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Monday 20 August 2018

Éamonn McGee: 'I was playing soccer for Gweedore and got sent off ... that was my All-Ireland'

IT'S not quite the modern-day equivalent of "where were you when Kennedy was shot?" but it's a good place to start with Éamonn McGee ahead of Sunday's showdown with Kerry: "Where did you watch last year's All-Ireland final?"

"I didn't watch it," he replies. "I was playing soccer (laughing) for Gweedore Celtic and I ended up getting sent off. Some boy was mouthing to be about Croke Park or something, but I ended up getting a straight red. That was the height of my All-Ireland final."

A conscious decision to avoid it? "I was just that upset. I was still sick from the performance against Mayo that I just couldn't be bothered being involved in GAA or watching it. It was just self-pity, to be honest."

A justified red card? "Oh, fully justified! It was off-the-ball."

Seven weeks earlier, McGee had suffered a similar fate in far more high-profile circumstances. His 52nd minute stamp on Enda Varley was blatant, the straight red from Joe McQuillan inevitable ... but given that Mayo led by 19 points at the time, you couldn't exactly call it a turning point. Merely a case of Donegal's meltdown in microcosm.

USELESS

Jim McGuinness's vanquished champions could have gone one of two ways afterwards. As McGee sees it, "self-pity is a useless emotion" but "a lot of that was going about and we sat down together and quickly realised that we have a bit of unfinished business to do." Thus, they find themselves back in a final that few saw coming, even as the last day of August dawned.

Harking back to those torrid opening 25 minutes against Dublin, McGee says: "I distinctly remember (his brother) Neil shouting to me, 'Jesus, if we keep out the goals here, we're all right.' And he went on to be proved right. 'Papa' (Paul Durcan) pulled off a save. I think if you're honest about it, if one of them goals went in ... that was it, lights out."

Curiously, virtually all of the initial blows were struck from distance, miles from the McGees' full-back domain. "It was frustrating, because normally you're the boy getting dogged if you're down a few points," the elder sibling admits.

"All you do is ride the storm, and try and stay in it," he adds. "To say it was part of the plan to be eight-three down, you'd be lying ... but we knew this onslaught was coming. And we knew that they were not going to shoot from '45' and outside all day, and eventually they'd start missing."

Now a different challenge awaits. Will Kieran Donaghy be stationed at the edge of the square? If so, Éamonn's your man. "I kind of like the big bucks coming," he says. "I played against him in 2012 (the All-Ireland quarter-final), was relatively happy, he got in for a goal in the last ten minutes. It's something I look forward to ... you have to challenge yourself against the best."

MAGICAL

Next question: how do you stop James O'Donoghue? Cue a hesitation - "Just trying to think up a smart answer there!" - before he concludes: "James is a magical player and he'll take some stopping. It will probably be Neil or Paddy McGrath that will be on him, but no better two lads."

A decade on from his SFC debut, McGee can see clearly now that Donegal always had quality players ("the majority of this team won a national league in 2007 and you don't win that with a bad team") but not the mindset to maximise their potential.

"Every year we set out, we always said this is going to be our year. And we believed that," he stresses.

"Me and (Kevin) Cassidy and Neil have spent hours upon hours, travelling up and down to training, talking about what we would do if we won the All-Ireland. All this partying we'd be doing and where we'd be visiting. And maybe that was part of the problem. We were prepared to talk about it but not prepared to put in the actual work," he adds.

"We wouldn't have dogged ourselves - or thought we were dogging ourselves - in training if we didn't believe we were going to be in the reckoning. But we were just so far off the pace when it came down to it; it was unbelievable. And thankfully Jim has come in and changed that now, so we are eternally grateful."

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