RELIEF. That was the first thing Donegal defender Eamon McGee felt when the county won the All-Ireland final in 2012.
There are no heartfelt tales of green and gold ticker tape parades, no recollections of ‘Jimmy’s Winning Matches’ renditions, nor stories of the copious amounts of champagne and other beverages consumed.
Celebrations at achieving something the county had waited 20 years for were certainly jubilant. But mainly there was sheer relief. They had won. They had trained and worked like hell and then trained even more, but most importantly, Eamon says, they had believed.
They believed in Jim McGuinness, the manager who had come along and taught them they could have Sam Maguire. The fight was over, they were mentally and physically exhausted but the work had paid off. Eamon, a defender on the team, says it was only a few days later when the victory actually sunk in.
“I remember thinking ‘we’ve won it’. There was a huge sense of relief and I was in shock for a few days until seeing all the celebrations at home made it more real. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves during that campaign. You put in all that effort and you want something tangible at the end, and we had achieved that.”
It’s almost three years later and Eamon is speaking after Donegal’s defeat to Monaghan in the Ulster final. Donegal are still All-Ireland contenders and were expected to win in Clones. Perhaps the team expected that too, as Eamon insists they didn’t feel pressure in the build-up.
“No, the pressure beforehand was non-existent. We prepared brilliantly and sometimes in sport and life you can prepare yourself to the best of your ability but it just won’t work out. We are very disappointed but we need to quickly refocus and get ready for the next stage.”
Eamon speaks with an endearing determination, with pride in his county, a resolute belief in himself and his team, but with a modest confidence in his own ability, not arrogance. He’s clearly aware that things are bigger than just him on that pitch, and that all this won’t last forever.
Eamon is from Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore), which is also my home townland in the Gaeltacht in North West Donegal. I’ve known him since we were classmates in Pobalscoil Chloich Cheannfhaola in Falcarragh when my main recollections are of his love of Britney Spears and him destroying my pencil case, as well as his superb gift for football.
There are currently three Gaoth Dobhair players on the county team; Eamon, his brother Neil and Ódhran Mac Niallais.
The area is currently transformed with threads of yellow and green proudly weaving their way from electricity pole bunting to painted kerb stones, all cheering on the boys. Like most GAA clubs within a county, we are tribal and protective and proud. These are our boys, and they get the loudest roar.
Eamon admits this kind of fervour wasn’t always there for the Donegal footballers and there were years when the team wasn’t taken seriously at all. “To be honest, we were probably a bit of a laughing stock. There was probably a bit of cockiness and arrogance years ago and we didn’t fully appreciate or respect what it was to play for the county and all the support that goes with it. There is a massive difference now.”
Growing up at home in Gaoth Dobhair, sport and GAA was part of home life with his brothers Neil and Peter and his father Eamon. “Myself and Neil would have been out the back of the house playing ball, and I remember going to a lot of my Dad’s matches when he played for his club. I actually marked him a couple of times, which I think was a first in GAA. I did play other sports like soccer and basketball but there was something a bit special with GAA.”
During his time in Pobalscoil Chloich Cheannfhaola, Eamon acknowledges he had no idea what his footballing potential might be. “This might sound vain but I didn’t know I was as good as I was in secondary school. I didn’t believe I was good enough and it was my own confidence that had to develop and realise it later on.”
Grappling with the sacrifice of really going for it in the GAA is something that faces most players in their late teens and early 20s. Like any young man, girls and nights out tempted Eamon along the way and the early part of his career was a little more, shall we say, chequered. He received a few raps on the knuckles from previous Donegal managers Brian McEniff and Brian McIver for extracurricular activities. “Listen, I can’t deny I wasn’t interested in going out and girls in those early days, but sure that’s every young guy I think.”
When the recession hit the county, the Donegal team weren’t immune to unemployment and Eamon moved to London for work. He has fond memories of the city but it was work hard, then play hard, which took its toll on his fitness. He missed the team and before long the lure of winning an Ulster title medal brought him home. But a crushing loss to Armagh by nine points in 2010 hit the set-up hard. “We just weren’t good enough.”
Enter Jim McGuinness.
While Eamon’s brother Neil jumped at the chance to be part of this new revolution in Donegal football, Eamon was a little more hesitant. Signing up to McGuinness’s blueprint meant huge sacrifice and Eamon needed a little more persuasion.
But he soon changed his mind as the McGuinness effect was becoming clear. Eamon got serious and played his heart out with his local Gaoth Dobhair club. McGuinness soon noticed and Eamon was back in, but the struggle was far from over.
McGuinness’s fitness expectations and other requirements were a rude awakening. After watching from the bench for match after match as he struggled to prove himself, McGee knew he had to step up and get serious about his fitness. The breakthrough came when he was selected for an All-Ireland quarter-final against Kildare.
By then, Jim McGuinness had already transformed the team. “He totally focused us and made us realise and believe we are part of something special. He’s a very intense man. When his game-face is on, you know it’s going to be tight going. He taught us all so much about the preparation and hard work we needed to put in to win.”
When the pressures and sacrifices looked like becoming too much, Eamon relied on the camaraderie of the team and family support to help him through.
“You need to have a very understanding, close circle to be happy. It’s very hard on other people who are a part of your life. You’re only human so there are days when you think; what’s the point?
“You’re getting up early, going training, you’re going to the gym, watching your diet and missing things your family and friends are doing like weddings and holidays. It’s tough. There are definitely times when you want to take the easy way out and stop, just not bother with it.”
Now 31, Eamon is not claiming to wear a halo, but it’s clear McGuinness has had a lasting influence on him not just in his approach to the game, but his approach to life.
He is calm, driven, determined and focused. There is an absolutely palpable pride in his game, his county and team-mates.
“I definitely changed, and probably had to change as a person.”
But it’s not all medals and trophies. The scourge of injury can have an enormous impact on every player. In 2012, in the midst of the county’s most exciting campaign for 20 years, Eamon pulled his hamstring in the lead-up the Ulster final, a match everyone wanted to start.
“Injury is one of the most frustrating things ever. If you are out with an injury, you go to train and you’re on the sidelines looking at the other lads training. It’s hard to see that and not be involved fully. There is the mental side of things too, you don’t feel like you’re getting training done, so you feel you are behind the rest of the team.”
Eamon knew he wasn’t fit to play in that final and sat it out. “I might not have made the same choice when I was younger. You get a little bit more mature I suppose and I knew the other player deserved a chance. It was not an easy decision or time, we’re a really close team and you want to play. It’s hard to see someone else get in ahead of you, but I knew it was the right thing to do.”
“You can get very down about it, you are training and putting in all the work and the next thing you’re gone. It’s huge disappointment initially. After any injury it takes so long to be fully yourself on the pitch, you’re afraid to go full pelt. You have to try and pick yourself up, get your confidence back.”
Along with the profile of a county player can come media attention and Eamon hit the headlines earlier this year in the run-up to the marriage equality referendum with his support for the ‘Yes’ campaign. While most reaction was positive, a priest in the parish of Annagry, not far from Eamon’s home in Gaoth Dobhair, used his sermon to criticise Eamon’s stance on gay marriage. A few people walked out of the church. Typically, it hasn’t ruffled any McGee feathers.
“There’s a stereotype in the GAA maybe of the Irish country lad, the hard man, the man who’s not allowed to, or supposed to, cry, not allowed to express feelings. I said what I believed in that vote. I was voting ‘yes’. Players like Dónal Óg Cusack coming out certainly paved the way for change in the GAA, and changing it for the better.
“Media and that kind of attention doesn’t bother me. People can tell you you’re amazing, then people can criticise you, so you can’t really pay too much attention to it. I prefer to hear feedback from the people close to me, the people who know you and you trust. The rest of it is none of my business.”
Despite the knock-back of losing the Ulster final, McGee feels confident about the rest of the campaign under McGuinness’ successor Rory Gallagher. And about Galway in Croke Park today.
“We feel good about playing Galway. Hopefully we can get up to the level we know we can play. We’ll give it all we got.”
So how does the future look? “I can’t predict the future but the GAA will always be with me. Everyone is writing their own story and there are some chapters that have been written but you don’t always know what the next one will be called. I know though that the same grá will be with me for the GAA throughout my life. I can’t see it leaving me in my next chapter.”
“I love reading graphic novels and playing video games.
"Recently I have acquired a big passion for science, physics in particular, and once I finish playing it’s something I will hope to get more into.”
“There are so many but I’d probably go with ‘Sunshine’ directed by Danny Boyle.”
“Probably fajitas. I love fajitas and wedges closely followed by a Carbonara.”
“I loved Tad Williams’ Dragonbone Chair saga and I love reading any physics book.”
“Winning the All-Ireland.”
“A clear night sky.”
“With a Nobel Prize in physics.”