He’d have loved a stage like tomorrow’s.
Kevin Cassidy had some joyous moments in his career – the two All Stars that bookended his 10 seasons with Donegal, the two county titles with the club, finally winning the Holy Grail that was Ulster in 2011, then following it up with That Point under the lights in that epic tussle with Kieran McGeeney’s Kildare.
Yet the three games that stand out most in his mind are all against the Dubs in Croker. The 2002 drawn quarter-final, the replay a fortnight later, then that semi-final in 2011.
No matter that Donegal couldn’t beat Dublin on any of those occasions, you simply couldn’t beat those occasions. A full house of 82,000, the Hill in full song, the Hills well represented as well.
He’d be in his element out there again tomorrow.
He’d still be good and fit enough to do it. He’s 33 now but that wouldn’t deter him; only the commitment involved for a married man with two kids and a third on the way would. But he said goodbye to the GAA’s Broadway a good while ago now and made peace with it about the same time. Tomorrow there’ll be no tinge of regret, at least not about no longer playing for Donegal.
There might be the odd flashback to 2011 alright and what could have been. With 12 minutes to go Donegal were both a point and a man up. They should really have closed it out then. He remembers seeing Michael Murphy across from him still positioned as a second centre-half back and thinking he could have been released a little further up the field at that point. But back then you didn’t question Jim. Cassidy especially didn’t think to question Jim. Jim had brought them so far that Cassidy was convinced he would bring them all the way. In 2011.
“People ask me about missing out on the (2012) All-Ireland but 2011 is the one that annoys me,” says Cassidy. “We had the Dubs where we wanted them and could have beaten them if we had pushed on after (Diarmuid) Connolly was sent off. I seriously doubt if Kerry (in the final) would have coped with our system. For me that was the one that got away.”
All that year he’d dreamed that he’d be running out of that tunnel that September. He’d be marking Paul Galvin, playing like Tomás Ó Sé and beating the two of them. When the whistle went, he couldn’t believe it. Philly McMahon came over to him, sympathised and asked if they could swap jerseys. Cassidy appreciated both McMahon’s words and gesture but declined the jersey swap; this shirt was probably the last Donegal one he’d wear. Fifteen months earlier he’d told all his teammates in a dressing room in Crossmaglen after a humiliating first round qualifier defeat that it had been his last game and year with the county. All through 2011 he promised Sarah, who was just after having the twins, that it would definitely be the last year. But after they got to a hotel room within a couple of hours of that final whistle in Croker and Sarah saw him collapse in tears and outline his crushed dream she deduced and pronounced: “Well, Kevin, it’s going to be very hard to walk away from that now.”
A little while later they went downstairs for a few drinks and the pain began to subside and the dream started to rise again. They decided they’d spend the night in Dublin so Cassidy went to inform Jim McGuinness.
“See you next year, so?” said McGuinness.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, Jim.”
That was the last line in This Is Our Year: A Season on the Inside of a Football Championship. It is a brilliant book, full of humanity and insight and humour and personalities, none of whom are quite as insightful or humorous or as human as Cassidy himself. Modelled on Christy O’Connor’s Last Man Standing, an account of the 2004 hurling season through the eyes of its goalkeepers, This Is Our Year’s Donal Óg Cusack is Cassidy, the last man standing at the end of the 2011 Ulster championship.
But unlike Cusack, who received only praise for his contributions to O’Connor’s project, and unlike Ryan McMenamin, Stevie McDonnell, Dick Clerkin and Barry Owens and especially Paddy Cunningham and Aidan Carr who were very revealing and quite damning of their respective setups, Cassidy’s contribution did not go down well. Or to be more particular, it did not go down well with Jim McGuinness. And so the man who had coaxed Cassidy to stay on for 2011 was the man who cut – essentially retired – Cassidy for 2012. Didn’t matter that he was just after winning an All Star, that no other player was more critical to their win over Kildare or in Ulster.
He’d crossed a line.
As it happened, Cassidy wasn’t there when McGuinness had handed out a confidentiality agreement for his players to sign near the end of a lengthy team workshop; he had to fly home near the end with McGuinness’s permission to help Sarah with the two twins who were only weeks old. But, he maintains, even if he had signed it he wouldn’t have thought co-operating with Declan Bogue would have violated it as the book was always going to be a retrospective account of the season.
He doesn’t want to go back all into the nitty-gritty and rights and wrongs of the argument. He can see and respect where McGuinness was coming from. The man might have had to win the All-Ireland to justify axing Cassidy but win the All-Ireland he did.
“Jim did what he had to do. He didn’t care about Kevin Cassidy; all he cared about was creating a mindset within Donegal and he thought I stepped outside of that and let him down by not getting his approval. It helped him form a closed shop and siege mentality for 2012 so it was a good move for him because it worked.
“I don’t agree with what he did and I do think it could all have been handled a hell of a lot better, but I don’t hold any grudges against the man.”
Cassidy could still actually have been part of that 2012 success. Technically he was only cut for that year’s league; during Easter McGuinness met him at Cassidy’s school and invited him back for the championship. But after taking a few days’ holidays to reflect on the offer, Cassidy declined.
“I just felt it was best for everyone to leave it. While Jim and myself had a good chat and cleared up a lot of things it wouldn’t have been fair on the team or on myself to return. The boys were already in mid season. Too much had happened. There wouldn’t have been the kind of mutual respect you need. If I’m going on to a football field there’s no way I can die for someone beside me if that’s the feeling. And from the moment I sent that text to Jim, I knew that was me finished with Donegal. I knew they had a great chance of again winning Ulster and possibly even the All-Ireland but it was something I was ready to live with.”
Another manager, an Eamon O’Shea, a Brian McEniff would have empathised and embraced Cassidy after maybe censuring him, viewing their team as family and Cassidy as a son.
For everything in that book was Kevin Cassidy in his totality. Maybe he had been a tad overly-effusive for some people’s liking but it was with a good heart.
Because the essence of Kevin Cassidy and his story in that book is this: he would do anything for you. Practise 45-yard wonder points for hours and days on the club field in Gweedore and then replicate them in Clones and Croker when the pressure was on the most and you needed that score the most. Teach and help kids with disability how to tie a shoelace. Help out a well-intentioned writer who wanted to capture the humanity of footballers, not exploit them. You couldn’t have the fella who kicked That Point and then not have the fella who helped with That Book.
The book reflected well on Cassidy but its aftermath did even more so. You know how easy it would have been to weasel himself out of that controversy, to distance himself from his quotes and contribution, to say that he didn’t think all that would be going into the book? But he didn’t.
Instead he stood by what he said and stood by what Declan Bogue wrote.
Three years on from the book it’s good to learn that the things he cherished most then are still there for him now: club, family, work. He has lost his dad since, but then in many ways he’d lost dad a long time back.
Tommy Cassidy was a footballer too, only of a different kind. He was an apprentice at Shankly’s Liverpool before breaking his leg and then meeting Anne Carr in Glasgow, whose family originally hailed from Gweedore. When their second lad Kevin turned nine, they moved to Donegal. They opened up a few sports shops and then just in time for the 1994 World Cup they opened up a bar. Sadly, Tommy would become his own best customer and by the time of the 2002 World Cup the bar had closed and Tommy had left the family.
There is a harrowing if understated passage in Bogue’s book recounting Donegal’s watershed Ulster semi-final against Tyrone.
“Somewhere out there in the ground was Tommy. He had left a message on Kevin’s mobile, asking if he could have a ticket for the game. It was sorted. The last time Kevin and his mother were talking about their family, Anne said she could nearly forgive Tommy for the heartache and the misery. He has enough problems of his own now. Working in Letterkenny, he’s not invisible. Sometimes Kevin will be driving through town and catch a glimpse of him, sitting on the street. For a few seconds they are right beside each other in person but they live in worlds apart. Sarah asks him if that bothers him but he’s being honest when he says it doesn’t. There comes a time when you just have to move on in life.”
It turns out, Tommy has since moved on altogether.
“He passed away on Brigid’s Night two years ago,” says his son now. “It had got such a grip on him it just finished him. I spoke to him a few times before the end and it was tough enough for the family but he was maybe better off. I was just reading a story the other day about (Paul) Gascoigne and saw the pictures (of the terribly-aged and gaunt former footballer with a gin bottle in hand). Unless people want to help themselves you’re kind of helpless. It’s sad, you always wonder could you have done more, but as I said in the book, he made his decision, that was his life and the rest of us had to move on. That’s life, there are tough situations out there.”
He sees them every day at work but it turns out the ones there inspire him. For the last four years he’s taught at Little Angels, an educational facility in Letterkenny for children with learning disabilities. The day he walked in he was warned it might not suit him, it did not suit everybody; teachers had come in and not come back after only a day.
But he loved it, and still does.
The buzz out of teaching a little fella to tie his own laces after six weeks and to see the buzz the kid gets; communicating through sign language with the kids who can’t talk the concept of the clock and to then see them understand it; to bring them into a shop and see them interact with the shop assistant and complete their shopping list all on their own as they will eventually in the big bad outside world; Little Angels has been a bit of heaven for him.
“I’m very lucky how I fell into that job. Even after the whole thing with Jim and the book, that place really helped. The Monday after the (2012) All-Ireland I was in work there the next day and it just gave me a real sense of what’s really important in life. Ultimately, sport is just sport. When I see the challenges those young kids have to go through, well then if missing out on winning an All Ireland is the most challenging thing I’ll have, I’ll gladly take it.”
Then there’s family. Aoife and Nia will be four in October, with a sibling set to join them in December. He’d like to think he’ll be around more for the new arrival then he was for the advent of the twins. “I still apologise to Sarah from time to time for the first six months because I just wasn’t there. You’d land back from training at half 12 at night and they’d be all in bed. When I finished up that’s one of the things I said to myself, that I’d spend more time with my family.”
For the past three summers they’ve actually managed to have family holidays. The first two were in Boston where he tied in playing with the Donegal club there with a seven-week vacation with Sarah and the kids. This year they flew to Tenerife for a couple of weeks.
He also finds he has more time for some passions like cooking at home and eating out and even using that kayak Sarah bought him in the late summer of 2010 as a retirement present. It’s made for where he lives. Gweedore for him is God’s Country, a blessing he is grateful for every day.
Most days he’ll go for a swim. His house overlooks the sea, with salt water from the shore filling out a natural water basin at the back.
He can also see the club pitch. There’s no escaping it or desire to either. This year he’s spent a little bit less time with family than the last two summers. He’s managing the club.
It has its challenges. For most games this summer they’ve been down nine county players between the three seniors and six minors. A couple of boys went to America for the summer. There were no championship games to keep them at home. But that still left 25 boys in Gweedore with the weather at its best for football so unlike other clubs he let his team play away in the league.
They’ve played 15 league games now, 11 of them without the county boys. It’s worked out for everyone. They’re still third in the league. The lads who went to America are now back, appreciative of the empathy their manager had (“There was no way on earth I was going to stop those lads from such a fantastic opportunity, you have to live life as well as enjoy your football”).
The county boys will have developed a lot from winning Ulster and playing in Croker, especially Odhran Mac Niallais and the minors, while in their absence fringe players have developed from getting game time in the county league.
He’s also got Paddy Bradley as an assistant manager. They won an Interprovincial title with Ulster a few years back and mixed well whenever they’d meet at various functions through the years and so despite Bradley’s commitments as a selector to Antrim and as a club player still with Glenullin, Cassidy enlisted him.
“After a bad year last year I wanted to take the team but I didn’t want to give up playing either so I thought Paddy would be a guy I’d trust to make decisions on the line based on the way I’d want the team playing.”
Bradley’s immersed in the whole thing now. He even joins them in saying a decade of the Rosary in Irish like they do before every game. But some things have still taken some time to get used to, like the club field.
“Paddy says, ‘Jesus, even when the sun is shining the wind is blowing a gale down here!’”
It probably explains why they carry the ball so much. But they don’t totally play like Donegal, mind. With a legendary forward like Bradley in the backroom and a talent like Mac Niallais and some of those minors that will be starting in Croker tomorrow, they’re a more attacking- oriented team. They wouldn’t be like Jim’s team that way.
But there are things of Jim’s that he does use. Some of his tackling drills, some of the nuances in how he’d speak to the group. One-to-one he’d be more like Brian McEniff. “It might just be talking to a lad about something to do with college life or home life. Brian would speak to you as if you were one of his own children. When I went out onto the field I’d hate to let Brian down.”
Now he doesn’t want to let the club down. It’s eight years since they last won a county. For a club that leads the roll of honour in the county that’s simply too long. The other night they lost a league game and Cassidy found himself waking up at half-four in the morning, scribbling down the pointers and lessons that had been tormenting his head. He’s on fire with the idea of winning this county as much as he was about winning that Ulster in 2011.
This time he won’t be part of any book documenting that quest but the sentiment and belief is the same.
This Is Our Year.