Missing the medal: Best decision I ever made, says Kevin Cassidy

Tomorrow, at 37, Kevin Cassidy plays for Gaoth Dobhair in the Ulster Club SFC semi-final. Regarded as the unluckiest man in Donegal for missing the 2012 All-Ireland success, he sits down with the man whose book led to his exile from Jim McGuinness’ setup. He doesn’t have any regrets.

‘We’re a special kind of people’

The travelling fans from Naomh Conaill could hardly believe their eyes as they crawled along the narrow lanes of Magheragallon towards the home of Gaoth Dobhair CLG.

There for all to see, was an eight by four-foot sign with the message; ‘We’re a special kind of people, we breed defiance. We never fear. Gaoth Dobhair Abú.’

A declaration of war? Perhaps. Probably.

Their surprise didn’t stop there. From one end of the parish to the other, Gaoth Dobhair’s former player Stephen Cassidy had taken it upon himself to fasten a green and white flag to almost everything that stood upright. 180 flags in all. It felt a bit much for a Championship group stage game.

Over the past few years, Naomh Conaill hadn’t any problems with dismissing Gaoth Dobhair. In 2016, they beat them by 12 points in a county semi-final, prompting the retirement of Kevin Cassidy.

Cassidy was persuaded back the next year when Mervyn O’Donnell took the job nobody wanted, promising to restore the club’s honesty. They faced Naomh Conaill in the county semi-final and although they lost, the margin was a point.

This year, Gaoth Dobhair won 0-12 to 0-6. The teams met again in the final and the Gaeltacht men clawed their way to their first Dr Maguire Cup since 2006. Back on top of the leaderboard with 15.

Now, they take on possibly the greatest ever club — Crossmaglen Rangers — in the Ulster club semi-final in Omagh this Sunday.

On the edge of the square is Stephen’s brother Kevin Cassidy, 37 years old. Two-time All-Star. A serious specimen yet.

CALM BEFORE THE STORM: Jim McGuinness, Michael Murphy, and Kevin Cassidy, in Letterkenny ahead of the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. In November 2011 Cassidy was dropped from the Donegal panel. Picture: Oliver McVeigh /Sportsfile
CALM BEFORE THE STORM: Jim McGuinness, Michael Murphy, and Kevin Cassidy, in Letterkenny ahead of the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. In November 2011 Cassidy was dropped from the Donegal panel. Picture: Oliver McVeigh /Sportsfile

Seven years almost to the day he was cut from the Donegal squad by manager Jim McGuinness for participating in a season diary of Ulster football personalities. When you thought it couldn’t get any uglier, it did when McGuinness later barred Cassidy and his wife Sarah from going on the team holiday.

Six years ago, he watched his former teammates win an All-Ireland, from the comfort of his own sofa.

And now he sits down with the author of the book that cost him all that.

Me. Myself.

Or as they say in Gaoth Dobhair; ‘Mise.’

‘WE BREED DEFIANCE’

Declan Bogue: Let's get straight into it. There are many people - including myself - that think you are the unluckiest man in Donegal.

Kevin Cassidy: Do you know what? This is 100% honest, but I never once turned to myself and said, ‘fuck, I was hard done by there.

People say to me that I am talking shit. People on nights out asking me about you; Do you talk to him?; Do I talk to you? (Laughs).

People think because that happened that I would have a bad relationship with yourself. Or that I see myself as an unlucky person. That couldn't be further from the truth.”

DB: I have one friend who, if we are at a social occasion, likes to introduce me as ‘the man who cost Kevin Cassidy a Celtic Cross.

KC: Do you know what I have noticed, and I would say you see this too, but it is amazing how that affected other people.

The amount of people from other counties that come up to me and they say, Do you know what, I am absolutely heart-broken that happened to you. But they feel worse than I do!

It just shows you the power of the GAA. I never thought it was anything else other than ‘that's that thing between myself and Declan and that's it done.

The amount of genuine people concerned that told me they thought about it for months afterwards. I always just say, ‘aye, but sure what can you do?

I don't know if it is just the way I am as a person, but there is not one day I look back and say to myself, I shouldn't have done that.

DB: Surely some family members must have been hurt by you being cut from the panel by Jim McGuinness at the time?

KC: On my side of the family, they are all like me. Not once did they turn around and say, Declan should have done this or that.They naturally stood up for me. But if it hurt them, they didn't tell me it hurt them.

But like, my answer is always; Fucking hell, I know this is the strangest thing to say, but it's only a game of football.

To be honest, I never started out wanting to play for Donegal. It was never an ambition of mine to walk up those steps and lift Sam Maguire.

When you are in a team, you want to reach that because it is the highest you can go. Maybe it would have been different if I grew up and it would have been my biggest ambition.”

DB: You left Glasgow at 9?

KC: Yeah.

DB: So you didn't have those common childhood dreams of playing for Donegal, rather Celtic?

KC: I really loved playing for Donegal and I was really proud to do it. And hopefully if my son chooses to do that now, it is a fantastic thing to do.

But there is an element of that. I was a soccer player and then the first thing that turned me was Stephen playing for Gaoth Dobhair and they won a Ghaeltacht Championship. That was my first introduction to it and then I met Sarah (Gallagher, his wife whose father Willie played for Donegal), obviously her history and family was steeped in it.

I spent time listening in Teach Mhic to the older boys in the bar. My ambitions were always Gaoth Dobhair.

The first time we won the Championship, I was thinking, It doesn't matter what I do now, we have done this.

If you are a sportsman, you want to be the best you can be but it wasn't a childhood dream to win Sam Maguire, if I am being honest.”

DB: So where were you in 2012 when Donegal did?

KC:I was sitting at home. Like, it's surreal. I had been in Boston and Donegal beat Cork in the semi-final. I had watched the Kerry game in New York and at that time Cork were a good outfit.

But they beat Cork that morning. Sarah and them had gone home and I was left behind because we were playing in the final that day in Boston. So I was listening to the radio and once they beat Cork I know they had it. Mayo weren't going to stop them.

So the actual day of the final it didn't affect me because I knew at that stage the game was won.

Whenever I was in the car going to training with the McGee brothers, we always talked about bringing Sam into Gaoth Dobhair and how great that would be.

So on the Wednesday they were coming into Gaoth Dobhair. I was just in the house with Sarah. But you know our house, it's just across from the GAA pitch.

I was sitting eating Weetabix about half eleven at night. I could see Sarah moving away, she was trying to pull the curtains as the cavalcade was taking the cup there.

She was expecting me to be off. But if you are like that in general, then something in life is going to bring you down. If I was going around moping and crying that I didn't have an All-Ireland medal, then I wouldn't have done half the things I did after that.”

DB: At the time, we talked about this. I told you to say some of those discussions were off the record, blame me and then you wouldn't lose your place. Why didn't you?”

KC: I just wouldn't do that.

The way I see it, if I do something, I do it. There is no point saying you didn't mean it, or shy away from it. I just wouldn't have done it and to be honest, it didn't enter my mind once to say, ‘Oh fuck, I need to take care of this.You are going to find this strange. But I never read our book.I haven't read Rory Kavanagh's book either and I haven't read Jim's.”

DB: Never read Jim's?

KC: No. I just have no interest. It's not out of stubbornness or bitterness that I haven't read it. It's just… I don't mean this to sound bad or anything, but I have no interest in what he has to say.”

DB: Ok, what are the relationships like with former county teammates from that time? Even things in Gaoth Dobhair soured for a while.”

KC: I was explaining about Eamonn and Neil (McGee).

That was important to me (to repair the relationships) because they are clubmates and friends. This year has sorted all of that. The rest of it is not important.

Who would I see? The likes of (Brendan) Devenney. John Gildea. Adrian Sweeney from time to time. People you would bump into and have a conversation with. But I wouldn't see anyone else.”

DB:That day you were doing the co-commentary with TG4 and McGuinness came over for a toe-curling post-match interview

KC: I am asked about that all the time. I walked away and never thought anything about it until people said it to me. I honestly didn't even feel awkward in that situation. I know your man was asking was I going back and I had said I wasn't going back.

To me, it was a case of ‘you know and I know, so let's cut the bullshit and leave it.

DB: If you went back, you might have played on until 2014 or beyond.”

KC:I weighed all this up before I made the decision. What I thought I might leave behind was an All-Ireland in 2012.

But we would have won it in 2014 and that is not being cocky. I know if I had have been there and Mark McHugh was there, we would have beaten Kerry that day in 2014.

So that's two All-Ireland medals. Chances are you might have won the odd All-Star along the way. But I still stand over the decision.”

DB: A lot of people will be reading these words and not believe it for a second. But I am looking at you now and I know it is authentic.”

KC: I know for a fact that the only people who probably truly believe me are Sarah and Hugh (McGinley, business partner). I don't say it to that many people in fairness.

People come into the pub and say, Ah Jesus Christ, are you sick about missing out? And I have an automatic response now.

DB: I heard Mick McCarthy saying in an interview recently that when he and his wife go for dinner with a new couple, he counts down the minutes until the big question

b>KC: YES! After the second pint is normally the answer.”

DB: I read Jim's autobiography myself. He doesn't mention the approach he made for you to come back into the panel in Easter 2012.”

KC: Listen, that's Jim.

“I don’t know why. Maybe at that time he was trying to save face in front of the squad. But at the end of the day that conversation happened.

“The Thursday before the Easter Holidays he came up to the school. I was planning to go to Lanzarote on the Saturday with my family.

“PJ McGowan (former Donegal Chairman) was there, he set the thing up. Jim said, ‘Listen, let’s just get back in, come back in.’

“I said, ‘How are things going to be?’ and he said, ‘I spoke to the lads, everything is grand.’ - ‘Well, I will need to think about it.’

“At that stage I had a fair idea that Donegal were going to go close. I thought then the text message I sent him… I was sitting on the balcony having a beer and I said, ‘I have thought about this. I don’t think that it is going to do the panel any good by me coming back in. I think it will cause more harm than good. So I am not coming back and I wish you all the best.’

“And that was it.

“I think if I had have went back, maybe they mightn’t have gone on to win it. Who knows? Maybe that unrest, or I was taking somebody’s spot who was getting a game… Myself and Sarah discussed it on holidays and we felt it was the best thing to do.

“It will sound strange to you Dec, and to a lot of people, but it is probably the best decision I ever made in my whole life.

“When I left Lanzarote and went home, within that squad I knew they wouldn’t be far away

“ But I made my peace with it. I just thought, ‘where do I go from here? What do I want to focus on from here?’

“I threw myself into my family, into work, into life. I think I definitely wouldn’t have achieved half the things off the field if I didn’t make that decision.”

‘WE NEVER FEAR’

So what has he achieved? Jesus, where do you start?

Back in 2011 he was teaching in Little Angels, a school in Letterkenny for profoundly handicapped children where he would teach them songs, how to tie their shoelaces, take them to the swimming pool. A job that special people do.

Now, he has been on a sabbatical for some time. He and his best friend Hugh McGinley are on fire with ideas and creativity.

They have a residential Gaelscoil — Coláiste Chú Chulainn — based in Gaoth Dobhair that takes in five-day courses of primary school children and the casual summer holidays crowd.

In the evenings, they organise Céilí Mórs, water sports and so on, everything through the medium of Irish.

It also doubles up as a venue for GAA teams to do a training weekend, where Cassidy himself will conduct a training session and arrange for challenge matches against local sides.

The teams can then stay in Teach Mhicí, the pub that Kevin and Sarah along with other members of Sarah’s family, took over from her parents, Willie and Kathleen.

They have spruced the place up a bit. Gaoth Dobhair footballers of both genders are behind the bar or in the latest innovation; a wood-fired Pizza shop.

“Sarah thinks there is something wrong with me as I can’t sit still. I have to be doing something and if I am not doing something I have to be thinking about something,” he laughs.

“I love holidays but if I am sitting in the house and I have nothing to do, the mind goes into overdrive and I am thinking of this and that. Some people see it as being bad, but I see it as good. It keeps me energised and happy.

“Hugh will tell you there. We have worked together this past ten years and sometimes he will turn off the phone because I am just relentless. If I get an idea, it has to be done now.”

There’s the odd bit of leisure there too. Leisure that couldn’t be enjoyed as an inter-county player.

He spent four summers in America, playing for McBrides’ in Chicago and Donegal in New York where he never touched a drop of beer until his side were finished in their Championships. Each time, he brought his family.

Son Fionn is three on St Stephen’s Day. Aoife and Nia have First Communion in May.

Sarah is keeping well too, recently doing her second Dublin marathon and is kept busy with Teach Mhicí and her teaching job.

He is a regular with RTÉ on co-commentary and files a weekly column for Ulster weekly ‘Gaelic Life.’

A couple of months back, Fionn got his first taste of a Celtic match. Cassidy’s season ticket is in the thick of The Green Brigade. Good times.

Not everything has been easy.

He lost his father on St Brigid’s Day 2013. In truth, he was lost long before that, a victim of his addiction.

“He landed around Christmas Eve (2012) down to the house,” says Cassidy.

“The twins were only newly born. He seen one of them and then I gave him a lift. I dropped him up to the pub and of course he was looking for a few pound for a few pints so I gave him a few pound.

“And then two weeks before he died, I had the twins in the car and noticed him walking in Gaoth Dobhair. So I swung around the car and just as I pulled into the car park of the pub, I could just see him close the door behind him. And he died the following week or so.

“That was kind of the relationship. You know with your father you are always striving for that kind of relationship and that wee turn I did that day was like what I did through my youth. You want that attention but the pub was just the bigger draw.

“It’s funny how that was the last… It just kind of symbolised that’s the way he was.”

Sarah’s parents are still trucking along.

Her mother Kathleen will still venture in behind the bar at Teach Mhicí, but, “We are trying to give her a break. She has worked so hard there. She still enjoys the craic and she will come in behind the bar

and she will help out and stuff.

“But the day to day running, the late nights and the locking up, that’s all taken off her. It was time for her to go and enjoy

her life and the girls were keen for that to happen.”

The Saturday night before Gaoth Dobhair beat Cargin in the Ulster club Championship, Kevin and family were up to visit Sarah’s father Willie for his 94th birthday.

The day after the county final when half of Gaoth Dobhair was sideways and the party reached Teach Mhicí, Willie popped in and ordered up a Smirnoff Ice.

“He has five county Championships,” proudly boasts his son-in-law.

“I was telling the boys how many he had and the McGees were saying they have three and they were catching him.”

‘GAOTH DOBHAIR ABÚ’

“When Mervyn (O’Donnell, manager) came in last year, I was gone. And he said to me that he wanted — not to win anything — but just to be honest. Bring the honesty back to the club, put in the effort and be there on time, when you said you were going to be there,” reflects Cassidy of this renaissance.

He understood where Mervyn comes from. He tackled the role himself, becoming manager at 34 with an inside knowledge of the depth of talent coming through the underage structures through his close friendship with Tom Beag Gillespie, a man who gave hundreds of hours to perfecting Cassidy’s shooting with endless drills in all weathers.

But that year of 2014, Donegal seniors and minors went all the way to the All-Ireland final. Cassidy got his players back five days before the Championship commenced and they never got out of their group.

“I enjoyed the time but it was probably the wrong time for me to take it,” he says.

“Will I ever manage again? Probably not!

“You just think that if you play for Donegal or Gaoth Dobhair at a high level you have to do certain things to get yourself into shape. You expect that everybody else will do that naturally too, but that’s not the way it is. You have all sort of excuses to deal with.”

In his columns in Gaelic Life, he has made no secret that his preference for styles is more closely aligned with Crossmaglen than that which for some years became ‘house style’ in Donegal.

And yet, Gaoth Dobhair looked most vulnerable in the Donegal county final and the Ulster quarter-final while retreating back and trying to protect a lead.

“We discussed this among ourselves,” Cassidy reveals.

“Against St Eunan’s and Glenties, it wasn’t the plan. We had massive rows afterwards and we have some of the most pacy and explosive forwards about. I think there was that much pressure and expectation against Eunan’s and Glenties, and even against Cargin in the second half, we got naturally sucked back into defence.

Gaoth Dobhair’s Kevin Cassidy and Odhran McFadden-Ferry celebrate after the final whistle in the Donegal Club SFC final against Naomh Conaill Glenties in Ballybofey. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/ Sportsfile
Gaoth Dobhair’s Kevin Cassidy and Odhran McFadden-Ferry celebrate after the final whistle in the Donegal Club SFC final against Naomh Conaill Glenties in Ballybofey. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/ Sportsfile

“A lot of those lads, probably 99% of the squad have played for county at some level over the last ten years and they are used to it.

“I really think the game against Crossmaglen will be a real humdinger because our lads love to play ball.”

At full-forward, he is integral to the plan. He picked up two points at crucial times in the county final. Against Cargin he cut loose with three points from play and a fisted goal.

When the game was in the balance he executed a clever tap-down to Michael Carroll to seal the game.

“I started out playing forward with the county minors. We got to the Ulster final and I played full-forward and was replaced in every game, never touched leather in any of the games. Not once!” he recalls.

“Anthony Molloy was the manager. He came and talked to me.

“I was playing midfield for my club and was probably one of the more influential players at that age group. But I wasn’t touching leather and he said he would have to try me somewhere else and put me wing back.

And that’s where I played for 19 years after that.”

Gaoth Dobhair are getting it right. O’Donnell has been assisted by Michael Boyle who spent years as Paul Durcan’s understudy in the Donegal panel and is already showing immense promise as a coach. The commitment is there. The belief is there. John Morrison, Cassidy’s former county co-manager has been on the phone and helped with his individual mental preparations.

Most importantly though, Cassidy and Eamon McGee have mended a serious relationship breakdown.

In September 2016 in his column for the Irish Star, McGee detailed the stinking atmosphere in the dressing room after that 12-point Championship defeat to Naomh Conaill.

‘After Gaoth Dobhair lost to Glenties in the Donegal club championship, Kevin announced that was it for him. He was hanging up his boots,’ McGee wrote.

‘I’ve been through a hell of a lot with that man, but we walked out of that room without saying a word to one another.

‘It’s sad, it’s depressing, and it’s all rooted in the fall-out to the book This Is Our Year that Kevin collaborated on with Declan Bogue.’

He finished that column by leaving both men some wriggle room, his conclusion; ‘I hope we can get back to something like the way we used to be. He’s still the Kevin Cassidy I looked up to when I was 15 years old.’

“Somebody sent me a pic of that column and it didn’t put me up or down. I didn’t have a discussion with him about it,” says Cassidy.

“I know the game I am in now and the game he is in, you have to produce something every week and it’s fucking hard to do it! So I know where he is coming from.

“To be honest, had I not have gone back (to play senior) one of the biggest regrets would have been not getting back to normal with the lads.

“Whatever happened, happened. But life can be too short at times. And we might have got to that stage where we could have just passed each other but through pure hard work together on the training field and going hell for leather, we have buried the hatchet and put it behind us. Outside of football, regardless of what happens, it is always a good thing to have down the line.”

On October 22nd past, McGee posted up a picture of himself and Cassidy on Twitter. Arm in arm with beers, toasting their Donegal Championship. ‘The best of friends. Most of the time’ read his caption.

So, to this Sunday.

Just before the Gaoth Dobhair team leave the dressing rooms in Omagh, they follow a tradition passed down from when the majority of the team were fishermen.

As he has done for the last twenty years, selector James Gallagher will lead a decade of the rosary in Donegal Gaelic. Even avowed atheist Eamon McGee complies.

For every game since that win over Glenties in September, Stephen Cassidy has been out with his old team mates from 2002 and 2006 sticking up more flags, more posters.

Gaoth Dobhair is devastated by economic neglect and successive governments that don’t care their region is torn asunder by emigration and closures of factories and hotels.

At times it feels the football is the only thing keeping them going.

And now they play Crossmaglen Rangers.

This wasn’t supposed to happen to a man like Cassidy.

A special kind, that breeds defiance.

And never fears.

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