Donegal’s Ulster semi-final win over Tyrone three weeks ago was a myriad of complexity, ploys and counter-plays, but if there was to be a clear turning point it was Rory Kavanagh’s brace of points as the second half took shape.
The St Eunan’s centre-fielder got his side a foothold with successive scores and although you couldn’t say Donegal never looked back from there, it certainly swung the balance of power in their favour – an advantage that wouldn’t be surrendered.
In Jim McGuinness’s two years in charge, Donegal have metamorphosed from the tatters of Crossmaglen to their current stance, 70 minutes away from being the kings of Clones. The 0-12 to 0-10 win over Tyrone, when the end of day’s takings were assessed, was perhaps the most mature performance of McGuinness’s tenure to date.
Donegal profited by just the loose change as they marginally out-thought and out-fought a team comprising of numerous conscripts who had taken the Anglo-Celt home on five occassions, not to forget three memorable All-Irelands. Not only was it a battle to see whose heart beat the longest and strongest, it was a game of chess in coloured jerseys.
“We’re the pawns in that I suppose,” Kavanagh said of the tactical encounter, the claustrophobia in Clones. “It was very, very tactical, especially in the first half. Even look at the All-Ireland semi-final last year against Dublin, that was ultra-tactical.
“You have new, young managers coming in with new ways of thinking and the game is evolving. Some people don’t like that but we’re going to play it out and see how it goes.”
Ten years have now passed since a teenage and carefree Kavanagh was first part of the Donegal fold, coming on as a substitute as Mickey Moran’s side toppled the Mourne county of Down in the Ulster championship quarter-final of 2002, 3-12 to 1-6. The world as a whole hasn’t the same composition now as it had then, and football has changed too.
“It’s pretty much around the clock now,” Kavanagh says of the preparation and training requirements. “It’s a big change from when I came into the set-up first 10 years ago when you might’ve come to your training on a Tuesday and a Thursday and that might’ve been it. Even now as a player, you’re thinking about the game much more.”
It took four years before the now 29-year-old broke onto the starting XV for the first time, scoring a wonderful goal from wing-forward in his first championship start in 2006, under the stewardship of Brian McIver as Donegal defeated Down 1-12 to 1-11.
Down the years Donegal have had some fine individuals and some good moments, but in terms of the championship at least, no team successes of late.
Last year, McGuinness’s rookie campaign, the new way of thinking meant the Ulster championship trophy came back to the Diamond in Donegal Town for the first time in 19 years.
That win and the All-Ireland semi-final appearance that followed was a consequence of solidity and defensive meanness, something that certainly didn’t go unnoticed in national circles.
“I suppose Donegal were always renowned for a bit of attacking flair but then it was the other side where we were let down,” Kavanagh says of the lopsided past. “Last year we worked hard on the defensive side of things and we got that right. We conceded fewer scores than any other team but we’ve since built on that.
“It’s intense. You’re back chasing one minute like your life depended on it and then you’re breaking up the field trying to get on the end of scores. It’s a fit man’s game and hopefully all the work pays off against Down.”
The Donegal of 2012, though, are a more fluid operation but one that are on the doorstep of a little slice of history. No side from the county has ever retained the Ulster championship, while no county within the province have ever successively won the Anglo-Celt from the preliminary round.
“We view this as a great opportunity to do something no other team has ever done before,” Kavanagh adds. “We have to embrace that. It’s a big moment in all our careers. I’m here now 10 years and it’s probably the most exciting part. I’m delighted to be involved in it and it’s moving forward. Hopefully now, we’ll get another high on Sunday.”
After an inter-county career that was made up of pools of sorrow and waves of joy, Rory Kavanagh and his teammates have the chance to write some history with their hands and their feet. Let’s hope he can swing things Donegal’s way again.