Donegal are on track
McGee maintains the 2012 all-Ireland champions can sample more success
Published 23/05/2014 | 10:20
Seldom have the All-Ireland winners of two years previous entered the Championship with so much hanging in the balance.
Yet this is the scenario facing Donegal as they prepare to journey across the Foyle River this Sunday to face Derry at Celtic Park, the first step on the road of their attempt to win back their Ulster and All-Ireland crowns.
In the eyes of the bookmakers Derry are favourites having put in an almost flawless league campaign before finishing on a dramatic downer with heavy defeat in the National League final to Dublin.
Even within their own county, some are prepared to write off Donegal's chances, according to full-back Neil McGee, who says: "We are being written off, especially within our own county which is a bit surprising. People are writing us off, that we are beaten already."
The 28-year-old Gaoth Dobhair clubman has been a neat illustration of Donegal's fortunes since Jim McGuinness took over as manager.
In their very first league game at home to Sligo in the 2011 campaign, it was McGee rampaging up from full-back to slam a goal in the dying moments that earned a share of the points.
Later that year he was named as an All-Star as they ended their 19-year wait for an Ulster title – the following year he tagged on another as they captured the All-Ireland.
Last season they suffered relegation from Division One while Tyrone ran Dublin close in the final.
The Red Hands travelled to Ballybofey in expectation but found a Donegal team that was resolute.
McGee marked Stephen O'Neill and at one stage the latter flung his body at the former for a massive challenge, but the Tyrone man bounced to the ground as if he had run into Mount Errigal itself.
At that stage it appeared Donegal were unbeatable, but it took Monaghan to remove the cloak of invincibility in the Ulster final, before a humbling defeat to Mayo.
Reflecting on that 16-point defeat, McGee recalls: "The way Jim (McGuinness) is going into every game, he has you thinking that you are going to win the game and we were no different last year.
"We thought that we were going to beat Mayo but we got off to a terrible start and we never recovered from it.
"It was probably one of the worst days we had there."
Stationed in Division Two, Donegal managed to avoid the glare and hype that comes with the top flight.
Given none of their games took place on a Saturday night, they were not featured once on Setanta's television coverage, and TG4 never made the journey either.
The league campaign began promisingly with three commanding wins over Laois, Galway and Monaghan.
However, it took a last-gasp Michael Murphy free to rescue a point against Meath in Ballybofey, before they lost to Down in Newry.
Wins over Louth and Armagh appeared to steady the ship before they travelled to Portugal for a warm-weather training camp.
But on their return they looked a team frayed at the edges and running on empty as they took another defeat from Monaghan in the Division Two final.
"It is hard to know. You think going into it that you are in good shape and that you are going to win the game. Looking in at it you can see better, maybe we were tired," McGee reflects.
"It was disappointing how it materialised and losing Rory Kavanagh was disappointing.
"On top of that, losing against Monaghan gives them another psychological boost if we were to play them again. It took a few days but we went back training and had a good session and that is the only way that you can get it out of the system – you can't dwell on it too much."
Another blow landed the week after when Mark McHugh left the panel, along with squad members Antoin McFadden, Gary McFadden and Thomas McKinley.
"Mark obviously was not enjoying it," explains McGee.
"He is studying but you have to respect him. He did the right thing for himself and obviously it will affect the team because he was a great player."
At last weekend's training camp in Inishowen, McGuinness pulled in a number of local players to make up the numbers as they prepared for the Celtic Park clash with Derry.
Given his attention to detail, McGee is well-versed on his own responsibilities looking after Cailean O'Boyle and Emmett McGuckin in the Derry attack.
"We have watched them in a few games and they are very direct, they like to kick the ball into two very strong, physical full-forwards. We are going to have our hands full and they have a lot of pace all over the park."