Jim McGuinness’s meticulousness has ironed out the spontaneous style of football Donegal were often stereotyped with and the new structural approach can be crystallised in his domineering full-back.
Neil McGee’s maturity and presence on the edge of the square can however be traced further back than the change of manager as the Gaoth Dobhair defender was one of the few Donegal players last season whose overall marks were considerably above average. McGee has now grown into the No 3 jersey and is at ease in his surroundings and comfortable with his responsibilities.
Whereas a few years ago he was often shy and preferred to retire from the spotlight, he talks freely at ease about where Donegal have come from and where they want to go. His thoughts on the game have evolved, just like his level of performance, which has seen a succession of complimentary appraisals from arguably the most testing position on the field.
“Everyone is different, ” McGee begins by saying of the various full-forwards he has come across. “When you’re playing at full-back at inter-county you’re going to get trouble every day you go out there with fellas like Kieran Donaghy or Bernard Brogan. I suppose people are saying Stephen O’Neill is getting on a bit now but all I can do is take each game as it comes.
“You’re not going to get it perfect and that’s something I had to realise. At club level you would get used to winning every single ball out in front but at county level your man is going to win a fair share. Maybe in the past I would’ve panicked if my man won a ball and I might’ve dived in straight away, pulled him down and conceded a free. It was a rush of blood to the head sometimes so maybe nowadays I’m just a bit more relaxed.”
With three successive first round home exits in as many summers, Donegal’s pre-championship jitters made it difficult to relax ahead of this year’s championship. There was a competency within confines as they breezed past Antrim and Cavan in their opening two drizzly Ulster championship encounters. Tyrone lay in wait at Clones in the semi-final. It was considered a meeting of experience against innocence but for all the rehashed opinions slaying Tyrone as a team who had gone a season too far, McGee was aware of the firepower available to Mickey Harte.
Perhaps following the correlation of his own time involved in inter-county, though, his nerves subsided. After an uneasy start where Tyrone blitzed Donegal, similar instances in recent history were conceived as the early symptoms for total collapse, McGuinness’s team felt their way gradually into the match.
A two-point deficit was a bonus of sorts at half-time and it was Donegal’s players whose step had a spring having posted three unanswered points as the half drew to a close. Tyrone unravelled from there before goals from Colm McFadden and Dermot Molloy sealed a win that appeared unfathomable initially.
Tales should never spill out from underneath a closed dressing room door and although McGee understandably won’t disclose precisely what was discussed at the break by McGuinness, his words portray the manner in which the Donegal manager spoke.
“I was nervous coming into the Tyrone game but after we met and Jim talked beforehand, I calmed, ” McGee recalls. “They ran the legs off us in the first 20 minutes and it was tough. They were coming at us from everywhere and you didn’t know who to pick up at times. It was important to get in at half-time and do what we were supposed to be doing.
“Jim was relaxed at half-time and is usually not the hair-drying type but if things had to be said he addressed them. There’s no point shouting the head off a man either. If you make a mistake then you know it yourself but he spoke and we got on with it. We were not doing what we were supposed to be doing. “We gave away possession too much and were ponderous and slow in our build up. It gave Tyrone time to get back and we have dangerous forwards but didn’t get them on the ball. Getting the few points before half-time was important but all in all we had a lot of things to look at.
“If we made a mistake or fell behind in the past, the heads would go down but we each just concentrated on winning the next ball. One step at a time. We have had a few bad days and we owed the fans. They have done a lot of travelling and spent a lot of money to leave places very disappointed. People said in years gone by we never tried but that wasn’t true. We did try but we let our heads drop and things just didn’t work out.
“In the second half against Tyrone, our boys were everywhere. We didn’t panic, even though we had reason to earlier, and maintained a good shape. The likes of Mark McHugh and Kevin Rafferty are super fit and they kept us going. The fitter you are, the more confidence you can play with. We were lucky in some ways to win in the end but we showed character to come back the way we did and we were happy with that more than anything.”
Donegal’s character down the years has been inconsistent although their last championship campaign that was remotely close to stable was McGee’s debut season. It was under the management of Brian McIver in 2006 that Donegal most recently reached an Ulster final.
That provincial showpiece was the last of the Ulster Council’s flirtations with Croke Park finals and the young defender who was still feeling his way into the county scene was content just to be involved. As was the norm, Armagh went home with the Anglo-Celt Cup, although championship wins over Down, Derry and Fermanagh, before a tantalising loss to Cork by a point in the last eight, meant Donegal had a reasonable year. McGee, just settling in, loved his new surroundings.
“In 2006 it kind of just came on us very quick and we were a young team, ” he adds of his only Ulster final experience. “I was only 20 myself and the attitude was to give it a rattle and if we got beat then we got beat. That was my first season and for me, I was just delighted to be involved and saw an extra game as a bonus.”
Numerous things in the world have slipped a notch or two in the five years that have passed since. Donegal and McGee, though, can force their fluctuating fortunes to its highest point in almost a generation when they grapple for the Anglo-Celt with Derry this coming Sunday.
McGuinness prepares his panel for each encounter differently, although a recital of Donegal’s 2-18 to 2-12 National Football League win over Jim Brennan’s side in March would eradicate the fickleness of assessment of the Ulster championship. McGee, however, feels that Celtic Park encounter was impractical when compared with the pressure-cooker atmosphere St Tiernach’s Park will impose on the neighbouring counties come Sunday. “We played well in Derry but it was a bit like a challenge game where it was point for point for a while before we got away in the second half, ” McGee says. “It was unrealistic. The same intensity that will be there on Sunday certainly wasn’t there that night. Derry will come at us, we know that as they like to play open and attacking football, but we must be ready to counteract that.
“Against Armagh, Derry looked very good and sharp inside. I think 11 of them are over 6ft and although we don’t have the biggest of teams we have powerful men. Hopefully we can counteract them around the middle of the field. If we can break even there and restrict their inside men then we are in with a shout.”
Someone with the thoroughness which McGuinness has means it’s not possible to identify an individual facet for Donegal’s improvement this season. There’s no masterstroke, just an amalgamation of a million little things. There is a noticeable togetherness, though, according to McGee.
“Jim has everyone pulling in the one direction, where before boys might’ve been going in their different directions, ” McGee says. “I wouldn’t say that there were cliques but people had different thoughts on how things should be done. Now, everyone is on the one wavelength and there is a good bond within the panel.
“Look at the U-21s from last year. They were all united and behind one another and we are going down the same road. There’s just an instinct to stick together. Jim has different things to say for different occasions and is a very intelligent man. Between himself and Rory Gallagher, you can see they put in an awful lot of effort. When you see the work they put in, you want to put the same level back in to repay them.
“For Donegal, it’s do or die now. Every game now you have to win. You’re as well off losing a provincial semi-final than a final as if you lose the final your momentum is gone and there’s a qualifier waiting for you in six days (against either Meath or Kildare). Winning the Ulster championship is gateway to the business end of the championship where you realistically have to take things up another level or two. We’re not looking too far ahead though. Derry and the Ulster final is our focus. It’s been too long.”
Nineteen years is too long a timeframe in any man’s language. The last time Donegal won an Ulster title, when they defeated Derry at Clones, a six-year-old Neil McGee was too young to remember, although he does recall watching the team lift the All-Ireland championship a couple of months later on television at home in Gweedore. Since then he has grown from boy to man. An Ulster title on Sunday can see Donegal make a similar transformation.