Tuesday 23 October 2018

Colm Keys explores the shocking rift that is threatening to bring Donegal football to its knees

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Kevin Cassidy's story ends 'This Is Our Year' in the hours after Donegal's All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin last August.

Cassidy is staying on in Dublin that night and informs McGuinness that he won't be back with them on the bus.

"See you next year so," said McGuinness.

"Without a shadow of a doubt, Jim," replied Cassidy.

But within three months they were sitting down together in Letterkenny bringing to an end a decade-long career after Cassidy had broken an apparent confidentiality clause with his collaboration with a writer on a book based around the Ulster championship.

Just over two weeks after winning a second All Star, the man who kicked the second most dramatic point of the 2011 championship -- in the quarter-final against Kildare -- was gone.

It has brought into focus the control GAA managers now want to exercise over their players, the protocols squads are being asked to observe and the psychology applied by a modern young manager to bring transformation and achieve results.

Jim McGuinness first served notice of how he wanted his football teams to play in the 2005 Donegal county final.

He was training and still playing with Naomh Conaill, his home club in Glenties, and they faced the most prolific team in the county, St Eunan's of Letterkenny. The odds were stacked against them.

But Naomh Conaill did just what Donegal have done for most of 2011. They defended with bodies probably never committed in such numbers before.

It was risky and revolutionary, but it frustrated St Eunan's and eventually the 10/1 outsiders prevailed. The scoreline was 0-10 to 1-5. McGuinness had his blueprint.

When he took over the county U-21s and subsequently the Donegal senior team it stood to reason that he would prioritise defence. Mickey Harte's Tyrone was their guiding light in so many ways.

Few thought, however, he would ever dare to go as far as he did in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin last August. It finished 0-8 to 0-6 to Dublin. On the same day, Manchester United beat Arsenal 8-2! But McGuinness was unapologetic for how his team set up.

As a player he was energetic and committed. In his first year as a squad member, Donegal won their only All-Ireland title, but they never got near those heights again.

McGuinness has been to college for most of his adult life: Tralee IT, University of Ulster in Jordanstown and John Moores University in Liverpool, where he completed his masters in sports psychology.

Sport, leisure and activity have been the themes, and along the way he had absorbed a lot of information that potentially makes him the complete management package. He was in his early 30s before his college days ended, having sat his Leaving Cert again in his early 20s.

He has had tragedy in his life too, losing a brother in a car accident that he himself was involved in as they were heading south through Fermanagh in 1998, not long after an Ulster final defeat to Derry.

In recent years he has set up Achieve Consultancy that provides motivational and coaching skills to the worlds of sport and business. But it's for his radical overhaul of Donegal football inside 12 months that he is now best known.

Donegal were notorious for their poor discipline and sometimes naive approach to football in the harsh environment of Ulster; McGuinness sought to be different.

By asking each member of his squad to agree to confidentiality and discipline clauses, he sought to exercise control over almost every aspect of their football lives. As a manager he's not alone in seeking such binding agreement.

But in Donegal so much dirty linen has been washed in public with regard to the senior football team, McGuinness wanted tight unity and ultimate secrecy.

When young forward Adrian Hanlon went out for drinks on the Monday night after the Antrim game in May, McGuinness found out and dropped him from the squad. Their next game was still four weeks away but there were rules to observe. No mercy.

Nothing reflects the desire for secrecy more than the way he set about revealing the team to play Dublin.

Three hours before throw-in, he gathered up every mobile phone from the players and back-room staff, zipped them in the bag and effectively shut off contact with the outside the world. Then he revealed how Donegal were going to play.

As much as the content revealed in in 'This Is Our Year' however, it is the absence of consent and prior knowledge that has irked the manager.

How he couldn't control what was ultimately out of his control?



Kevin Cassidy was determined to collaborate with the author for this book. So much so that he didn't inform his manager. To do so would have ceded control as to what he could say -- or he might have been met with a refusal to co-operate altogether.

Honest and engaging as he is, Cassidy pressed ahead and avoided censorship. He must have known the potential consequences.

But he lives as he plays -- with a free spirit and a big heart. His job involves working with children with learning disabilities in Letterkenny, a challenge he took to push himself out of his comfort zone with a job a in a local primary school in Gweedore.

It wasn't all plan sailing for him growing up, with his parents' split bound to have an affect on him.

Through Cassidy, the book also gives an insight into some of the drinking sessions that forged Donegal's reputation as the hardest party animals in the game.

He details how just three players returned home on the team bus on the night that they drew with Dublin in the 2002 All-Ireland quarter-final, the rest remaining behind to soak up Dublin on a Bank Holiday Sunday night.

"We went to the Camden Court Hotel where the dinner was. We sat there to eat, drinking Ballygowan, and then somebody came up with the idea that we should be allowed two pints each," he recalled. The rest is history.

Then manager Mickey Moran and John Morrisson subsequently left and the vibe was that Donegal were out of control. Brian McEniff stepped in, but he too struggled with the drinking culture. He dropped Cassidy for a qualifier match against Longford after the player had stayed up until the early hours that morning, drinking at a wedding in Gweedore.

Brian McIver dropped him in 2006 for more minor offences and he spent the summer of that year in America before returning. In the book he also reveals a drinking session after the '07 inter-provincials in Dublin that saw the Donegal players end up in the airport bar early on a Sunday morning.

"The airport, why?" asked one other player on hearing where they had taken flight to. "Because the airport bar doesn't close," came the reply.

When Cassidy commits, however, he can endure punishing regimes and his devotion to practice is also reflected in his chapters. Nicknamed 'Cass', he is hugely popular around his own north west Donegal environment and has been inspiring on the field for his county through most of his career.

He won an All Star in his first year as a Donegal player, and now it seems he has won one in his last.



'This Is Our Year' is a collaboration with central characters in the nine counties that participate in the Ulster championship. Written by Fermanagh journalist Declan Bogue, editor of the weekly Ulster GAA magazine 'Gaelic Life', it charts the journey of each character through the season, sharing some of their innermost thoughts.

Tyrone's Ryan McMenamin shines a light on the darker side of his game, how Harte admonished him for his 'altercation' with Kerry's Paul Galvin in a '09 league match in Omagh and gives an insight into the unspoken motivation after Michaela Harte's tragic death in early January.

Monaghan's Dick Clerkin gives a perspective on the changing of the guard in autumn 2010 while, as captain, Barry Owens was a central character in the Fermanagh split last March.

But as Donegal keep progressing, Cassidy emerges as the main protagonist, his honesty making him the compelling character. What he says, however, goes against the principles of what McGuinness was trying to achieve.

For the writer and the reader, it gives a three-dimensional image of how Donegal went about their business. For McGuinness, it was too much taken too far.

The detail is revealing yet not altogether surprising.

That the players deliberately sought to engage in "nasty" trash-talking with opponents on the basis of what they had seen from an American footballer on YouTube, that McGuinness got them into a hotel ballroom in Cavan prior to their Ulster quarter-final, got them to lie down on the floor in darkness and go to sleep as he talked to them, the extreme nature of some of the training sessions that left the players physically sick -- almost every team can identify with some elements of that.

Except this crystallises it, puts it on record, banks it for the future.

Some other detail is already being disputed. John Joe Doherty, the previous manager, said this week that he had conducted his own checks on Cassidy's assertion of a player revolt and found no evidence. Mark McHugh's ability to run a 200 metres sprint in 20.4 seconds puts him close to Olympic standard!

Read this superbly crafted book in its entirety and you appreciate the journey each player has taken. You also appreciate the respect Cassidy has for his team-mates and manager, how he is so happy to have left the bad old days of Donegal behind him and embrace a new framework. But that has been lost to this controversy.



McGuinness has made the biggest decision he is ever likely to make. By asking the Donegal players from attending the book launch in Gweedore last Saturday night, it was clear to everyoen that extreme action was coming down the line this week.

Cassidy has said nothing that hasn't been presumed about Donegal anyway.

For an amateur to be moved on as he has been seems harsh and excessive. By removing him from the squad, the Donegal manager may have inadvertently drawn much more attention to this than they had planned. This would have faded quite quickly without his removal.

But when McGuinness laid ground rules, everyone had to observe them. Even their two-time All Star. It will cause unease among some players and it will hang over the squad for many months to come.

Cassidy is an inspirational figure. But clearly no one is above the ground rules laid down by McGuinness. There is no going back.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport