The morning Donegal launched their new jersey ahead of the 2022 season at the GAA Training Centre in Convoy, Declan Bonner was asked if Neil McGee would follow Paddy McGrath in retiring from inter-county football.
Together, McGrath and McGee were two-thirds of the full-back line who won Donegal’s second All-Ireland with a 2-11 to 0-13 win over Mayo in 2012. That cloudy Monday December day, McGrath, at 32, had called time, having debuted in 2010.
McGee’s 192nd appearance ended after five minutes when he suffered a serious back injury in Donegal’s 0-23 to 1-14 loss to Tyrone in a sunbaked 2021 Ulster semi-final. Absence from work with the KN Group rolled from days into weeks. It seemed a natural question to ask Bonner, then Donegal manager, if McGee, who was 36, would follow a similar path. Bonner just shook his head.
“Only Neil could come back from that,” Bonner, who retired in July himself, says. “For someone that never shouted a lot, when he spoke, people listened. Even in later years, he was an incredible presence in the dressing room. When someone came in, say Brendan McCole at full-back, Neil would help in any way he possibly could.”
As well as capturing Sam Maguire, McGee won three All-Stars and was an integral part of Jim McGuinness’s regime, where Donegal won Ulster titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014. By the time Bonner took charge in late 2017, most of the experience was gone.
“There was a lot of talk about transition,” Bonner adds. “But Neil was having none of that. He believed that we, although with a young squad, had what was needed to compete with the best in the province and further afield.” Donegal won Ulster in 2018 and again in 2019.
“I was brought into the Donegal panel after the U-21 campaign before the 2010 Ulster championship,” McGrath, who would later room with McGee, says. “I was almost in awe of Neil and his brother Eamon, Karl Lacey, guys like that, when I first trained with the seniors.
“We played a challenge game against Derry and as I came out one of their players came across to block me. As I kept going, all I could hear behind me was a ‘thump, thump’ and someone saying ‘don’t try that again’. They didn’t! Neil always had your back.”
“Neil is a great warrior,” says Pauric McShea, who played full-back for Donegal as they won their first two Ulsters in 1972 and 1974. “He played when there was perhaps more protection than in years gone by, but he would be an outstanding full-back in any era.”
Magheragallon, home of CLG Ghaoth Dobhair, is a remote outpost in the west Donegal Gaeltacht under the shadow of Errigal where the Atlantic batters in. Traditionally Gaoth Dobhair were Donegal’s most successful club, although by the turn of the century their storied past was outweighing their present with the last of their 12 senior crowns coming in 1961.
Amid a spate of appeals, the final of the 2002 Donegal SFC final wasn’t played till the following April, with Gaoth Dobhair facing St Eunan’s of Letterkenny.
“Neil was 17 and was detailed to mark Brendan Devenney, one of the best forwards in the country at the time and kept him scoreless from play,” teammate Kevin Cassidy recalls of their 1-11 to 0-10 win.
“Before a big game, when you assess the opposition, you always felt that whoever Neil was looking after was one less person you had to worry about. He wasn’t dirty as some might say, but he knew how to lift it a notch if you want to put it that way.”
Following that 41-year wait for Dr Maguire, Gaoth Dobhair’s next crown came in 2006, under Bonner, when McGee had already played championship for Donegal, with Brian McIver giving him the nod at corner-back that summer against Down. The teen had appeared the year beforehand in Brian McEniff’s last season in charge.
“I had gotten word of him,” the five-time Donegal manager says. “Neil had played a club match for Gaoth Dobhair against Dungloe and done a brilliant marking job on Adrian Sweeney - this kid from Gweedore doing a job on Sweeney, an All-Star in 2003. I put him straight into a league match in Omagh.”
“We had a lot of lads away with work and college and there were nights in the depths of winter, with the rain battering down, when Neil would say: ‘The five of us here will train tonight,’ says Mervyn O’Donnell, who managed Gaoth Dobhair to the 2018 Ulster Club title. “That was the type of attitude he brought. In many ways, he’s the last of the old-school defenders.”
McGee this week did call it a day. For Donegal, his appearances over the last year were light - two more to bring it to 194 and one unrecognised as a temporary replacement, which came in their last Allianz League fixture in late March. McCole had been pulled and dragged by a couple of Armagh forwards and referee Paul Neilan told the bare-chested Donegal full-back to replace his jersey that was ripped from the collar down.
McGee entered the fray to a rousing reception in the Letterkenny sunshine, made a beeline towards the perpetrators and let them know he was there. He was instantly booked by Neilan and, in a cameo that barely lasted over a minute, replaced by the freshly-shirted McCole. The cheer got even louder, as home supporters rose to their feet.
“The support always appreciated him and Neil McGee will be remembered as a legend of Donegal football,” Bonner adds. “Quite rightly so.”