McGee the key to conquering Kerry
Was it all a game of bluff, that game that Donegal lost 2-16 to 1-8 in Killarney to Kerry? Having already lost two games in the National League, in all probability Donegal couldn't afford to have tossed away two points, but one thing is clear; from a league game in the middle of March, Jim McGuinness took enough to lay the plans that caught Kerry in Championship action, in Croke Park in August.
Key to Sunday’s 1-12 to 1-10 Donegal quarter-final win over Kerry was their defensive match-ups.
Late on in the week there was a suspicion that Eamon McGee could come in to mark Kieran Donaghy. And up until the 66th minute, the Gweedore man held the two-time All-Star scoreless.
Donaghy's goal, from a lofted handpass by Darren O'Sullivan that allowed the former basketball international to soar high and palm to the net inspired a brief revival from Kerry, yielding two further points from Paul Galvin and Anthony Maher to leave the minimum margin in it as the finishing line came into sight.
That second Kerry point came as McGee fumbled a clearance, giving Kerry a sideline ball that they worked to Maher to take his point. Reflecting after the game, McGee admitted that his nerves were jangling at that point.
“Ah yeah,” he said, “it was a crazy, crazy five or seven minutes there. I hold my hands up there, he just got a foot on me and we don't do it easy in Donegal. It got a wee bit tense but we got over it and we have to try and build on it now.”
Up until that point, McGee had dealt with Donaghy brilliantly. Kerry had floated a few high balls during the early stages, but McGee managed to break the ball away from him to the grateful arms of brother Neil, Paddy McGrath and sweepers Mark McHugh and Frank McGlynn.
Kerry had to change tack and when they threaded it through to Colm Cooper, Neil McGee's anticipation took him to the ball first. With their marquee forwards frustrated, the attacking cohesion Kerry are so famous for wilted.
As for his own performance, McGee wasn't entirely satisfied. “I was happy enough, although I was disappointed he got in for a goal now. He's a top quality player and we are just glad to get over him.”
He continued, “There are more important things about Donegal than Eamon McGee and who he is marking. We've got over Kerry now so that was our target. We went out to beat Kerry. There was pressure on us surely and coming into the last few moments I thought I was done away with nerves there. It was big game, though.”
All week long, this fixture had a fascination for the GAA public, just how the systematic play of Donegal would perform when faced with some of the most naturally-talented players in the country.
Within the camp, it was a challenge that Donegal relished. McGuinness spoke afterwards about the last two years building up to this point and McGee revealed that they were up for it.
“We were saying that it couldn't be anyone else but Kerry that could come out of the hat. We were delighted to get them,” he said.
It's the kind of confidence that comes with finding yourself at home in Croke Park, on the very biggest days. McGee has been a member of the county squad since 2004, and acknowledges that it's only now that Donegal and their support feel like they belong on this stage, encouraged by the youthful enthusiasm of their younger players.
“They have been brought up in the big occasion. Young Paddy McBrearty, Michael Murphy (pictured with Mark McHugh) and these boys. Donegal aren't used to the Croke Park occasion but hopefully it's something we will get used to over the next few years.
“It just took a wee bit of getting adjusted to, Kerry in the Championship in Croke Park, and the lads put the head down and got the result.”
Now Cork await them in the semi-final, another daunting task but one that they will be ready for.
“I just saw wee flashes of their game in the first half,” revealed McGee, “and by all accounts Cork were extremely good.
“The way we have progressed throughout the whole Championship is; the next team is the target.
“We will sit down over whatever timespan we have and prepare for the next team. We will get our recovery session and sit down, look at the plan and go at it hard now over the next three weeks.”