We didn’t have the mindset: Eamon McGee on regretting Donegal’s lost years
As Donegal face Tyrone in the semi-final, thoughts linger on what might have been
Eamon McGee: ‘It had to seep into us that we were good enough, as good as Armagh, as good as Tyrone, as good as Dublin, Mayo or any of these teams.’ Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
It’s billed as the potential Ulster title decider, a suitably pitched heavyweight contest between the two main contenders, and when Eamon McGee talks about Saturday’s semi-final between Donegal and Tyrone, he can’t help thinking about what was and also what might have been.
It’s three summers now since McGee walked off the inter-county stage with Donegal, his 13 seasons in all yielding some special silverware in the latter years: three Ulster titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014, plus the 2012 All-Ireland. No regrets about those years; quite a few to mention about the years before.
“Aye, probably if we had the right mindset, we would have won more,” says McGee, speaking at the launch of the Legends Tours series at the GAA museum – part of his own legend being the occasionally wild indiscretions that twice got him dropped from the panel for disciplinary reasons, in 2004 and 2006.
“But things have changed massively now. Even on that point, everything got out, the unit wasn’t tight in terms of respect for the jersey, and for Donegal GAA. It wasn’t where it should be. How we lived our lifestyle. We were away blaming manager’s tactics, looking at Armagh thinking, they have a system, we don’t have a system. Looking at Tyrone thinking, they have a system, we don’t have a system. Very rarely did we look at ourselves and think, ‘what are we not doing here, where’s our attitude here?’
“Jim McGuinness knew there was good players there, there has always been good players in Donegal, and actually one of the debates at a wedding I was at last weekend was that team from the early noughts up to 2008, could they have won more?
“We could have put Armagh away in an Ulster final or we might have won another league title or something like that. But we definitely had a team there and McGuinness came in, and with the core of that group, and backed it up with the under-21s, and took the team to the All-Ireland final in 2012, with and that’s how he became successful.”
It wasn’t as simple as flicking a switch, but McGee reckons McGuinness changed everything
The rest is Donegal football history: they hadn’t won an Ulster title since 1992, their last All-Ireland year, before McGuinness came in. They play Tyrone on Saturday having won eight of the last 10 titles between them, and meet for a third successive year, last year’s final game in the Super-8s, when Tyrone beat Donegal in Ballybofey, deciding Tyrone’s place in the All-Ireland semi-finals.
It wasn’t as simple as flicking a switch, but McGee reckons McGuinness changed everything: players such as Brendan Devenney and Kevin Cassidy were gone completely by the time of their 2012 All-Ireland, but McGee can only harbour his own regrets.
“Yeah, but at the same time we didn’t have the mindset. And Devenney has to hold the hands up and say he was one of the boys that didn’t have the mindset. We were young fellas, came in and these boys were showing us the path, Kevin Cassidy, Devenney and the older boys. And we just followed it. It was a joint effort.
“That’s why we didn’t win, because of that, and you have to hold the hands, you cannot blame anyone else. It was just ourselves that was the reason we didn’t win anything. It’s tough too for the likes of Devenney because like all of us he put in a big effort and a lot of time to getting something with Donegal and even Cassidy, which is why I was delighted for Cassidy with the club [Gweedore] this year, that he got a good bit of silverware with the club.
“It’s part of the growing up thing, but our time with Donegal was relatively short, and if we got our act together? So aye, there’s definitely regrets. Anyone who says they don’t regret anything I don’t believe them, there’s definitely regrets. We could have been more focused, and lived our life in the way a county player should live his life.
“It was a gradual thing, from my conversation with Jim, he was talking All-Irelands and I was thinking this man if just full of nonsense like, because we had heard it from three or four different managers. It had to seep into us that we were good enough, as good as Armagh, as good as Tyrone, as good as Dublin, Mayo or any of these teams. The system made us hard to beat but he had to drill it into us most nights, nearly every night, actually, that we were as good as what was about.”
I see that with young people, working with a few different underage teams, they are nearly afraid to just give themselves completely to the thing
Younger brother Neil is still playing a central role in the Donegal defence, and McGee is known for speaking his mind – and publicly too on issues such as his support for marriage equality, and his campaigning to repeal the eighth amendment. He still sees some younger players making the same mistake he did.
“I see that with young people, working with a few different underage teams, they are nearly afraid to just give themselves completely to the thing. And if it fails they are worrying. But if they are messing about, that’s their wee get-out clause, but they are afraid to give themselves 100 per cent to it and maybe that’s what we were like too.
“Whenever I give out to any young player, be it in Gweedore, or working with any underage team, I can say I have done any mistake that any young player has done or any excuse they have done, and I know the mindset.”