Thursday 17 October 2019

Still time for another chapter between the white lines

Tommy Conlon

Upon first hearing of the Donegal row in November, we felt Jim McGuinness had reacted excessively and unfairly.

Kevin Cassidy had contributed to a book that chronicled the story of the 2011 Ulster championship. He'd contributed a whole lot more to Donegal's best season since 1992. He finished the year with an Ulster title and an All-Star. He'd finished off Kildare in their epic All-Ireland quarter-final with a winning point that was straight out of Hollywood.

Just over three months later, the manager cut him from the squad. McGuinness also ordered his players to boycott the book launch in Gweedore, Cassidy's home parish. The punishment seemed disproportionate to the offence. It smacked of self-importance and a loss of perspective.

It was only a book, after all. The season was over, Donegal football was in a happy place, what harm could it do? The extracts quoted in newspapers had prompted a few headlines, but headlines are a one-day wonder, easily consumed and quickly forgotten. An older manager with more life experience would've let it pass.

Last week we read the Cassidy passages from the book in question, This is our Year. The conclusion here is that McGuinness had a right to take action -- but that he still over-reacted.

He was presumably uncomfortable with the public airing of a few specific dressing room secrets. Cassidy reveals that verbal taunting of opponents became team policy, as opposed to just a random tactic. But, crucially, he says this proposal came from the players, not the manager. And anyway, most managers implicitly condone verbal sledging. No one was greatly surprised to hear that McGuinness had joined the club.

Cassidy also reveals that three hours before they played Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final, McGuinness sequestered the mobile phone of every player and every person connected to the squad, up to and including the bus driver. He wanted no information about their game plan leaking out.

Again, this is the sort of information that a manager would prefer was kept private. But a detail like this is nothing more than gossip, tittle-tattle. One shouldn't assume however that McGuinness reacted because he was personally affronted by the book's content. He probably viewed it as a breach of the group ethos, the collective unity he worked so hard to develop in the first place.

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Ironically, it is only through Cassidy's storytelling that we get to appreciate how powerful the bond among the squad became. He is unstinting in his praise of the manager's vision and determination. There is hardly a negative word in his entire narrative. By the end the reader understands exactly how this hitherto fractured team became united -- and how far they travelled, in one season, under McGuinness.

This sort of bond is the ultimate goal of any manager. And having achieved it, he wants to maintain it at all costs. Perhaps he believes that Cassidy somehow compromised it by going on this solo run; that he broke the all-important circle of trust; and that therefore he cannot be forgiven.

But we doubt very much if Cassidy knew in advance it would be perceived as such. The impression here is that he just wanted to get stuff off his chest. If he is guilty of anything it's naivety: the proof is on pages 213-214, where he walks unwittingly into his own words.

Before the Cavan game McGuinness issued them with wristbands. There were symbols on the wristbands, letters and numbers. "The true meaning of the bands is kept a secret," writes Cassidy. "That's the thing about trust in Donegal this year, it won't get out. If it was a few years ago, everybody would know what they mean. It's a symbol of unity. We're in this together and we trust each other."

The irony of this statement doesn't seem to have dawned on him. And if that's not naivety, it's hard to know what to call it.

Earlier this month, the Donegal panel travelled to Florida for a holiday. They left Cassidy behind. And last week the team captain, Michael Murphy, defended McGuinness's stance. "Kevin stepped out of line," he said, "and that was agreed by everyone."

Every Donegal player bought into the primacy of the group mentality last season. But this is starting to sound like groupthink at this stage. A player who has

proven his heart and honesty for ten years is being treated like a pariah by even his own team-mates. It doesn't seem right or fair.

Jim McGuinness obviously believes that Cassidy broke an important principle. He has good cause to be aggrieved. But he has made his point. It's still only a book. Cassidy served him loyally and came up with a match-winning play under the most mind-bending circumstances against Kildare. Players like those need minding and support. There is more to management than the iron rod.

McGuinness could do worse than check out a paragraph from another book, Keys to the Kingdom, by the Kerry manager Jack O'Connor. At one stage O'Connor is getting his head wrecked by a couple of the ó Sé brothers. Then he writes: "They're the Sé's, though, and you make allowances." The rest, he says, is "only bullshit. They'll do it between the white lines for you."

Cassidy has done it between the white lines, time and again. With this the season of goodwill and all, perhaps it's time for a little bit of forgiveness in the Donegal air.

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