These are heady days for Donegal footballers. Ulster champions for the first time in nineteen years. Division Two Allianz National Football league champions and defeated All-Ireland semi-finalists.
Seven All-Star nominees - Paul Durcan, Frank McGlynn, Neil McGee, Kevin Cassidy, Karl Lacey, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden, and one player - Mark McHugh, in the running for the Young Player of the Year Award.
Also two Donegal men - Neil McGee and Michael Murphy - are heading to Australia this weekend as members of the Ireland International Rules squad who will face the Aussies in two International Tests.
And there is also a degree of hope that a third, Karl Lacey, may yet get a late call up. Heady days indeed!
For Michael Murphy, the trip Down Under, is his second. He was there five years ago, also to play International Rules. In 2006 Michael was a member of the Ireland U-17 team that played the Australian U-17s in three games.
The Donegal captain was also capped at senior level last season and played in the two tests against the visiting Aussies.
Neil McGee was capped at U-17 level too. But he is experiencing the game at senior level for the first time. The Gaoth Dobhair man, who has been the rock in front of the Donegal posts for the past two seasons, is looking forward to the experience and the honour of representing his country.
“I played at U-17 back in 2003 and enjoyed it. We played the Australians in three games, losing two and winning one. But the step up to senior is a big one. It is a lot more physical, but I’m enjoying it so far and I’m looking forward to the trip and playing the Aussies,” Neil told the Democrat.
“It is a brilliant experience working with the likes of Anthony Tohill, Kieran McGeeney, Mick McGowan, the fitness trainer, Sean Og De Paor and Kevin O’Brien, from Wicklow and playing with some of the best players in the country. And it is a great honour to get the chance to represent your country.”
Since his call-up, Neil has been making the long trek from his home in Gaoth Dobhair, at least once a week (Saturday mornings) and sometimes twice a week (Wednesday nights) for training at the Dublin City University campus.
“We have been training hard and putting in a lot of work over the last six weeks since we were brought together by Anthony Tohill. Anthony did not hold any trials this year; he just called up a group of 34 players at first and he eventually whittled it down to 23, and thankfully I made the cut and I’m in the squad.
“The emphasis in training is mainly on physical contact with a lot of concentration on the tackle. It is a big change from what I was doing with Donegal, but I must say that I’m enjoying it.”
How does he find the hybrid game?
“The mark is the big difference from Gaelic and it is the one aspect of the game that we find hardest to get to grips with and the one we been working hardest on in training.
“The big difficulty is that when we win a ball cleanly we are inclined to play on when we should just stop and take a few steps back and then deliver the ball. It is just a matter of getting it into your head to stop and take a few steps back.”
The tackle and the physical element of the game is the other noticeable difference that Neil finds with the new game. It is another area that Anthony Tohill and his coaching team have been working hard on and putting in long hours on in recent weeks on the training pitch.
“Just like the mark, it is the other area that I find hardest to come to terms with,” insisted the teak tough Gaoth Dobhair man, who is not known to shirk a tackle or the physical side of Gaelic.
“It’s just that we are not used to being held in the tackle and then dragged to the ground. It is hard to get used to it and I must say I find it very frustrating. But we have been working on it in training and we are becoming more used to it and hopefully we have got to grips with it and it will not be a factor in the games.”
The emphasis too on the training ground has been on sticking to playing Gaelic Football and not getting drawn into the physical exchanges with the Australians.
“They are professionals and are all training full-time and are probably stronger and fitter than we are. Our best chance is to play more of our own game and work to our strengths. Because of their power and strength I don’t think we have any business taking them on physically.”
Neil openly admits that he does not watch Australian Rules football on TG4 and has no bother admitting that he knows very little about the Australians.
He also confesses that he has little or no knowledge about this year’s Australian squad and his likely opposite number in the upcoming test.
“They’ve gone for a younger and faster player this year and that is why we are in the dark about them. All we know is that they are still all full-time professionals and they will be out to do well and impress and make a name for themselves.
“Just because they are young and with little or no experience we are not expecting it any easier. They will still be going all out to win.”
“But we are taking it all very serious too and are going to go all out to do well and hopefully win the series. The most important thing is that we perform and everybody goes out and gives it their best shot.”
The first of the Irish party fly out to Melbourne on Friday. However, both Neil and Michael Murphy will not depart until early Saturday morning.
They are among a group of eight players who have been forced to delay their departure due to the All-Star annual awards banquet in City West on Friday night. Both Neil and Michael are among the seven Donegal men nominated for All-Star awards.
“It would be nice to pick up an All-Star alright. Karl (Lacey) looks a cert to get one and hopefully we will pick up another few but I’m not sure about myself though it would be nice after the year we’ve had.”
Ireland will play Australia in two test games. The first of the games is in Melbourne on Friday of next week, October 28th in the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, with the second test the following Friday night, November 4th in the Mericon Stadium, on the Gold Coast.
Both games will be relayed live here in television.