Gerard Cassidy celebrates victory at the final whistle of the 2002 All-Ireland Club Football Championship Final match between Ballinderry and Nemo Rangers. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile.
Ballinderry's Gerard Cassidy chatted to Mary K Burke this week about his memories of their All Ireland victory over Nemo Rangers twenty years ago, and the impact of the modern game on young players of today.
“Twenty years it's a big thing. It's strange to think that our senior players now were just cubs then. Your playing career is a very short window," said Ballinderry's Gerard Cassidy.
“I was 24 that year and I had been playing senior football from the age of 17 so it's mad to think that at just 24 I was a seasoned senior I suppose.
“I was brought into the senior team when we beat Bellaghy in 1995, me and Adrian McGuckin. We actually got man of the match in that Derry final as two 17 year olds.
!That would have meant that by 2002 that was my seventh year on the senior panel, I was nearly coming to the end of my career by that time,” laughed Cassidy.
Having found the net twice in the All Ireland final Ballinderry were the only side to raise the green flag against Nemo Rangers that entire season, and Cassidy's goal was the defining point of the game.
Having led from the throw in, the Derry men found themselves just one point ahead with 8 minutes to play when Cassidy rattled an open net to put the game out of Nemo's reach.
Gerard Cassidy of Ballinderry celebrates scoring his sides second goal in the All Ireland Final twenty years ago.
“To be honest there was an element of luck in both our goals that day and some times your name is just on the trophy. You have to earn your luck over the years too.
“Many a time we had played better or worked harder than we did that day and didn't get the result.”
The experienced Declan Bateson had a hand in both goals, scoring the first and turning over possession to set up the Ballinderry attack for the second.
“For Declan's goal the wind played its part, but you know you have to be in these places at the right time to take that opportunity and thank God we were. We forced the errors that day, and so we probably earned our luck a good bit too.”
Underage success was a key element in the building of the All Ireland winning team, Cassidy's age group had won U14's, Féile, and an Ulster minor club title at the St. Paul's tournament, beating Killeavey in the final.
“We had MacRory and Hogan cup finalists and we had experienced big occasions from a young age. I played in the now infamous 1996 MacRory cup final in Omagh for St. Pat's Maghera against St. Mary's Magherafelt, just five or six months after leaving the Convent, and so I had experience of the big occassion and pressure,” added Cassidy.
Preparation for an All Ireland final could unnerve any young squad but the Ballinderry men were unfazed. Cassidy lays full credit for the Ballinderry approach to Brian McIver's management.
“Brian had installed a sense of 'just go out and live it and enjoy it' into the team.
“He put absolutely no pressure on us whatsover and he was able to just make us believe that it was just another game.
Ballinderry captain Adrian McGuckin lifts the cup.
“It was just like another Derry championship game in our minds. Alright the build up to it was a bit different, the prestige and all that but deep down when the players took the field we just took it as another game of football.
“Brian deserves immense credit for that. He said just go out, when you have put in all the effort to get to the big day, just go out and love it and do your best.
“We really reaped the rewards of that there, and we were able to play with a freedom you know, and when we took the shackles off in the second half that day in Thurles we could just play freely.”
Anyone who knows club football will know that winning a Derry senior championship never comes easily and this Ballinderry side had certainly tasted disappointment.
“Once we got the Derry championship over us the pressure was well and truly off. Lets face it we were going into a third Derry final having lost two before it to Bellaghy, and so there was a serious pressure on us going into that final fearing we could be beaten in three in a row and that was just unthinkable.
“We didn't set out at the start of that campaign to win an All Ireland. We wanted to win Derry and that was our aim, and so once that was achieved we were able to play with freedom and a sense of belief.”
Cassidy reflects on the modern game and the pressures being put on young players with a word of caution for the future.
“Nowadays I think there is far too much pressure on individuals that they must go out and perform. From my own personal point of view, we just went out and played a game of football. It was a case of look we're here now, go and win the thing.
“The pressure on players nowadays is a totally different level. Football in this era has evolved so much, and for me I honestly think that the enjoyment factor seems to have gone totally from it because of the pressure being put on individuals to be doing their own work in the gym, be at training. It's a full time commitment and that's the major difference between where we are now and where we were 20 years ago.
Twenty years ago this week, on 17 March 2002 The Ballinderry team celebrate with the cup after winning the AIB All-Ireland Club Football Championship Final.
“When we played you seemed to have more enjoyment – it was a pastime for us, the best pastime you could ever have, but it was enjoyable. There is just too much stress and pressure now.
“At the end of the day there can only be one team win a Derry or a Tyrone championship. Everyone is putting in the same committment and same effort and only one team can win it. The drain on time and the pressure seems to have taken the fun out of it for the actual player.
“The rewards are just not there for everyone – all that training and work and not enough games, the enjoyment has gone out of it.
“I mean club players there are training as much as an intercounty player now but the sustainability of that for 4,5,6,7 years is nearly unmanageable.
“You know you see players pulling out of county panels and some players just retiring early when they have young families and who could blame them – the amount of committment required is unreal and I can see why players would actually do that.
“The number of meaningful competitive games at the minute nowhere near meets the expectations put on players in training – the demands are unreal and that is a club level never mind the demand on county players.
“That's how the game has evolved now and I just wonder if every individual was totally honest, are they enjoying it. Are they enjoying what they are being asked to put in – I just don't know.
“We were lucky we got to have a good balance, and a good mental approach to the thing with Brian's attitude to it and not everyone nowadays is that lucky.”
At at 44 years old Cassidy has one short piece of advice for young players trying to break through in the game.
“If I was to give any advice to young boys it would be that they have to love what they are doing. They have to enjoy it. It's like your job, if you don't love it you'll leave it.
“Yes there is buzz and excitement on the big occassion but very few get to experience that and so you need to be realistic and enjoy what you are doing otherwise it just won't last.
“You are expected to be focused and dedicated, work in gyms, work on fitness and conditioning, eat right it's all an awful lot - and if you aren't enjoying that then it isn't sustainable in my opinion.”
Cassidy was one of the lucky ones who not only got to enjoy what he was doing, but got to claim the biggest prize of all.
“Look, twenty years seems like yesterday, the emotions and memories are still fresh and still there. I mean every year still I look at the club finals on TV and think wow we did that.
"We won that. It's just the prestige and at the time you just don't realise the magnitude of what you have done.
“I suppose now that I'm coming 44 years of age and I think of what we have done it's just special. You see your kids watch the videos of the game and you realise exactly what we achieved from a small rural club which is exactly what we were.
“The nights in the hall, the memories of the celebrations, those memories will never leave you and that is something just truly special, that you take to the grave with you.
“Every one of us on that panel, and every Ballinderry person that was there that day will have those special unique memories and it never leaves you.
“You can look back on your career and know you've won Derry and Ulster's and then the greatest satisfaction of knowing you won an All Ireland club title. As you get older you seem to maybe appreciate that a bit more.
“A lot of people there have had loss and grief since 2002 and when we get together and look back at the videos we are always seeing people who are gone now.
“Often now memories are tainted with a tinge of sadness of course looking back, and we know as time goes on we will lose more people who were there that day, and so all we have now are the videos and the memories and we can just remember the good times we had with them."
Almost 60 years ago, the cream of Ulster football travelled to Gulladuff for what became the forerunner to the modern Ulster club championship. Vincent O'Neill tells Liam Tunney what it was like having Ulster's finest on your doorstep.
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