Here’s something to make you feel your age as we creep gingerly into what might be the most depressing month any of us will know: ‘Laochra Gael’ (Heroes of the Gaels), TG4’s documentary series on prominent Gaelic games personalities, is 20-years-old.
know. Hard to believe, right? There you were, counting your calories and tracking your steps in January, trying to reverse the ageing process and there I am, kablamming you with a fact like that.
Laochra Gael has been one of those things that we have grown old with. The very first series wasn’t short on material with the likes of Ger Loughnane and Páidí ÓSé profiled. At the time the concept fell flat, smothered in camera fear, an excess of false modesty and pringle.
It got going when they switched focus to the likes of Frank McGuigan and Aisling Thompson, people who weren’t afraid to let their flaws be seen.
The latest series begins at 9.30pm tomorrow by featuring two-time All-Star Kevin Cassidy of Donegal. It is without doubt the high point of the entire Laochra Gael enterprise and not just because I feature in all my lockdown suedehead glory.
The principle reason it works is because Cassidy is unique; he is as Scottish as he is Irish, and doesn’t play down that side of him. He was raised as a Catholic in the Gorbals area of Glasgow. When he went out to play soccer with the kids around his estate, there was, as he recalls, his one Celtic shirt to 21 Rangers shirts.
When his parents Anne and Tommy Cassidy decided to try their luck back in her native Gaoth Dobhair, he was placed in a Gaelscoil at the age of nine. He had to learn Irish straight away, or else say nothing.
And then there was this strange game of Gaelic football that he took to straight away. Again, he had no choice.
Perhaps the most formative encounter he had in his life was when he met Sarah Gallagher, who would later become his wife.
Her father was the former Donegal player Willie and, in sitting at the end of his bar ‘Teach Mhicí’ in Derrybeg, Cassidy learned at the feet of the storied Gaoth Dobhair players of old, like Bob Dylan absorbing everything from the Clancy Brothers.
In time, Cassidy would become one of Donegal’s greatest servants and footballers. He was already that just over a decade ago when I approached him to ask if he would be the Donegal representative on a book I was working on, a sort of season diary from inside all the camps in Ulster.
That season, Donegal won the Ulster Championship. Cassidy collected an All-Star for some heroic performances throughout the summer, including one of the finest points ever seen in Croke Park, against Kildare.
His involvement in the book led to manager Jim McGuinness cutting him from the panel.
There’s something tragically bittersweet about the fact that Donegal went on to win the All-Ireland that September with Cassidy sitting at home. As the years rolled on, a ridiculous myth built up around McGuinness’ decision, that it was about ‘changing a culture’. It’s completely misinformed.
The truth is explored in the programme, that McGuinness asked him back onto the panel at Easter 2012 but Cassidy refused. It’s important that it was included because his reputation does not deserve that stain, and it also rounds out McGuinness too as a man who clearly came to the conclusion that he reacted poorly at the time and wanted to make amends, however belatedly.
Cassidy is a man radiating magnetism. A few drinks with him could lead to anything from karaoke to running with the bulls in Pamplona. He is a successful businessman, a doting father and husband. And he has had it hard, for sure. His father enjoyed owning a bar when Donegal went bananas during the World Cup in 1994, but alcohol soon took him in its grip.
One day, they woke up and he was gone. He never came back. On days Kevin was playing in Clones, in Croke Park, his mind would wonder. Was daddy there? Maybe he was watching it in a bar somewhere. In the programme, Kevin takes the viewer to the grave he was laid in, in February 2013.
He makes peace with not having an All-Ireland medal because his body allowed him to play club football at 37, when he landed an Ulster Club title with Gaoth Dobhair as a horse of a full-forward in 2018. After the final whistle, a steady flow of old hands from the club came up to envelop Cassidy in bear hugs. He had poured his entire being into the jersey for the previous two decades. It was all he ever wanted.
There are times my mind goes back to those summer days in 2011, driving home after sitting at his kitchen table, bowled over by his recall, his generosity and his impressive nature.
Above all, what sticks with me was a line from his then job, teaching at the Little Angels School for special needs in Letterkenny.
A man like Cassidy could have picked up a handy teaching job in a football-oriented school, but he chose to do this instead. And the memory of a child learning how to tie their shoelace would have him smiling all the way home over Mount Errigal.
Clarke joining Mayo exodus may show veterans have little faith in finally lifting Sam
For the best part of two decades, David Clarke turned up for Mayo duty.
Occasionally dropped, often out of favour, as a goalkeeper his supposed deficiencies were highlighted more than most. Top of that list was his supposed weakness at kickouts.
For context, Clarke began his career at a time when goalkeeping was a completely different gig. When he first appeared for his county, he wore Mizuno high-top rugby boots.
With longer studs and greater support around the ankle, the thinking was he got greater distance on his kickout. He wasn’t alone in this. Tyrone goalkeeper Pascal McConnell had a pair of Adidas rugby flanker boots too. From such crude measures, goalkeeper kickouts became what they were judged on over the last half decade. And up against the greatest ever in Stephen Cluxton in the All-Ireland final, Clarke played the better of the two.
It has been said that a goalkeeper who is a good communicator can prevent the opposition from getting in for a goal chance.
Recently, former Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice watched the All-Ireland final from Hill 16 – partly because he enjoyed the novelty of being on the Hill on All-Ireland final day without being tortured by Dubs, but also because he could observe Clarke closely.
“What most impressed me, though, was how vocal he was. Most keepers are and need to be vocal but it was the content of what he was saying,” wrote Fitzmaurice in his Irish Examiner column.
“It was seriously effective communication. He was putting a name and an action to each call and his players responded to it. He was constantly reminding players of their roles as the ball moved up the field and was in many ways like an on-pitch manager.”
Now, Clarke has stepped away just weeks before the 2021 season (hopefully) begins.
He, Donie Vaughan and Tom Parsons must have lost hope of Mayo lifting the big one.