Tuesday 23 January 2018

Burning books and bridges

An excellent year for Donegal football has been soured by the Kevin Cassidy saga, says Dermot Crowe

THERE is something profoundly unsettling about events in Donegal in recent days, culminating in the removal of Kevin Cassidy from the county football squad for breaching confidentiality by taking part in a book detailing his Ulster title-winning season.

In some ways the actions of Jim McGuinness can be seen to make sense, but they can just as easily be depicted as hysterical. And without wanting to be overly precious, there are uncomfortable issues raised about free speech, basic liberties and even simple cop-on. In taking such an imperious stand, McGuinness, needlessly, has been the architect of a bigger crime than Cassidy and created a Burning of the Books controversy that could have been avoided.

Of the various Donegal football disclosures that emerged in recent weeks, the most startling broke on Tuesday last on Highland Radio, approaching 6.0pm. On the station's sports bulletin it was reported that McGuinness had let Cassidy go from the county panel. It beggared belief.

Cassidy is a reigning All Star who McGuinness has foraged with on the playing fields and a year ago coaxed back into inter-county football from retirement. He is also a former county captain and indelibly linked to their crowning moment this year when he kicked a dramatic injury-time winner against Kildare in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Those shared experiences were unwritten contracts more meaningful and potent, one would have thought, than anything committed to paper.

And now, in a bizarre turn of events, these two kindred spirits were irreconcilably estranged. What split them we are given to believe was Cassidy's frank account of his sporting year in a book published a few days before, This is Our Year -- an excellent work containing the disparate stories of all nine Ulster counties striving to win the Anglo-Celt, as relayed by a key participant. All are refreshingly open but it is Cassidy's recollections which have caused the greatest turbulence and ended his career. He hadn't foretold McGuinness of the book, nor divulged the contents, and the manager has deemed this an unacceptable violation of an agreed code of confidentiality that all players had signed up to.

Donegal has a rich history of conflict and controversy but the irony surrounding this episode is that it occurred when least expected, at a time when the county appeared to have found lasting unity and peace. Cassidy has always been known to talk openly about his playing career, even when it painted him in an unflattering light. In not telling McGuinness of his plans, he didn't envisage such an outraged reaction. He certainly could not have anticipated the nuclear option McGuinness has taken. Cassidy's greatest crime has been naivete. McGuinness, meanwhile, has been ruthless and uncompromising.

Cassidy has, in recent days, been told by the management that he is not travelling on the team holiday to the US in a few weeks -- it was felt it would be inappropriate for him to go in the circumstances. How on earth did it come to this? Cassidy knew he was in trouble when he agreed to meet McGuinness, and his assistant Rory Gallagher, in Letterkenny last Tuesday afternoon and there seems no doubt but that his fate was sealed by then. Earlier that day, Highland Radio's Charlie Collins met McGuinness for lunch to discuss a comprehensive report he had given to the county board the previous evening on Donegal's year.

"That (county board report) was the main purpose of the conversation with him," Collins explains, "and I said, 'is there anything else?' And he said, 'well I am having a meeting with Kevin Cassidy to discuss the (book's) contents'. I said, 'can I ring you later to find out how that goes?' I think it was generally known that Jim wasn't too happy with it at that stage. I spoke to him later and he confirmed he had met Kevin Cassidy and as a result he had been released from the panel. That is all he was prepared to say. He wasn't going into the ins and outs."

Collins knows McGuinness a long time and enjoys a good relationship with him. "I was surprised that it had come to that," he says when asked of his immediate reaction. "Obviously you are not privy to what went on in the conversation, but, God, that is a big call to make. The guy has just had an All Star, but then, in hindsight, if one considers what Kevin said and the reaction it has got from a lot of people . . . "

On the previous Friday there was a players and management meeting held to discuss holiday and fundraising issues and the topic of the book came up near the end. Already the Donegal News had carried two extracts mainly featuring strong criticism of the previous management team led by John Joe Doherty. This had already caused a storm. Gaelic Life, edited by the book's author Declan Bogue, had also released an extract containing information about the current regime. But the book itself was not yet in circulation. At the meeting the players were requested not to attend the launch of the book in Cassidy's native Gweedore the following evening. Their families were also told to boycott it. All players complied, including Cassidy's own club-mate Eamonn McGee and members of his family.

Clearly, McGuinness was intent on sending out a clear message to Cassidy that he had acted alone and without due regard to the group's interests and concerns. In boycotting the launch they were demonstrating that he was an isolated figure and that they did not approve of the book or his part in it. Cassidy has been back in training for next year and had done a month's strength and conditioning work but he was not present at that meeting because he was in the US on a short family holiday. He returned the next day, ahead of the launch, and is said to have been angered by the players' absence and McGuinness's part in it.

That all left slim prospects of a favourable outcome to their meeting on Tuesday. Yet despite the strong measure taken by McGuinness, there is a considerable swell of opinion backing him in Donegal. He is believed to have been extremely hurt by Cassidy failing to inform him of his involvement in the book and by the frankness of the details which give an illuminating insight into Donegal's preparations on their way to winning a first Ulster title in 19 years. McGuinness's methods are portrayed in detail, although Cassidy endorses them unequivocally.

At the start of the season the Donegal players were asked to sign two agreements, one an undertaking to adhere to strict rules governing drinking, the other to keep their preparations and strategies in-house and maintain a vow of silence where nobody outside the fold would know their business. McGuinness would have known, as well as anyone, how much of a scourge drinking breaches had been in the past. Stories leaking out from the camp were also manifold and he felt that this also needed to be tackled and controlled.

Not long into the championship he was seen to be true to his word when Adrian Hanlon was axed from the squad for a breach of discipline. He was told there would be no reprieve for the rest of the season. In Cassidy's account of the year there is reference to Hanlon being too distraught and upset to attend the Ulster final and the players prevailed on him to join in their celebration afterwards.

Cassidy, while he had come out of retirement in the past year to play and had emphasised the difficulties in playing inter-county football as a married man with young twins, was ready for another season with Donegal and seeking to surpass this year's feats. Ironically, the last line of the book spells that out poignantly. He is with McGuinness after the defeat by Dublin and informs him he would not be travelling back on the bus but staying in the city.

"See you next year, so," says McGuinness.

"Without a shadow of a doubt, Jim," is his reply.

But such an absolute line as McGuinness is taking is always hard to maintain in any consistent way. At various points during the season little revelations about Donegal's preparations appeared in the media and didn't lead to any internal enquiries or sanctions. And after the season Rory Kavanagh gave an extensive interview to Gaelic Life in which he gave considerable detail on his preparations and the instructions he was being given by McGuinness, relating to diet, tactics, fitness and other areas. Why was Kavanagh immune from censure when Cassidy was not?

McGuinness has transformed Donegal and many see him as having earned the right to run the team as he sees fit. "I know Kevin well and managed him for three years at club level and his problem is naivete in my opinion," says Declan Bonner, the former Donegal player and manager. "You had to realise there had to be implications with some of the stuff that was coming out. Nothing that came out is of any great secret; people the length and breadth of the country would know about tactics that he talks about, there is nothing new there, but I think the problem is the depth of detail. When Jim sat down those guys had to sign a code of confidentiality. That is where he (Cassidy) has fallen down."

Adrian Sweeney, the former player, is also sympathetic towards McGuinness. "Jim would have had the players sign this agreement that they weren't to reveal anything from inside the four walls, so he (Cassidy) hadn't a foot to stand on. Kevin himself probably thought there was no harm in it. Jesus, it caused wild ructions here in the county. I was amazed he hadn't ran it by him. What he said about the JJ Doherty management wasn't on either, they are all local fellas. JJ and Kevin would only live ten minutes apart. I couldn't understand it. There are a lot of things that goes on, you have to watch what you say."

Sweeney doesn't see much scope for a resolution. "I doubt there is any going back. Kevin came out again (in his statement) and said he was glad he wrote the book. I think he disclosed too much of what went on. Jim has earned the confidence of the players, they are eating out of his hands at this stage. I am just sorry he didn't come ten or 15 years ago," says Sweeney, who retired a few years ago.

But it is an exceedingly sour note for Donegal to end the year on. McGuinness has done commendable work in creating a disciplined and hard-working ethos but in this instance his actions are like a throwback to the days of the old Iron Curtain. They shouldn't lose sight of the poetry; otherwise they become just another remorseless, joyless, automaton. At a simple human level, Kevin Cassidy deserved better.

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