If Rory Kavanagh’s hunger for food is a guide then Donegal can look forward with confidence to the Ulster final in Clones on Sunday.
It was reported last year that he was on eight meals a day and he laughed when the question was put to him at the Ulster final press day in Clones last week: “How many meals a day now?”
“Not enough” was his quick answer. “I’ll need more before we play these Monaghan boys!”
When you look at the physical specimen of the St. Eunan’s man now and the player which was pulling a county jersey ten years ago, there is a huge difference.
The ‘new’ Kavanagh has filled out the big frame and he is now well able to compete with the best in the middle of the field. He has done so without losing the mobility which is central to his game. Few Donegal players have been more consistent in the McGuinness era and he can, justifiably, feel a little miffed that he has not been honoured with an All-Star at this stage.
In the early days Rory Kavanagh was more noted as a No. 10 than a midfielder, but thanks to those extra meals and some extra gym work, he is now one of the finest midfielders in the country.
Dealing with the media is a simple chore for Kavanagh, now one of the senior citizens of the Donegal squad, although he didn’t make his full debut until he was 23.
There were many lean years until the Donegal football world exploded in 2011 and now the county are looking at the possibility of winning three Ulster titles in-a-row.
“It was good to get the first and then we’re back, but there has been a lot of hard work and preparation by the management and team over the years and now we’re getting a bit of success. But listen, going into the final against Monaghan will be a huge ask for us and they’ll bring a lot of physicality and definitely a lot of hunger from Monaghan so it will be up to us to match that.”
Kavanagh has made up for lost time after a slow start to his career: “There was a lot of waiting about and a lot of patience. Up to that there was a lot of substitute appearances and things like that. It was tough.
“I suppose I had a few club mates, Brendan Devenney, Mark Crossan, who would always have been encouraging me to ‘keep the faith’, as they say and bide your time. They wanted me to stick around for the club as well,
“I remember a few years, it was tough to stick around. I went to Boston for one summer; it was under Brian McEniff. That broke the cycle a wee bit for me.”
But despite having to spend a lot of time on the bench, especially in the summers of his early days on the county squad, the schoolteacher never doubted his own ability.
“I always thought I was good enough to play but they had a lot of experienced players at that time with (Brian) Roper and Michael Hegarty. Christy Toye was going well and you had a very good full-forward line in Brendan (Devenney) and Adrian Sweeney, so it was a tough team to break into when you were young.
“Thankfully those experiences have helped me to bide my time and it’s something you can pass on to younger players now coming into the squad, that you need to be patient.”
But then came Jim McGuinness and everything changed, not just for Rory Kavanagh, but for the whole Donegal squad.
By the end of the first year Rory and his teammates had lifted the Anglo Celt for the first time. Then all the pain of disappointments disappeared.
“It was a dream come true. I was playing a long time with a lot of heartache and a lot of heavy defeats and you were going away questioning yourself, thinking ‘will I walk away here’. But thankfully Jim has come in and done a brilliant job,” said Kavanagh, who was quick to think of those players who missed out.
It is a measure of the way the St. Eunan’s man thinks, that he should remember the players who were gone from the panel when the success eventually came for Donegal - players like Adrian Sweeney, Brian Roper, Brendan Devenney, Barry Monaghan and Damien Diver.
“You feel for them, but the support that we have got for them when we came back to Donegal Town. The Damien Divers and these fellas; they’re the first to congratulate us coming off the bus. It just shows you the type of individuals they were and the characters they were. They were the first up to congratulate us,” said Kavanagh
Asked about the change that has come over Donegal football under Jim McGuinness, Kavanagh feels there was a major change in the way they prepared, even though at the time they thought they were doing everything right.
“He was well travelled and knew the ins and outs of management. From his college back and playing career, he knew that Donegal were light years behind in terms of preparation, the physical aspect of it. It was definitely a wake up call when he came in, but at the same time it was very refreshing for us boys to be hearing that. We had been plodding away in the dark but we weren’t up to the level.
“We probably did think (we were good enough) because we didn’t know any better.
“He is a very convincing character. When he outlined his plan, he was able to tell us what we would be doing two, three years down the line and he said success would come if we bought into it. Thankfully, that’s happened, and he’s definitely brought us on to another level in our careers.
“The ultimate confidence comes from winning. It probably took Ulster titles to get us to really focussed on trying to win the bigger and better things. For us it probably came earlier than expected, but thankfully it did.”
As for playing Monaghan in the final, he says: “Monaghan will not fear playing us. When we met in the past, they have been able to get the upper hand, and it’s the same group of players that Monaghan have. They will be really, really hungry so hopefully we can match that.”