Ghaoth Dobhair triumph built on lessons learned from past mistakes

Ulster final winners put decade of underperformance behind them

Ghaoth Dobhair Kevin Cassidy and Eamonn McGee with Frank Caulfield of Scotstown in Sunday’s Ulster senior football championship final in Healy Park, Omagh. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Ghaoth Dobhair Kevin Cassidy and Eamonn McGee with Frank Caulfield of Scotstown in Sunday’s Ulster senior football championship final in Healy Park, Omagh. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

When Ghaoth Dobhair won the Donegal county final last month, they set the Dr Maguire cup in the centre of the dressing room in Ballybofey and made themselves a few promises. Those who had been there for the previous championship win in 2006 remembered the mistakes – and fun – that had tripped them up then.

“We won it and drank ourselves silly and didn’t prepare for Crossmaglen, ” Kevin Cassidy remembered on Sunday evening in Omagh. “We were coming away with what-ifs. It’s important not to leave these days behind you and not get into that mindset of thinking: ‘They’ve been here, they are used to it.’ It’s a game. There’s two sets of posts, 15 v 15. And you have to have full belief in yourself. That’s one thing these lads don’t lack.”

There is supposed to be rites of passage to winning a provincial championship. But after being locked in a cycle of slipping up or underperforming in Donegal year after year, Ghaoth Dobhair have now accelerated through the winter with performances of style and self-belief that no other team could live with. Cassidy, who has been playing for the club since his teenage years and is now 37, along with other senior servants such as the McGee brothers has embraced a season that has taken them into arenas that they previously believed beyond their reach. Ulster club matches seemed to be the preserve of big, serious clubs from somewhere else.

“You’re sitting every winter watching the Slaughtneils, Errigal Ciaráns, Crossmaglens and these teams and wondering what kind of level they’re at above you,” he says.

“This year we got a chance to go toe to toe with some of them and, credit to our young lads, we stood up to the challenge.”

Fearlessness

That was the strange thing. Cassidy and the McGees rank among the all-time players to have represented the county but it was the fearlessness of Ghaoth Dobhair’s U-21 group that convinced them this year could be different. Dara O’Baoill’s three first-half goals in the Ulster semi-final against Crossmaglen placed them in a fantastical place. This was not the imperious Crossmaglen of old but the name and those jerseys still registered. Cassidy then snagged a goal in the second half when the ball came back off the post to send his club on their way. Beating Crossmaglen steeled them for Sunday’s final.

“Massive, for our older lads probably because we grew up looking at them. These young lads, I don’t know if they knew half these teams in Ulster. They’re so laid back, and that’s why big days like this stand to them. Coming into these big games I think it’s the like of myself and Eamon and Neil are a wee bit nervous because we know what’s at stake. These young lads just play, I’ve never seen the likes of them. It’s great if you’re able to do that, and it works for them.”

In his prime, Cassidy was a marauding wing-back with underestimated aerial abilities and a sharp eye for a score. But his role as fulcrum of the Ghaoth Dobhair attack, operating as an out-and-out ball-winning number 14, has been crucial to his success. He’s enjoying the new role even if there are periods of play when he is chomping to become more involved.

“It’s easy when there’s good players around you, they make fantastic runs and they play fantastic balls into you. Obviously at my age, I’d love to be in the thick of it around the middle of the field but the legs aren’t there. Any way I can contribute to these lads and try and stay with them is great.

“We would have loved a dry day and Scotstown are probably a wee bit more physical than ourselves, and at this stage they know what it’s about. But December football: you have to expect that. You go down to any of our training sessions and there’s wind and rain every night, even in the middle of the summer, so we’re well used to it. We love a dry sod. The next game’s February, so it might be a wee bit drier by then.”

Unprecedented position

It leaves the Donegal men in an unprecedented place. Never before has Christmas represented the peak of their football season. They have underachieved for 10 years in Donegal but for all of their success in Ulster this year there is a sense that they have yet to fully deliver on their potential. Unleashing that against Corofin would be nice timing.

“We trained last Sunday morning and then boys went home and watched them,” Cassidy says of the Galway champions.

“A fantastic team without a doubt, they wouldn’t be All-Ireland champions if they weren’t. That’s the challenge, that’s where you want to be and if you were to tell us back last January that we’d be one step away from lining out on Paddy’s Day, we’d have taken the hand off you. We’re there now.

“To be honest, the bodies and minds are tired. It’s been a long year, game after game, training after training, video after video. It takes a lot out of you. I think we’re all looking forward to a wee bit of a break this week and next week. To be honest, I’ll have never had a Christmas like it. It’ll be nice preparing for another one.”

In 2011, Cassidy was persuaded to come out of retirement and won an Ulster medal and All-Star with Donegal. Now, seven seasons on, he has come out of retirement again and finds himself with a county and provincial medal. Patience is a virtue. He stops for a second when asked where Sunday in Omagh ranks.

“Listen, above anything I’ve ever done on a football field, to be honest. The club is where it starts and where it finishes. You grow up thinking about these days, hoping they happen.”

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