Neil was unique, the complete package – McGuinness

By Frank Craig

The dust is only settling this week on the avalanche of plaudits for Neill McGee following his inter-county retirement.

But it’s perhaps fitting that Jim McGuinness should have the final and, even, definite word on Gaoth Dobhair’s man of granite.


In an exclusive Q&A with the Donegal News, Donegal’s 2012 All-Ireland winning boss pays his former player the most glowing of tributes as he finally hangs up that famous green and gold No. 3 jersey for the very last time.

FC: How well did or didn’t you know Neil prior to coming in as Donegal manager?

JMG: If you don’t know someone personally, you have a kind of perception of what they might be like. I didn’t know Neil. The overlap wasn’t there in terms of playing. It was at club level but not at county. And they are two very different things. The big thing for Neil and so many of those lads back in 2011 was the journey they eventually went on. But in Neil’s case, I would safely say he was one of the most low maintenance players I’ve ever worked with. And there’s a real interest and fascination for me, in how someone does that in such a high pressure sporting environment like inter-county football. And I’ll admit all of that went completely against the perception I might originally have had of Neil, if that makes sense? It’s old ground now but I was told it was a poisoned chalice – the Donegal job – before I took it. One of the big questions people were asking me was, ‘how are you going to handle this lot?’ But I quickly realised Neil McGee just needed to know where he was going. Once he knew where he was going, he was absolutely all in. You needed to see it to believe it. The focus, the dedication and the single mindedness it took to get to the level he eventually got to – which was the best full back in the country; it was powerful stuff.

FC: That intensity, the fear factor he brought to the table in that full back line, the best of forwards often crumbled under the sheer weight of all of that…

JMG: There was a psychology to the way Neil went about his business, no doubt. And he lived on the edge. But the psychology with Neil was real. It hadn’t to be summoned. That was him. People often go out to wind each other up at that level but Neil only had to look at you and it had the potential to put the fear of god in players. And I don’t mean that as a joke. When full forwards or corner forwards looked him dead in the eye, they knew that intensity glaring back at them was real. What you got from Neil on a Sunday, on game day, was the exact same level he brought to the training field. Every drill, every in-house game every single yard really, he applied himself with absolutely every single ounce he had. And that was potent in a group sense. Because when you had certain lads like that setting the tone, you watched that spread. It was infectious. And he was always there, he always trained. When he went up against Michael or Colm in training, they were blank canvases.

At training, when we were at our absolute peak, they were blinding battles. It was always respectful because we were in it together. We were aiming for something as a team. But nothing was spared in those exchanges. To be on the line watching that, it was a privileged place to be as a manager. You just knew everything was going to be left on the field when the big games did come around. It was behind the curtain stuff that no one else was privy to. But I know for a fact both Michael and Colm will tell you that Neil made them better players because of all of that. Going back to 2011again and taking the job, there was also this thing in my mind that Neil needed to be shaped.

There were still sharp some edges there. Reading the tributes this week, that Stephen O’Neill collision in 2013 was almost universally mentioned. Stephen lined him up, it was the moment he’d been waiting on, and he went at Neil with everything he had. But it was a serious miscalculation on his part. But the one that stands out for me more than anything was when we played away to Meath in the NFL back in 2011. He did the exact same thing. It was around late March at that stage but he’d already been on such an accelerated trajectory. You couldn’t help but notice how he was transforming. His application was one thing but you could see a real change across the board with him. That edge he walked, the one we talked about, was still a little blurred at that time. The intensity was already there but the discipline and maybe harnessing all of that and making it work in his favour; it still needed a little attention. He wasn’t going over the line with complete abandonment, I don’t mean that. I just mean there were still a few sharp edges to him. I remember thinking he has to get that balance exactly right if he wants to go to the very top level. He was going to be coming up against the best players out there and they would play on that. And I vividly remember having that conversation with him in the dressing room that day before we went out against Meath. I told him that he was the best full back in the country but no one else knows that just yet. He needed to start showing it. And we weren’t long into the action and I remember a Meath half forward winning a ball and coming across Neil’s line of sight. And Neil literally went straight through him, over the top of him.


It was as fair and clean as it comes and play continued as Neil took possession. But I couldn’t help but wince for the poor Meath lad on the ground. Neil progressed down the right hand side, the stand side, and he played a great ball inside to Michael who lobbed it over the bar. It was a phenomenal score. But only then was attention allowed to come on for the Meath guy and he was eventually helped off. It was one of those ‘holy shit’ moments when you realise exactly just what you have on your hands. And right there, right then, I believe the penny dropped completely with Neil. If that aggression was harnessed in the right way, it didn’t need to be contained. He went on a real journey. He listened so intently and he made only a few small adjustments but they had a serious impact. But he never lost anything on the other side of that. Sometimes when people are being coached to manipulate their own style, things get lost. He never lost anything and he just became far harder to play against because he had complete control of the situation. He was sheet iron and he was as quick as lightening. So he was able to dominate the physical stakes, the psychological stakes and because he was such a great footballer as well, regardless of who came his way, he was able to stick with them every single step of the way. And the last building block, the crucial one for us really, was that he became an attacking full back. And looking at all of that, even if he didn’t say a word, those were leadership qualities. He had our complete trust every single day. It didn’t matter if it was Stephen O’Neill, Bernard Brogan, Colm Cooper… I had so much confidence Neil was going to take them out of the game. That was a huge thing for us. Being given the biggest central job, defensively, every single day we went out, the lads inevitably looked to Neil for inspiration as much as anyone.

FC: If you’d to pick one stand out Neil McGee moment from your time in charge what would it be?

JMG: The one day that sticks in my mind is Kerry in 2014. The bottom line is this, championship football is a war zone in so many respects. On the toughest of tough days, and that was a rough one, he was the one that really said, ‘no, we need to kick back here’. It’s not a day he wants to remember nor I, but it’s still the day that stands out most when I think of Neil McGee. He seemed to just rise above all that pressure and looked to drive it back our direction.

FC: His longevity at such a high level, how impressive is that?

JMG: He was just built differently in every sense of the phrase. Like I said, he trained all the time. I remember him picking me up prior to the All-Ireland semi-final in 2012, before making our way onto Donegal Town where we were all meeting up. I went to throw my bag into the boot and it was full to the brim with weights, cones and hurdles. I remember thinking, ‘he’s not telling me this’. He was obviously doing his own thing on top of what we were asking of him. Which was a lot. But I just think for all those lads, Neil, Big Neil (Gallagher), Rory (Kavanagh), Ryan Bradley, Colm McFadden, Paul Durcan, Christy Toye, Karl Lacey and David Walsh, they were all just waiting for something. And Neil perhaps finally got the career he wanted after that. So there was a mental freshness because of that. And they were winning, and winning was new. That’s a huge part of it too. Neil was winning All-Stars, playing for the International Rules side and just dominating in that position. And when he could still deliver, how could you walk away from all of that? He also bounced back from defeat so strongly. There was that mental toughness to him. But he was also such good fun, great company. He loved the battle and loved the celebration, in equal measure. You’d see him in the dressing room after and it would be in complete contrast to what you’d maybe witnessed prior to going out to battle. He’d be in full swing and beaming.

FC: What is next or should be next for Neil McGee now?

JMG: He still has a hell of a lot to offer. And that should be harnessed in that regard. He is the greatest full back we have ever produced. What he’s achieved, learned and picked up, that has to be passed on. Whether that is as a manager, coach or just working with the next generation of Donegal full backs, Neil McGee can’t be let slip away quietly. We talked about intensity but there is that honesty as well when Neil says something. Lads look at that and the person talking and they can easily join the dots with Neil. He’s been there and done it all. There would be no buy in for someone like Neil McGee walking through a dressing room door. He’d have a group instantly because of what he’s achieved.

FC: What’s your advice to any of those 2012 lads now ahead of that next chapter in their lives, management, coaching and so on?

JMG: Don’t hesitate. Maybe some lads don’t want to be seen to be going straight into the system at that level, that some might think that there is this sort of sense of entitlement if they move right away. Lads might feel like they have to earn their stripes. I was only 37 at the time. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and not be afraid of it. I understand that hesitation though. Because they have been so busy playing, playing, playing and then it just suddenly stops. Whereas I already had a lot of coaching done. My playing cord was snipped earlier than I’d ever have liked. So they are later to the table in that sense.

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