Thursday 18 January 2018

‘Too much has been said and done since to change the way things are ... but I wish the boys the best’ -- Kevin Cassidy

'Too much has been saidand done since to changethe way things are . . . but I wish the boys the best'Kevin Cassidy tells Damian Lawlor why he won't be back in the Donegal jersey -- at least not this year

AS awkward TV moments go, this one took some beating. It was early February in O'Donnell Park and Laois had just defeated Donegal in the second round of the National League.

Moments after the game TG4's Mícheál ó Domhnaill sought out Jim McGuinness for a post-match interview, not that anyone really cared for the Donegal boss's match analysis. They were more interested in finding out if Kevin Cassidy had a future with the team.

Two months earlier, the Gweedore player, a two-time All Star, was dropped for giving a fly-on-the-wall account of the Donegal camp in Declan Bogue's book This Is Our Year.

You could tell there was still serious tension between both men during ó Domhnaill's TG4 interview. McGuinness stood with arms folded, answering questions but clearly unimpressed that Cassidy, a TG4 pundit on the day, was only two feet away from him. When questioned on Cassidy's future, the manager ruled out a return for his former lieutenant. Not surprisingly, he declined a request to share his views with TG4 three weeks later when Donegal beat Cork.

"It wasn't simple for anyone involved," says Cassidy of that close encounter. "In the days afterwards a lot of people came up and wondered if I was annoyed as well with what happened, being so close to Jim when he was talking about me and that, but TG4 have a job to do. That goes for Mícheál ó Domhnaill as well. He was only asking questions the public would have wanted him to. If he didn't I'm sure he would have a boss onto him."

The interview was replayed on TV time and again. The indifference of two such key Donegal figures to each other would have been inconceivable when Cassidy's point took his side past Kildare and into the All-Ireland semi-final. Cassidy, however, remains philosophical about it all.

"Anyone who is in a position to serve as a player, manager or pundit in the modern game knows full well that you have to put yourself out there -- it's part and parcel of the sport. Sometimes you have to accept what comes your way and that TV interview was always going to be uneasy but it had to be done too. Jim is the county manager and he would have understood that people wanted to know what was going on."

There's no point raking back over the coals of the fallout from the book, an intriguing insight into the 2011 Ulster championship. It is sad, though, that two men who had such respect for each other have gone their separate ways. Perhaps a line was drawn in the sand when Cassidy and his wife, Sarah, were left off the team holiday to Florida last November. That seemed an extremely harsh sanction.

There's a big gulf now. While McGuinness prepares his side for battle at Breffni Park in the Ulster quarter-final this afternoon, Cassidy and his wife will be attending the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse show at Omagh with their little twins Nia and Aoife. Ironically, in This is Our Year he frequently mentioned his guilt at leaving Sarah to look after their babies while he trained and played matches.

"I wanted to go to Breffni Park," he says. "But Sarah just reckoned that after all the time I missed during the past couple of years that it was better to go to see Mickey Mouse with her and the girls. She's right too. I wouldn't have minded going to the game because I got my head around what happened very quickly. Once the call was made by Jim it was time for me to drive on. Around the end of November, I accepted it and got the whole affair out of my head. I completely switched off from the county scene. The only thing that's incredible is that I'm now so far removed from the whole thing compared to last season when I was so central and wrapped up in the whole thing. It's mad.

"Thankfully, though, the fuss has died down a little. Initially, people were constantly onto me asking if the two of us would sort things out, asking if I was coming back. Now, I think everyone has accepted it. The team has certainly moved on and I have to as well -- for them it's all about what happens on the field and for me it's about what happens in my life."

One or two of the Donegal players publicly backed McGuinness' decision to cull Cassidy but he bears them no ill will. He doesn't mind either that the entire panel was discouraged from attending the Gweedore launch of the book.

"Nah, we all have our opinions when it comes to sport," he says. "It's early in Jim's managerial career and he has done a great job with the lads. He has his plans. I know for sure that some of the players would have their own thoughts on the whole episode and others would support Jim and the call he made. But at the end of the day it's football. I wouldn't have anything against the boys; I'd still have massive time for them and I'd hope that most of them would have time for me."

He's keen to move the conversation along, but we push him just a little further. The season is really only taking off and our sources have indicated that another meeting was held between the two quite recently, although with little arising from it. Is there not yet some hope of reconciliation?

"I knew from the first minute that I left the meeting with Jim that there was no going back," Cassidy states. "The bottom line is that Declan approached me about giving him a hand with the book and I thought it was a great angle to come at -- getting an insight from players across nine counties. I was in a position to help him, so I said why not? I don't think I said anything that people didn't already know about our team and I don't regret getting involved with the book at all. Declan wanted to give an insight into how Ulster football works and I helped him out, it's as simple as that. I'd probably do it again if I was asked.

"But too much has been said and done since to change the way things are. To fully perform I have to be able to give 100 per cent to people and after what happened I wouldn't have been able to do that. I wish the boys all the best and I still think that they can win Ulster again but I've kept away from the scene. Even though I'm very close to a lot of the lads on the panel, I don't talk football to them."

He contemplated a few trips here and there this summer to keep himself busy but once he returned to club duty he decided instead to immerse himself on home ground and has so far racked up eight games with Gweedore this season.

"I'm actually getting more regular game-time -- when you're with the county team you're not really allowed play much with the club at this stage of the year. I'm playing away at midfield and I'm enjoying it too; I can shower, change and be back with the family within 15 minutes. I'm still looking after my diet and working hard in the gym. On that side of things, I couldn't go back to the club only half-fit. I'd be letting everyone down, not least myself."

He has some work lined up with Newstalk as a co-commentator this summer and will continue to do bits and pieces for TG4 and Radio na Gaeltactha and in that role as pundit he feels that Donegal should have enough to get over Cavan this afternoon.

"I think the boys will win but they might find it tough today. Don't forget that Terry Hyland came up with a system to get past Jim's defensive plan at under 21 level and it worked for him. We're not as defensive this year but people will be able to tell more today. We're still defence-minded to a certain extent but Donegal have a right chance of winning Ulster again and when there is silverware at stake the shackles sometimes have to come off. You have to go more offensive."

They had one foot in last year's All-Ireland final when they led Dublin by three points in that intense semi-final. After Diarmuid Connolly was sent off, however, Donegal didn't register a score in the 22 minutes they had with an extra man.

"Last summer we did what we did," Cassidy sighs. "I don't have any regrets over the way we played in general. Maybe, though, when the Dubs made a few substitutions we should have gone for the jugular and tried to extend our lead, especially after they lost Connolly. But the stakes were high and we were playing to a game plan that Jim had for us, one that worked all year long, so we stuck to it. We gave away a few silly frees which didn't help and maybe we tensed up as the game went into its final moments. It was the wrong thing to do but still it was a decent season. We didn't pay much heed to what was being said about us -- we were winning games for the most part and after where we came from that was huge.

"This year they are more than capable of doing well again. You'd imagine that our belief should be greater after last season. Down the line I'd look at Cork too -- they have three serious lads back from injury and that will give them a huge boost. There's an opening for them, I feel. It's nothing to do with Dublin specifically but any football team would struggle to put back-to-back titles together so they could be vulnerable. I'm looking forward to it all."

It's shameful to have Donegal lining up without Cassidy, still only 30 and a rare talent, while Cavan play without the unpredictable but sometimes brilliant Seanie Johnston. At a time when Gaelic football needs all its heroes, the neutral at Breffni Park today has been robbed of seeing two sublime athletes.

That's distressing enough to check just one last time with Cassidy if he's absolutely sure the door is closed.

"It is for this year anyway," he says. "You never know what will happen in the future. If I'm still playing well enough and I'm needed again, it could change."

Let's hope it does. For Donegal's sake. For our sake too.

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