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Bulked-up Neil McGee will put his body to test for Donegal in All-Ireland Senior football final

By Declan Bogue

Two years ago almost to the day, a horseshoe of journalists stood around the muscular figure of Neil McGee in a corridor of Jackson's Hotel, Ballybofey, asking him about the type of training Donegal were doing.

McGee visibly grimaced, recalling lying in bed in agony not being able to sleep after some sessions.

The consolation for the 28-year-old Gweedore man was that his body type clearly responded to the demands of the training.

In what is increasingly becoming a sport for 'Big Units', McGee earns the ultimate compliment of being known as 'an animal', and not in the Páidí ÓSé sense either.

It was against Tyrone in the first round of the 2013 Championship that his physical gifts were most vividly expressed.

Stephen O'Neill – no shrinking violet himself and a man who had previously dumped no less than Francie Bellew on the seat of his togs – lined up McGee from a distance as he came out of defence.

He threw absolutely everything at him to make a statement hit, but merely pinged off the defender as if it was a brick wall. In that moment, Tyrone's resolve seemed to crumble.

Looking at him now, there are few specimens in the sport like McGee. And he doesn't have any problems sleeping the night after a tough training session anymore.

"Over the years, the body adapts to it. You still get the odd night, but it has never been as bad as the first year."

He's sitting on a high stool at the bar of the Sean McCumhaills clubrooms at the Donegal press event, cup of tea in hand.

The irony of the scene is not lost on him as he is asked about how the image of Donegal to the outsider has gone from the crude imagery of one big long stag party with a football activity to break the weekend up, to one of the meanest outfits in the land.

For many years, Donegal were the other team neutrals would root for. Capable of greatness and farce in equal measures.

For that, they were routinely patronised when they would find themselves in the company of others at International Rules trials, provincial duty or with their college.

"It's true," confirms McGee.

"A lot of those teams in the past would have laughed and looked down at us. To get up to that level and take them down is great but it's not something we would gloat about. We wouldn't be those kind of people, we would be a humble bunch and we are just glad we are where we are and want to make the most of it."

One such player you could see easily fit into the old stereotype is McGee's clubmate Odhran MacNiallais.

With enormous grace and skill levels, you wonder what a couple of heavy beatings might have done to his confidence and self-esteem as a county footballer.

But one way of building mental strength is to equip yourself with physical strength. And when McGee is knocking on your door to get along to the weights sessions, there's no easy way out.

"I travel with him every day, see him every day," says McGee of MacNiallais, a strong contender for Young Player of the Year in his first full season.

"When he first came on, Odhran always had the talent, he is one of the most talented players, he would remind you a bit of Diarmuid Connolly – he had that kind of talent.

"He's married that now with hard work.

"We would train together down in Gaoth Dobhair in the gym and he would have been known a few years ago for skipping the odd gym session. I kept him on his toes this year, I went up to the house to take him down!"

Donegal were in the Lough Erne Golf Resort all of last week preparing for Sunday's final. It's not something they take lightly and this week the panel have been lying low, conserving energy.

There won't be much work done around the county this week, but there will be plenty of revision on Kerry, according to McGee.

Personally, he will be paying particular attention to the module on Kieran 'Star' Donaghy and James O'Donoghue.

"I suppose Star has come on now and he gives them that extra dimension. Where they were depending on low balls in, you can throw any kind of ball in now. We have to be sharp all over the field."

And, throwing out the clue about their Fermanagh trip before the story broke in last Monday's Belfast Telegraph, he said: "We will get away and boys will get assigned to who they will keep tabs on and whatnot. It gives us a while to prepare for it and a while to study for it."

The final examination.

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