MONDAY afternoon in Gweedore. Kevin Cassidy's car rolls across the courtyard of the Chúirt hotel and stops in front of the reception entrance. He hops out, strolls into the lobby, greets his interviewer with a firm handshake and leads you to a quiet corner. You are immediately struck by three things.
1) He does not have legs. On a glorious August day in Donegal, Cassidy has spent the morning taking the local children through summer camp. He's still wearing football shorts when you meet, which makes it hard not to notice that the man is anchored by tree trunks.
The basis of his success in the game to date, is laid by this fact. "He is strong going going forward and very good in the air," says Donegal Democrat journalist, Peter Campbell, "but his real strength is his ability to win 50/50 ball. He is built like a tank; when he gets his hands on breaking ball, he doesn't tend to drop it in the tackle."
2) His accent. His mother Anne, is a local woman, but his father Tommy hails from Scotland. Years ago, Anne emigrated and so, Kevin, like his brother Stephen and five sisters, was born in Glasgow. They lived there until he was eight when they moved back to Donegal. At the time of course, he didn't speak a word of Irish, a distinct disadvantage in a Gaeltacht area. He's fluent now, but they say a person's ability to retain their accent is a sign of a strong character; Cassidy still possesses a distinctive Scottish lilt.
3) His confidence. There aren't many 22-year-olds who would be trusted by their manager to speak freely to the media before such a big game. But then, there aren't many players who have notched up the awards he has won so rapidly.
Last year he started the season without a minute of senior intercounty experience to his name. By the end of it, he had claimed an All-Star award. Five months later, when the Donegal county championship (delayed from the previous winter, due to an extended dispute over the eligibility of a St Eunan's player) was finally played off, Cassidy was a member of the first Gweedore team to pick up a county title in 42 years.
At the start of the summer he received what friends described as a very lucrative offer to play football in Chicago. It might have been too good an opportunity to turn down for a footloose, financially pressed college student, but he listened to the advice of his club mates, the county board set him up with a job coaching in the summer camps, and he stayed around.
Now he stands on the brink of an All-Ireland final appearance. Some players spend a lifetime toiling in vain for the list of achievements he has notched up at the age of 22.
But increased success brings added expectation. The greatest triumph of Cassidy's season to date has been his achievement in playing through his mid-summer crisis. The problem was rooted back to last season, where he played with a painful toe injury on each foot, caused by the firm turf of summer pitches. The team physiotherapist ordered insoles for his boots to cure the problem but also prescribed two months' complete rest. That break stifled his training regime with Sligo IT for the Sigerson Cup, leaving him short of fitness when the spring campaign opened.
He needed games but didn't get them. In Donegal's second league tie, against Dublin, Cassidy was sent off in contentious circumstances by referee Mick Monahan - coincidentally today's official. Donegal appealed the red card to the Games Administration Committee and the player was exonerated, but not before missing Donegal's third fixture, against Armagh.
Fitness issues were not his only problem. Having picked up his winter award, Cassidy was no longer simply Donegal's left-wing-back, he was their All-Star wing-back. "There was a lot of pressure," recalls Cassidy. "From the start of the league, to the Sligo (championship) game was probably the worst few months I have played football. In the league, if some other county was giving a lad a chance, he'd be coming out to prove himself against you, because you were the All-Star. People from your own county expected more too. You might have had a good game, but if you didn't have an outstanding game, they'd be giving you stick."
At the beginning of June, Donegal crashed out of the Ulster championship after a miserable display against Fermanagh, but the lowest point of Cassidy's season was still to come.
Six days later, Donegal were due to play the first round of the All-Ireland qualifiers against Longford. The day before the game, Cassidy attended the wedding of a Gweedore club mate. The arrangement was cleared with the management on the understanding that he'd drink no alcohol and be home by eight. He went out that day with every intention of keeping it. All through the dinner and into the evening, he sipped mineral water.
AS the cutlery was cleared and the band warmed up, the lads from the club got together, the crack flowed, and the clock ticked on. The banter was the perfect relief valve for all the frustrations he had suffered in recent months, his curfew passed and his resolve weakened. Somebody offered him a pint and he allowed the devil's milk to pass his lips.
Brian McEniff's all pervading antennae got a whiff of the indiscretion and Cassidy was too angry with himself to brazen it out. "I rang Brian up that morning, and admitted I'd been drinking. He had a right to axe me from the panel, or do whatever he wanted, but he was unbelievably good about it. He was nearly sorry for the way I was."
But the law had to be laid down. When McEniff named his team later that afternoon, Cassidy was omitted from both the starting 15 and the list of substitutes. He sat through the game from the sideline. "Watching that game was like torture, because I had the chance to be out there playing, but had thrown it away."
It was the lowest point of his career, but perhaps the most valuable one. "I looked at myself then and started asking myself the question: where am I going from here?" The answer came quickly. He left straight after the game that evening, back to Gweedore and trained on his own. For seven days in a row he pushed himself hard on the training field. More importantly, he began to resolve his mental issues; started playing the game on his own terms again, not the way others expected of him.
The next day out, against Sligo, McEniff reinstated him, and the player's redemption has travelled in tandem with Donegal's rejuvenation. He kicked a point in the drawn quarter-final with Galway, but it was his defensive display in the replay that suggested he is back playing at the level that won him an All-Star last season.
In a week where the debate has been heavy and unrelentingly pessimistic about the consequences for Gaelic football following the successes of our northern brethren, it seems remiss to sit with one of the protagonists of the second Ulster, sorry, All-Ireland semi-final, without asking what is possibly the most pertinent question ahead of today's game: Is there any chance of Armagh and Donegal putting on a decent spectacle?
"I don't know." He pauses. " . . . It will be fairly tactical."
A broad grin creases his face. "I know. We need a good one after last week," he laughs. "I suppose, Croke Park's a big field and you can only defend for so long. Fitness levels won't hold up if you've five or six men chasing the ball all the time and you will have some of the best forwards in the country playing. So (eventually) both sets should have plenty of space to show what they can do."
CASSIDY'S optimism, you suspect, stems more from politeness. Truth is, just like Tyrone last week, Donegal will leave concerns about the purity of today's fare to others. Of the four semi-finalists, nobody may exude a more ominous aura than Armagh, but similarly, nobody will fear them less, than Donegal. For they have suffered - and ultimately conquered - so many trials and tribulations over the past 11 months not to worry about the reputations of others.
The fall out from last year's collapse to Dublin led to a humiliating trawl for a manager which revealed that no suitable candidate was interested. Then came relegation from division one and a potentially cataclysmic championship defeat to Fermanagh.
"I think we took too much for granted in the build up to the Fermanagh game. We thought our form would come back without any effort.
"We lived on our reputations a little bit, expected things to happen. We were probably looking a step further, to who we'd get in the next round in Ulster and it totally backfired. Fermanagh were hungrier than us, they wanted it more.
"After that game, the heads were down. Everybody said right, let's plan for next year. Had we got a big team in the first round of the qualifiers, like Armagh, they would probably have wiped the floor with us. But now we're delighted to be playing the All-Ireland champions. We certainly won't be over-awed by them."