Thursday 14 December 2017

Former wild child wants football's natural high

Dermot Crowe

AH,the Donegal footballers - now they enjoyed a glass of wine with their meal. Take 2002. Having drawn with Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-finals on August Bank Holiday Monday, a good number of the squad repaired to a bar to slake their substantial thirst. Along came the bus to ferry them home. A replay loomed on Saturday week but that didn't show on the small picture. No.

AH,the Donegal footballers - now they enjoyed a glass of wine with their meal. Take 2002. Having drawn with Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-finals on August Bank Holiday Monday, a good number of the squad repaired to a bar to slake their substantial thirst. Along came the bus to ferry them home. A replay loomed on Saturday week but that didn't show on the small picture. No. Donegal could wait.

In the midst of the socialising was Kevin Cassidy, 21, who would later be conferred with an All-Star for a richly promising maiden season. The accolade blew a little air back into Donegal's balloon. But not much: the replay had inflicted carnage, Dublin winning with none of the discomfort of the first day. Donegal's antics on the night of the drawn game, and eventual fate, spawned a morality play.

Cassidy has been burned a few times since. Last year he was dropped from the squad for breaching a drinking rule, along with his friend and fellow Gweedore clubman Eamonn McGee, and missed the entire championship. The tide had turned by then but in 2002 Donegal were still fond of a blow-out. The day after they drew with Dublin he and several others awoke to the prospect of a five-hour bus ride and the appalling vista of a displeased Mickey Moran at training.

Donegal had a booze culture and Cassidy stepped right into it

Moran didn't throw an incandescent fit when so many stayed on after the Dublin match. It wasn't his way. But Cassidy knows that it played a big part in his decision to depart later that year. "Looking back now some of the stuff we did was silly to be honest," he says, now aged 25 and restored to the panel. "You had Armagh and Tyrone taking Gaelic to a different level. Like, we took our games serious and our training serious but after the game we thought well, sure that was a championship game, you're entitled to a good session now.

"Everyone had two bags with him. One bag for the game, one for your 'going-out-clothes' when up in Dublin."

Cassidy woke up the morning after they drew with Dublin realising that he and several others were in need of some way home. They passed on the five-hour bus trip. Then Cassidy had an idea. He contacted a friend working in Dublin airport and found there was a flight heading to Donegal that afternoon. They hopped on it. Salvation.

He feels sympathy for Mickey Moran, remembering him waiting and wondering where everybody was when the bus arrived the previous evening. Mark Crossan, the team captain, delivered the news. "Mark went back out and spoke to Mickey. He wasn't too happy and rightly so. He said, 'lads, training tomorrow night, every man be there.' The Dubs absolutely beat us off the field the next day."

One can only imagine what kind of desultory sermons this award-winning display of indiscipline provoked from the pulpits of Armagh and Tyrone. Donegal had a booze culture and Cassidy stepped right into it, arriving in the panel at 19, thinking a scatter of pints after a championship match was as natural as night follows day.

He looks back only a little bruised by the experience. While some players have hinted at drinking being a problem in Donegal football, and others played it down, Cassidy openly admits that there were serious issues facing managers Moran, Brian McEniff and, more recently, Brian McIver. He holds his hand up, takes the blame, and feels that he has moved on.

We are in his native Gweedore, set against Mount Errigal which governs the local landscape. Cassidy is building a home here and next year he'll be getting married. "It's about time, I think; that's the wild days over now, hopefully. I need to settle and keep my head down."

And he had some wild days. In 2003, under McEniff, Fermanagh beat Donegal in the championship. Their first qualifier was in Ballybofey against Longford on a Saturday evening. The day before, a wedding took place in Gweedore. Cassidy went along with the intention of having the dinner and slipping away. He left around five or six the next morning, having attended a party after the main event.

Yes, it is like one of those nightmares where you wake up at exam time with no work done. "Things were not going that well and I was at that point a bit fed up with football. I ended up going on the beer that night. After that I stopped messing, cos I'll never forget it. At the time, I thought, 'ah sound, the game is at a quarter past six,' but this is a championship game we're talking about.

"I woke up at 12.0 (the next day) and there were a couple of missed calls on the phone. And it was just then that I thought, 'what have you done?' I rang John Gildea, he was the most senior player at the time. 'How's things, wee Kevin?' He'd obviously heard. I went up and Brian (McEniff) said, rightly so, 'you're dropped off the team.'"

Better off perhaps? "Oh better off surely."

He is grateful for small mercies. "Thank God we beat Longford that day. We went on to an All-Ireland semi-final that year. I was sitting on the bench and at the start Longford were going very well and I was thinking if they beat us I'm going to get some slating." McEniff, though he would be criticised in some quarters for being too lenient, didn't ostracise him.

"He knew I was in bad form after that game. The rest of the boys headed out that night, I was home, he rang and I told him I was sickened. He told me to get the head up and he'd see me on Tuesday night. Went back training Tuesday night, trained like an animal then."

The season still had legs and they reached an All-Ireland semi-final against Armagh, a game they were unlucky to lose. In 2004 they were crushed by the same team in the Ulster final in Croke Park, having knocked out Tyrone. The season ended in defeat to Fermanagh at Clones. McEniff stayed for one more year before McIver arrived like a new teacher anxious to straighten an unruly class.

"None of us knew too much about Brian. The minute he walked in the door it was a totally professional approach, he had known what had been going on and there was no way he was going to stand for it. We were kind of glad of that too - the last few years we knew we let a few games slip because we weren't doing the proper recovery that day."

He heard from the players how much things had changed during their 2006 championship campaign because he wasn't there himself. The night they beat Westmeath in the Division 2 league semi-finals he and McGee had a few bottles of beer in a local. They had a club match the following day and played. But with a week to the league final against Louth a drink ban was in place.

Both players were dropped and rumours spread that they had become embroiled in a row in the pub. McGee had already been on a warning and earlier in the year Cassidy was spoken to after the players went drinking following a McKenna Cup game. Along the way Shane Carr pulled out of the panel, frustrated when McGee jumped the queue in the subs despite having stepped out of line. When McGee and Cassidy were cited again, McIver had to act.

Though dropped for the league final, McGee took his medicine and eventually came back. Cassidy went to Boston for three months, unhappy that the county board made a public statement claiming a serious breach of discipline. His beef was with the board, not McIver.

"If it happened in any other county it would be swept under the carpet, kept indoors, but within a couple of hours the whole country knew about it. I suppose you feel that these boys don't care about you, and then I got a good offer to go to the States. Ok, rules are rules, but I spoke to a rake of friends in other county panels and they said if that happened they would have an internal discussion, it would be sorted out and that would be it."

He wanted to travel and between Gweedore and Donegal, football has allowed him little space to do so since he was a teenager. In Boston he played for fun and watched Donegal play championship in a bar called the Banshee at seven in the morning. Since then he has pocketed a county medal with Gweedore and returned with McIver's blessing, eager to restore himself to previous levels of performance.

Today, after two wins in the league, they meet a Dublin team feeling some degree of early season pressure. Donegal's last match was a decisive beating from Tyrone in the McKenna Cup.

So, two wounded concerns lock horns at Ballyshannon. An Ulster medal is the longer-term target. No drinking session, he says, could match that sensation.

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