Cassidy sees light at end of tunnel
Published 09/04/2011 | 05:00
In the aftermath of Donegal's nine-point hammering by Armagh in last year's championship qualifier, Kevin Cassidy's immediate assessment contained more angles than a protractor.
He strongly hinted at retirement and was critical of some unnamed players' attitudes towards training and preparation, but Cassidy was merely exasperated at successive humiliating championship exits.
"We were out of our depth," he said. "And any team that takes those kind of defeats, there is something wrong."
Although he was still only 28 and was team captain, Cassidy announced his retirement from inter-county football just two days later.
His wife was expecting twins in October, and serial devastating defeats had bankrupted his morale and splintered his spirit. After 107 appearances for Donegal, it was all over.
"After that defeat to Armagh, we all had to look at ourselves and that was the reason I decided to walk away," he says now.
"Armagh wiped us off the field and they didn't go on and achieve anything after that. So that gave us a sense of, 'Well if they could do that to us, what could the best team in the country do to us?'.
"You were asking yourself, 'Is it really worth putting the effort in if we're not going to be able to compete?' Donegal football was at a crossroads and it needed a big change.
"I just felt that I'd had enough and that it was time for new blood and new ideas. With the U-21s going well, I felt it was the right time to go."
The malaise was deeply entrenched. After their defeat to Down in last year's Ulster championship, Colm O'Rourke said in his TV analysis that Donegal had been psychologically scarred from too many big defeats.
The team obviously needed to be rebuilt with members of the side which Jim McGuinness managed to last year's All-Ireland U-21 final, but the manager still required the pillars of experience to aid any reconstruction.
After his appointment in July, one of McGuinness' first ports of call was Cassidy.
The two spoke four times over the following months before Cassidy finally reversed his decision in October.
"Jim outlined his plans and told me what I could do for him," says Cassidy. "We just came to an agreement because he knew things were busy here in the house and he appreciated that.
"He drew me up a personal training regime which involved a lot of cycling and running and I didn't have to return to full training until mid-January. It suited me because I was able to come home from work, see the little ones, and then head off for an hour. The set-up is excellent and once you start getting fit, the hunger comes back again and you want to test yourself."
For years, the caricature of Donegal players portrayed them as a talented, fractured and inconsistent bunch.
The reality hasn't been that distorted, but their schizophrenic tendencies and sporadic indiscipline hadn't always created the optimum environment for Donegal to thrive.
In his first interview last July, though, McGuinness was unequivocal about what he expected of his players.
"The first thing is that they will be 100pc committed -- and I mean 100pc," he said. "We have ground to make up and there will have to be a full focus on training."
McGuinness and his players have been true to that promise of total commitment ever since -- training in Donegal has never been as intense as it is now.
"All Jim asks is that we present ourselves in good shape for training every day," says Cassidy.
"That's a fair enough request for any manager to make, but we didn't always honour that in the past.
"There were a few bad issues over the years but Jim has had no real work to do in terms of discipline because we are all willing to do whatever it takes now.
"There is no real fear of old habits creeping back into this squad. We're all mature men now and the young lads coming through have really added a freshness and competitiveness to training."
As a sports psychologist, McGuinness has stuck to the core philosophy of process. He is trying to get the best out of his players and see where that takes them.
"When we first met up, there was none of this stuff, 'This year, we're going for promotion, an Ulster title and an All-Ireland'," says Cassidy.
"We just said that we need to get performances right and be competitive.
"A big thing Jim spoke about was getting pride back in the jersey. Some of those defeats we've taken in the last few years were complete humiliations and we don't want to be in that position again.
"Our whole attitude now is based around honesty -- respect between players, respect between management. We've upped our intensity at training and we're doing whatever it takes for each other. If that's not good enough, fair enough. But at least we'll know that we've given everything. And that's the most important thing."
McGuinness' fingerprints have been clearly visible on the team's tactics and style of play.
As football evolved over the years, Donegal were one of the few top-tier teams who struggled to embrace that new world order.
Cork tore them asunder in 2009 when registering the highest number of points -- 27 -- ever scored in a championship match in Croke Park.
Moreover, Donegal were clueless when faced with a screen defence in last year's championship against Down and Armagh.
Donegal's scoring rate in this campaign has been impressive, and they have the lowest concession ratio in the top three divisions.
"We normally used to go out and literally play a game of football -- 15 on 15," says Cassidy.
"That's not good enough in the modern game because other teams will suffocate you and destroy you.
"It comes back to us working harder for each other. If my man is away down the field, I'm comfortable now that someone else is going to cover for me."
Part of Cassidy's frustration after last year's defeat to Armagh centred on his repositioning at full-forward.
His talent often necessitated him to be a fire-fighter but being such a strong, forceful driving forward and, with the spring of a basketball player, Cassidy's reading of games had always marked him out as a prototype modern wing-back, the position where he won his All Star in 2002.
He was recast as a midfielder in 2007, when he had a highly impressive goal rate, with four goals scored in that year's league and championship.
He was retried as a midfielder again, after Neil Gallagher's departure during the 2009 championship, but reverting to his natural habitat at wing-back was one of the issues he discussed with McGuinness before he returned. That's where he hopes to settle this season.
Mentally, Cassidy also feels in a much better place now than he was last June. The birth of his twins, Nia and Aoife, in October has also given him a different outlook on football and life.
"Before big games in the past, I'd nearly have locked myself away and nobody would have seen me from Thursday until after the game on Sunday," he says.
"Now, you can play with the wee ones, which takes your mind off football.
"It gets tougher with family commitments but being honest, I haven't been enjoying football as much in about five or six years."
A draw tomorrow against Laois will be enough to propel Donegal back to Division 1.
Life could be about to become even more enjoyable.