By Frank Craig
Neil McGee’s desire to win shows no sign of waning.
One of Gaelic football’s most dominant figures, his physical cut remains as impressive as ever. He’s 33, but he’s still Donegal’s most feared warrior on the field of play.
There was a period of idleness around the midpoint of the second-half during his side’s Ulster semi-final win over Tyrone.
With the ball and referee at the other end of the field, a number of Red Hand players attempted to move in on match puppeteer Michael Murphy.
The Tir Chonaill skipper can look after himself but McGee wanted to have his fun too. Smiling as he went about his business, the Gaoth Dobhair man didn’t take long to cower that trio of stirrers.
McGee is a superb footballer. He’s a three-time All-Star and has represented his country on numerous occasions in the International Rules series against Australia. But it’s his in-game psychology that often gives him the edge.
He’s a master at putting the shackles on, physically as much as mentally, and that’s why he’s still there, still the rock upon which Donegal builds its defence around.
Things have changed so much since he first made his way around Errigal and onto his first Donegal training session back in 2005. The personnel has certainly changed. But so too has the way the game is played.
McGee has also had to tailor the way he now prepares himself for match day.
He told the Donegal News: “Over the years I’d be running up and down hills in Magheragallon if I wasn’t training. At this stage of my career, I need to train smarter. Recovery time is crucial. Rest is almost as important as the actual training. It’s just something you adapt to as you get older.
“The way I see it is that if you’re able to keep up and compete at training, then you still have something to offer.
“No one is there on reputation. Us more experienced lads, we’ve been training well. We’ve been training as well as the young lads. Everyone that is there is there on merit.
“Where I’d see the most change is in the car travelling over. When I started it was the likes of Stephen Cassidy, James Gallagher, Kevin (Cassidy) and Eamon; it’s changed so much now.
“I’ve a bunch of weans with me now! They call me dad! Na listen, that’s just the way it goes.
It’s just good to have the company.”
Declan Bonner has surrounded himself with the very best, not just on his managerial set-up, but also in terms of training, diet, recovery and analysis.
McGee explains that looking at all those areas means he’s been able to tinker his approach and still be at the right pace.
“I’ve had a good run at it,” he explained. “Last year I was breaking down every other week. I didn’t really get a good go at it. I’m happy enough this year.
“You look at everything now. You pay attention to it all during the week. You listen to your body. We’ve great people behind the scenes too and they have all the right information.”
McGee is aiming to land a fifth provincial medal against Cavan on Sunday. He believed the Breffni men were Ulster contenders from far out and wasn’t in the least surprised that they toppled both Monaghan and Armagh along the way.
“I’ve watched their games. I’m not just saying this but I fancied them against Monaghan and I fancied them against Armagh. It didn’t surprise me. I know the quality they have.
“Someone said that they are a young team. I think they’re a really balanced side. They are all in that same age bracket. The core of the side is from that successful Under 21 group they had for those few seasons.
“They didn’t have the success that was maybe predicted coming out of that, but they’ve a chance to do it now. They stuck together. Mickey Graham came in and has been able to bring all that potential together.
“You can see the difference in them. The energy they have is really impressive. The Cavan people are behind them now too and that’s huge.”
The reigning champions are hotly tipped to retain their title at the weekend. However, McGee has warned Donegal supporters to not read anything in that.
“The bookies will have us as favourites. We don’t see it that way. We’ve two weeks to prepare for Cavan. We’d two weeks to prepare for Tyrone – a game we were the underdogs. It means absolutely nothing.
“I’d a feeling, the indicators were there, that we’d the right work done and we were going to beat them. Underdogs or not, I was confident we were going to win.
“We need to do the exact same now. We’ll know the morning of the Ulster final whether we’re ready or not.”
McGee has an All-Ireland medal at home. He also experienced the ultimate low when Donegal were toppled by Kerry in the 2014 decider.
He’s been part of some serious squads. But he feels there is an added depth to this current crop.
“There is serious quality and depth there. I said it earlier, I wouldn’t be worried or surprised to see any one of those young lads lined up behind the parade in Clones. They are that good.
“I see the likes of Odhrán McFadden Ferry, Eoghan McGettigan and Aaron Doherty at training. They are top players. They all have that much quality.
“Getting out and being in that starting XV, that’s my only aim. Every training session is like a match. That intensity is there. We’re in a very good place. It’s enjoyable. But it’s a difficult place to be as well. You have to bring a certain level with you every single night. We’re all thriving off each other.
“It’s tough. But it’s a great environment. It’s the only way to be if you want to be successful.”
Bonner – in his first season back at the helm – landed an Ulster SFC. Still, Donegal had somehow managed to triumph inside the province without crossing paths with either Tyrone or Monaghan.
That was hardly Donegal’s fault but it did hang over 2018’s win. McGee though was adamant that it didn’t diminish the value of the win in his or his teammates’ eyes.
“I value it as much as any of them. It was great to see all those young lads getting up those steps in Clones. We took long enough to experience that. They’ve that under their belt now. That will stand to them now next week.”