Tuesday 12 December 2017

Right where he wants to be

Kevin Cassidy has shown why Donegal were so keen to get him back on board, says Damian Lawlor

Kevin Cassidy: 'Jim (McGuinness) told me we'd win the Ulster final and said we'd be preparing for an All-Ireland quarter-final on Bank Holiday Monday. That was last winter. He was right.' Photo: Declan Doherty
Kevin Cassidy: 'Jim (McGuinness) told me we'd win the Ulster final and said we'd be preparing for an All-Ireland quarter-final on Bank Holiday Monday. That was last winter. He was right.' Photo: Declan Doherty

THE night after ending a 19-year wait for an Ulster title, Kevin Cassidy took to the stage in Donegal town and sang to thousands of jubilant green-and-gold clad supporters.

A devout Celtic fan, he treated the crowd to a rendition of the Scottish club's latest anthem, Depeche Mode's 1981 hit, Just Can't Get Enough. A team that had endured so much heartache bonded with the masses, led in rousing fashion by their captain. There was a danger, however, that their win over Derry would spark celebrations that might never end, bearing in mind the regular breaches of discipline over the past decade.

"Ah, stories of the past were over the top but some were justified too," Cassidy admits now. "A lot of us were in college at that time and were a wee bit wild. We hit the town after the Ulster final and I enjoyed myself as much as anyone; the night after too. But I really noticed the difference in our players. In the past we'd have went on a binge before hitting Dublin for an All-Ireland quarter-final or qualifier. We'd have been beaten and would have hit Copperface Jacks that night. No point in saying otherwise.

"This time around lads were standing there with a drink in their hand on Monday night, enjoying themselves, but wanting to get back on the field. We were back in recovery mode from Monday morning. I suppose the older lads realise the time we've wasted over the past decade and the younger lads are intent on winning an All-Ireland after losing the under 21 final to Dublin in 2010."

On Valentine's Day last year, Cassidy celebrated 100 competitive games for Donegal with a win over Laois in the league at Ballyshannon. Just eight years earlier, he'd come off the bench against Offaly in Tullamore, replacing the injured Kieran Browne, and ended the year with an All Star. He felt the good times would remain on tap but they didn't. "The All Star was brilliant but some of the gloss was definitely taken off because we never moved on and left big matches behind us," he accepts. "It's lost some of the sheen."

After losing by nine points to Armagh in last year's qualifiers, Cassidy decided his time had come. Psychologically, Donegal were scarred from so many big defeats.

They took some stick that Saturday afternoon in Crossmaglen. Colm McFadden was taken off and while settling into the dug-out someone said he'd be receiving a memento for his 100th inter-county appearance at the final whistle. McFadden shot a rueful, ironic smile upon hearing the news just as a TV camera honed in on him. All the public could see was a replaced Donegal player grinning with his side being thrashed.

"We were only going out in hope that day," Cassidy reckons. "Some of the boys weren't happy with the set-up and weren't pulling in the one direction. Once Jamie Clarke goaled for Armagh, we threw in the towel. It was that sort of day.

"Walking off the field I was so sick of it. I'd a fair idea that Jim McGuinness would replace John Joe Doherty and take the senior job in 2011 so I wanted to get away from it all before he was appointed. I was done with football; I wasn't even too bothered about going back to the club."

Other team-mates had grown disillusioned by successive humiliating championship exits, but on taking the helm, McGuinness, a sports psychologist, felt hope still flickered.

Cassidy knew of the under 21s ready to step up but also realised that McGuinness needed the platform of experience to build on. Still, he couldn't even countenance returning as his wife Sarah had just given birth to twins, Nia and Aoife. Then McGuinness got in touch. "We spoke for two hours. He went into everything and said he wasn't taking no for an answer. That was all very well but I laid out my realistic problems . . . making training, two babies, a wife, a job, the loss of appetite. He just told me to think about it."

Meantime, the manager worked on getting his key defender back and tapped into every possible resource to help Donegal football. Later in the year, with outside support, he was able to helicopter Michael Murphy and others from Dublin to Ballybofey for training but his first move was to help Sarah out while Cassidy trained and played matches.

McGuinness also drew up a personal training regime for the 30-year-old which involved cycling and running and didn't demand a return to training until mid-January. Eventually, Cassidy's resistance broke.

"I genuinely didn't want to be one of these lads who retires three or four times in their careers," he laughs. "But Jim just kept ringing back and even Sarah said I'd have to give it a rattle. Jim told me we'd win the Ulster final and said we'd be preparing for an All-Ireland quarter-final on Bank Holiday Monday. That was last winter. He was right." The captain has seen McGuinness trump a number of big-time managers like Kieran McGeeney, Mickey Harte, Liam Bradley, John Brennan and Val Andrews. He led his side to promotion from Division Two after guiding them to the McKenna Cup title in January.

It's been a monumental effort from a young manager. Driving around Gweedore, hoping the spin will send Nia and Aoife to sleep for an hour or two, Cassidy says he knew change was in the offing from his first day back.

"From the very first drill on January 4 things were going to be different," he says. "Unless it was done at breakneck intensity, training was stopped and we did it again, Jim would tell you what was expected and we'd tear into it. I never experienced anything like the intensity. It started with the McKenna Cup and a shower of young lads -- you could tell the hunger was building.

"I played with Jim for a long time and he was always the life and soul of the party," Cassidy recalls. "He enjoyed the crack as much anyone else, but when it came to training and the real tough programme of winter training, he was always the first man to knuckle down. So I had huge respect for him. He's more than a manager to us; he makes sure everything is okay in our personal and work lives because we won't deliver unless we're happy at home.

"In Donegal, we've had a lot of managers and it's easy to blame them now because we have pushed on a little bit but everyone has always been under pressure here in this county and we haven't always dealt with that. This year, the lads just want to train as hard as they can because everything is in place for them."

Such dedication helped slay Kildare in a memorable and epic quarter-final which was won by Cassidy's wonder point from 50 metres out. The Donegal supporters in the stands wouldn't have realised the toil that went into such a pivotal score. During the summer Cassidy and one of his former club managers spent 30 to 40 minutes working on his right foot and then his left. The more he practised, the luckier he got.

"I'd just missed a chance moments before but what the hell had I to lose? If it went wide, it went wide. I'd be pretty comfortable with the left foot; I've always done a wee bit of work on it. It's all practice. I knew the shot was pure when I struck it, like a rugby kicker always knows."

He awoke the next morning with his calves on fire but there was no sitting back and basking; he knows better than anyone that even the mediocre are grandly mythologised in his county. Instead, the team regrouped two days later to evaluate what went wrong in that game -- not just what went right. Their first-half malaise (they only managed three points) needed much scrutiny.

"We were terrible and lucky to be only two behind at the break," he adds. "If we play like that against Dublin, we'll be destroyed. But it gave us something to work on and don't forget we played without our three inside forward men hitting full gear."

There have been no mind games in the lead-up to today's semi-final, unlike the Kildare game where the Lilywhite camp accused Donegal of cynical fouling.

"I know that annoyed Jim but hand on heart I can say that it didn't bother us one little bit," Cassidy says. "We were told the night before the game that it would be in the papers the next day but to ignore it. We knew Kildare must have been rattled about us if they were dripping stuff like this out. It showed they weren't focused on their own game.

"And come on! We were hardly going to listen to that from Kieran or those people! It worked in our favour at the end; it didn't do them much good anyway."

Earlier in the season, another blip threatened to derail their Ulster final bid when the county board refused to put the team up in the Slieve Russell Hotel. Instead, McGuinness unearthed an English-based benefactor to foot the tab. The newspapers led with the story after their defeat of Derry but Cassidy says McGuinness kept the issue to himself.

"We weren't aware of any issue until after the final. In fairness to the county board, they're preparing a Centre of Excellence which accounts for most of their funds but with a team in an Ulster final some people probably felt it was not the right policy to take at that exact time. Anyhow, we knew nothing about it; we thought everything was hunky-dory and Jim kept us away from all that. Sure the players are there to play -- it's the manager's job to make sure that nothing gets in the way. It was nothing to do with us."

They've also had to fight the charge that they are boring to watch; that their suffocating style is killing football, though Cassidy feels it's too easy to attach labels.

"Well, after 90 minutes of extremely punishing football against Kildare we worked the ball all the way up the field and Michael Murphy made the score by skilfully flicking the ball up, holding two Kildare men off and laying it across. Christy Toye's goal? People don't see these things. It's easy to tag us but listen it's been an unreal year to date. We've the Dubs in Croke Park so they can call us what they like. I'm just glad to be in the middle of it all."

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