'It's amazing I stuck it for so long... it was my life for 12 years'
Kevin Cassidy tells Cliona Foley how he's moved on since being axed by Donegal boss Jim McGuinness
It's three years now since Kevin Cassidy was in 'the bubble', but he knows exactly what the Donegal and Monaghan players will be suffering on Sunday.
"There's nothing like the Ulster final," he recalls. "Clones has a unique atmosphere and, with Donegal playing Monaghan again, it is going to be very special."
His own favourite memory of running the gauntlet in the one-horse town of many drinking holes that is, arguably, Gaelic football's most claustrophobic environment on a provincial final day, dates back to 2002 when Mickey Moran and John Morrison were in charge.
Morrison snuck into Clones two weeks beforehand with a stop-watch. On Ulster final day, as they approached the town's outskirts, he hit the tape button and Paul Brady's The Homes of Donegal filled the Donegal team's bus.
"It took us right up into the stadium and stopped just as we arrived," Cassidy recalls. "Timed to perfection – typical Morrison!"
It is three years since Jim McGuinness controversially cut him loose for co-operating with journalist Declan Bogue on his seminal book about the 2011 Ulster championship.
The canoe that his wife Sarah bought him before McGuinness persuaded him not to retire a year earlier still lies unused at the bottom of the garden. Their twin daughters are now four and they're expecting a third child in December.
A special education teacher in Letterkenny, Cassidy has been especially busy this summer, getting involved in promoting the new tourism initiative 'The Wild Atlantic Way' and setting up a new Irish college with its own unique selling point in Gweedore.
"It's got a GAA element to it, we bring in inter-county players to help out, so it's something a little different," he explains.
"It's a bit like the Wild Atlantic Way, it's something that's totally unique to us. We have everything you'd want here – the coastline, the pubs and restaurants, the beaches. We just didn't know how to sell it best before."
Some of his friends have taken to playing golf by now but Gaelic football still holds Cassidy (32) in its grip.
He is not only still playing – at centre-forward for Gaoth Dobhair who Glenties pipped in their final league game last weekend – but also managing them, with ex-Derry star Paddy Bradley part of his back-room team.
So it's still three nights' training a week plus games, though the player-manager role is "not as hard" as he envisaged.
His shock demotion by McGuinness threw him into the eye of a storm, but Cassidy has always remained philosophical.
He hasn't spoken to him once since but insists: "Our paths just wouldn't cross really. It's not a big deal. Donegal football is about a lot more than myself and Jim McGuinness and, thankfully, it's moved on.
"I actually look back now and find it amazing that I stuck it for so long," he confesses. "Playing for Donegal was my life for 12 years, but it was a bubble. I didn't allow anything else in my life, but when you step away you realise how much you missed.
"Anything else could be going on in the world, but you wouldn't think about it. The team is your family, it's everything, that's what makes our game so unique, but life moves on."
His only chance of catching Sunday's big rematch on TV will be at the airport as they have a 5.30 flight to Tenerife.
He says it was an accidental clash, but you wonder how much a coincidence it is that Cassidy has been abroad for the last three Ulster finals.
He still can't avoid getting sucked into the pre-match speculation as Donegal bid to wrestle back the Ulster title from the men who dethroned them last year when they were flying on one wing.
McGuinness is famous for customising his game plans, but Cassidy doesn't feel he'll reinvent the wheel for this one, just make sure it is properly greased against the team created in Donegal's own likeness: a blanket defence that tackles ferociously and counter-attacks swiftly to two stellar forwards.
"The two teams are a mirror image. With blanket defences you've two options: try and take your chances from distance or drop back and play them at their own game.
"The key to breaking that down is having a huge hunger and desire and lots of patience."
He senses a freshness about Donegal now, apart altogether from their clean bill of health.
Rory Kavanagh will be lining out in his first game this summer (after suspension and injury) and, according to Cassidy, Donegal need himself and Neil Gallagher.
"They need the old heads for a game like this. I'd say they'll use four midfielders by the end. Monaghan are the same; with 10-15 minutes to go they''ll inject fresh legs."
A critic of Donegal's tendency to use the same 17-18 players repeatedly, Cassidy has been heartened by the promotion of Odhran Mac Niallais and Buncrana teenager Darrach O'Connor.
Mac Niallais is a clubmate, "a fabulous footballer. He was half-forward in the league and midfield the last day, very versatile, and if you give him time and space he'll punish you."
Cassidy has also publicly lamented the loss of Mark McHugh, regarding him as an irreplaceable cog in Donegal's game plan.
"The thing about using someone like Frankie McGlynn to replace him is that you lose his other strengths, but actually I don't think Mark's absence will be a factor yet, it'll only be when they get to the big pitch at Croke Park that his loss will be really felt," he reckons.
Discipline will, he predicts, be a major factor, given the pair's recent history.
Donegal were furious at losing McHugh after just nine minutes last year and, since then, Kavanagh got sent off in their league final meeting that boiled over twice.
"Both teams need to be disciplined, especially now with the black card," Cassidy warns.
"That will have been drilled into Donegal anyway, it always has been, but that's not always easy when the stakes are so high."