BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THE golden ticker tape was still streaming from the roof Hogan Stand when, away from the bouncing group of Donegal players and backroom team, Eamon McGee was caught in an embrace with Jim McGuinness.
It was his greatest hour and he sought the man who made it all possible.
McGee was once the very characteristic that defined Donegal’s footballers.
He was a latecomer to the McGuinness way, too. McGee had heard the promises before. ‘This is the year’ was an annual war cry that never washed.
McGuinness told him Donegal were capable of winning Ulster; told him, too, that Donegal could compete for Sam Maguire. The Gaoth Dobhair man took some convincing.
When Donegal were on their way to winning Division 2 of the National Football League in 2011, McGee was playing with London in Division 4 against the footballers of Kilkenny. There were rumblings from home that maybe it was the year after all.
McGee rejoined the panel for the Championship, but didn’t see game-time until he came on as a sub against Kildare in the quarter-final and he started the All Ireland semi-final against Dublin.
Injury kept him out of the 2012 Ulster final, but he had a second provincial medal and on September 23rd 2012 he made his 100th Donegal appearance in the All-Ireland final.
He had a lot to be thankful for as he threw his arms around the man who’d turned it around for him on Croke Park’s hallowed sod.
“I’ll wait until I stop playing to tell you what I said then,” he says.
“It was one of my favourite moments of the All-Ireland was to get that wee moment and say a few words. It was brilliant.”
McGee has learned a lot from the experiences of two years ago.
He’s always been something of an enigma. On Twitter recently he mentioned reading (Friedrich) Nietzsche, the German philologist and philosopher, who once wrote about ‘the death of God’, while he has spoken previously on these pages about his love of comics.
In these weeks, he likes to keep himself to himself. Jack O’Connor, the former Kerry senior manager who takes charge of the Kingdom’s minors this Sunday against Donegal, used to talk about his love of walking the mountains of south Kerry.
“I can relate to that,” says McGee.
“I try to get a wee jog down at the pitch in Magheragallon, just to get away from it all. That head space is invaluable. I read Paidi Ó Sé’s autobiography and he took it to the extreme altogether, going running over mountains. I wouldn’t take it that far.
“I just go down to the pitch or take a leisurely stroll on the beach or have a dip at the pier.
“You need that head space. Everything is going well and that puts a gloss on it all.”
It takes him back to 2012 when he had a ‘nightmare’ one evening at training. Requests for match tickets and banquet passes were weighing on his mind.
“I realised I had to cop on a bit and it was a good kick up the ass,” he says.
“It’s not just the match because you need to be 100 per cent in training and in your preparation.
“Coming up to the match you have training and if you’re thinking about banquet tickets – ‘aww Jesus I forgot to get two tickets for Chris’ and you’re f****** around like that – you won’t be at the level you’re required.”
By and large, McGuinness managed to shield his players from the madness, but they were aware of the storm that was brewing.
“The county was going buck mad,” laughs McGee, now living in Letterkenny, where he works in United Healthcare.
“Honestly I’ve never seen anything like it. One of the biggest things that stood to us in the build in was that we were able to stay focussed. We didn’t let it affect us much. Obviously you’re human and stuff gets into you with tickets and banquets and this sort of nonsense – and that’s all it is, nonsense.
“We were able to stay focussed and that’s down to Jim McGuinness.”
It was hard to stay away – but he found a simple solution.
He says: “You nearly have to pick and choose times or pick what shops you go into. Coming up to it I took the key out of the door and just locked myself into the house.
“Gaoth Dobhair is a GAA mad parish and they take great pride in us and look after us, but you still need to separate yourself from the madness side of if or the fun side of it.”
McGee is in a rich vein of form, All-Star territory in fact, but his biggest task awaits on Sunday, with the general consensus telling us that it will be he who will be asked to shadow Kieran Donaghy.
“He’s a big unit,” says McGee, who held the Tralee man in the 2012 quarter-final until he sneaked in for a late goal that gave Donegal a nervous finish.
“You won’t push him out of the way and I think sometimes the mistake people make is that they try to get into a wrestling match with him when the ball’s in the air.
“You have to realise you aren’t going to move him. He’s an unbelievable player. You just don’t know where he’s going to start or who’s going to pick him up. Hopefully whoever gets the job will be ready.”
McGee has been doing some overtime in practising for a joust with Donaghy, but he doesn’t have all his eggs in that basket. He says:
“This is all assuming that Eamon McGee is going to be marking Kieran Donaghy, but the way things have been going there has always been a shock with managements and you could find him out at midfield. We will have to be on our toes and not just put our eggs all into this basket.
“The way it is now you just don’t know. Sure we had big Neil (Gallagher) in at full-forward the last day and who’d have said that?
“If we’re all planing for Donaghy to be in at full-forward and they bring him out it leaves us all off balance. In the overall scheme against Dublin, Neil in at full-forward, even if it didn’t look like it for a while, probably had the Dubs off balance.”
The eyes tell you all you need to know: Eamon McGee is ready for the war.