with a win last Sunday. That was a win that the Cork player Paul Kerrigan said he ‘wouldn’t be blowing out of proportion’.
No-one, these days, is getting carried away, not least McGee ahead of what promises to be a real test of their progress tomorrow evening.
He says: “Look at Aidan Walsh who is flying at the moment. I was watching him the day we (Ulster) played them (Munster) in the Railyway Cup and he was popping over points off his left foot and off his right foot.
“He is such an impressive athlete – he isn’t just a footballer, he’s an athlete. They’re a really physical team, too, so we’re up against a top side. That’s what you need at this time of the year to keep your mind on the job and keep you grounded.”
This week, more than any other, you get the sense that McGee would quite literally prefer to keep his feet on the ground.