At the press night before the 2012 All-Ireland final at Jackson’s Hotel, Jim McGuinness was sharing his thoughts.
It was routine for his players to give their tuppence worth and depart before the Donegal manager concluded the night’s soundbites.
As was also the norm, McGuinness was absorbing yet amusing; satirical and serious. He had famously gone for the senior post three times and was overlooked, infamously, twice.
Looking ahead to the All-Ireland final, the general theme was ‘all’s well that ends well’ and ‘these things happen for a reason’.
McGuinness, never afraid to go against the grain, didn’t agree with such assumptions.
He said: “Sometimes I think that Rory Kavanagh and these boys were 24 and now they’re 29 so I missed a few years with them.”
McGuinness was referring to the group but the interesting facet was the first name that sprung to his mind.
Last week, 32-year-old Kavanagh retired from inter-county football.
From the panellists for that 2012 final, in which Donegal defeated Mayo 2-11 to 0-13, the St Eunan’s midfielder is the first to leave. Or, as Eamon McGee had termed it: “The first one of the tracksuit ravers to retire.”
Mickey Moran was the first Donegal manager to take a punt on the then 19-year-old, who was stringy and smooth as St Eunan’s won the 2001 RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta SFC.
Unlike Sir Alex Ferguson, Moran didn’t win anything with kids, but he laid the most solid of foundations.
In 2002 he had little hesitation throwing Christy Toye, Colm McFadden, Kevin Cassidy, John Haran, Kevin Rafferty, Conall Dunne and Kavanagh into the white-hot surroundings of championship football.
“I have always worked well with youngsters and would have faith in them,” Moran, who now manages Ulster champions Robert Emmet’s Slaughtneil, said this week.
“If they’re ready and developed then I would take that chance. The youngsters, though, needed commitment, backbone and character. Rory and those lads had that.”
Kavanagh first lined out for Donegal in the National League against Cork the previous year in Ballyshannon.
Then, as a substitute for Brian Roper, he earned a first championship showing in the 3-12 to 1-6 win over Down on June Bank Holiday 2002.
His second was fleeting appearance in the All-Ireland quarter-final replay as Donegal were brushed aside 1-14 to 0-7 by Dublin at Croke Park.
It was a quiet bus home after the initial drawn match, with most of the players choosing the Portobello over Pettigo, the first intended stop in the county on the return journey to Donegal town.
Moran never managed Donegal again following the Dublin replay but still holds Kavanagh in high regard.
“Rory worked very hard and would always listen,” Moran added. “He was a treasure to work with - a modest, unassuming lad.”
If Donegal at that time were considered something of a roller-coaster, 2003 was the embodiment of their peculiarity.
Without even a successor to Moran, Brian McEniff, who was then county chairman, went to a meeting one night and found himself returning to Bundoran as manager.
He had long since defied the dictum ‘never go back’ - it was McEniff’s fifth tenure as Donegal manager.
“I was 60, in Tuam for National League in late January,” he said last year. “My back was gone and I was barely fit to walk, thinking ‘what the hell am I doing?”
Before they had the chance to pick up the pieces, Donegal were relegated from the National Football League Division One.
The peculiar summer
A humiliating Ulster championship opener saw Donegal limp out of Enniskillen with a 0-10 to 0-6 Ulster quarter-final loss to Fermanagh.
There were more than McEniff wondering what the hell they were doing. Kavanagh spent the summer in Boston.
With their world seemingly falling around them, Donegal recovered to scuttle through the qualifiers.
After drawing 0-14 to 1-11 on August Bank Holiday weekend at Croke Park against Galway, Donegal advanced to an All-Ireland semi-final. It came on the back of a 0-14 to 0-11 replay victory over the 2001 All-Ireland champions at a sultry McHale Park.
In the semi-final, with Kavanagh watching on against Armagh from the galleries, 14-man Donegal, who had Raymond Sweeney harshly sent off for two yellow cards, were on the verge of producing a mammoth upset against the 2002 All-Ireland champions.
However, Armagh’s experience was too much for Donegal’s innocence. Joe Kernan’s side, following a 2-10 to 1-9 win, would meet Tyrone in the first all-Ulster All-Ireland final.
“Rory and Conall Dunne went off to the States in 2003 and I was disappointed to lose them,” McEniff said.
“He went off then to college in Maynooth and Dublin then so I didn’t get to know Rory.”
Kavanagh played sporadically in 2004 and 2005 and, in all, only featured three times in the championship under McEniff.
Brian McIver was appointed Donegal manager in late 2005. Kavanagh, by then 23, was a player whose influence would grow.
“From when I started with Donegal I thought Rory as a very natural footballer,” McIver said this week.
“At that stage he maybe just didn’t have the confidence because he didn’t have a long enough run in the side. That happens to players.”
McIver handed Kavanagh the No 12 jersey for the 2006 Ulster championship quarter-final against Down. It was a red-letter day; one that changed the meandering nature of Kavangh’s inter-county career.
A marvellous goal was the decisive moment in the 1-12 to 1-11 victory.
“He scored a screamer on his championship debut against Down,” McIver added.
“It was one of the goals of the season. He never really looked back from there.”
In the semi-final, a 1-13 to 0-11 victory over Derry in the rain in Clones, Kavanagh kicked five points from play.
But Donegal couldn’t stop Armagh claiming a third successive Anglo-Celt Cup, losing 1-9 to 0-9 in the Croke Park final.
Then, a last minute Ger Spillane point saw Cork win the All-Ireland quarter-final by the minimum, 1-11 to 1-10.
It was a disappointing conclusion, although a promising season for both McIver and for Kavanagh.
The following April, McIver took Donegal to their first ever National Football League Division One title.
Kavanagh, with his ribs in a brace, was a late introduction against Mayo for Neil Gallagher, who had picked up a nasty eye injury. With the score 0-10 to 0-10, Kavanagh, Eamon McGee and Adrian Sweeney - all of whom had started the afternoon on the bench - rifled over injury-time points to seal the three-point win.
“Once he realised he was a deserving county player, he pushed on,” McIver added.
“He developed the physique and the power and then he lived up to all expectations.”
McIver’s status as Donegal senior team manager wasn’t even on the agenda at the September 2008 sitting of county committee; he was just in Ballybofey to give his annual report.
But once uncertainty over his position raised its head, McIver saw his head slip beneath the water line.
St Eunan’s, with no input from Kavanagh, proposed a motion of no confidence. McIver walked off into the night and never came back.
With Donegal washing their dirty linen in view of anyone who wanted a gander, John Joe Doherty was eventually named as manager. He made Kavanagh captain.
“I didn’t know Rory too well but he struck me as a really solid fella,” Doherty said this week.
“In 2009, we played Derry in a qualifier after losing to Antrim in Ulster and Rory gave one of the greatest captain’s speeches I have ever heard.
“On the way into the ground, there was a ‘Join Club Derry’ banner on the bridge in Ballybofey. Rory used that as the basis for how he spoke. The way he spoke was exceptional.
“I always remember John ‘Teague’ McGinley at Naomh Columba could deliver a captain’s speech and Anthony Molloy was the same with Donegal. But Rory’s was as good as any of them.
“He was a top player; incredibly talented and great to work with.”
Donegal won a cracking contest 2-13 to 0-18 after extra-time on a dusking July evening at MacCumhaill Park.
Another victory over Galway followed in Sligo before Cork hammered Donegal 1-27 to 2-10 at Croke Park in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Then, in 2010, Donegal’s championship was over after losses to Down at then Armagh at Crossmaglen.
In came McGuinness.
That following July, 2011, the new manager led Donegal to a first Ulster championship in 19 years. McGuinness had told Kavanagh to beef up and plonked him at centre-field.
“He’s stylish,” McGuinness, who is now Celtic FC’s first-team sports psychologist, said this week from Glasgow. “Rory really bought into what we were trying to do. He brought pace, power, finesse and excellent decision-making. He also had fantastic leadership qualities; someone who knew what the game was about and I can’t think of a day he didn’t deliver.
“It’s no secret at this stage when I took over I had wanted to play Rory in midfielder but we had to look at where he was at in terms of his physique. He had a bit of work to go and in fairness he put in a massive shift and soon togged out a very big man.
“I always thought you need that footballing ability to play midfield with that physique. Rory did gym sessions and double sessions and in my time with Donegal I cannot remember him ever letting us down.”
Kavanagh made his 100th inter-county appearance in 2012 in Donegal’s first championship outing; kicking the first score against Cavan and winning man of the match in the Ulster preliminary round.
“I spoke to Rory about it and told him to make it count,” McGuinness said of that day at Breffni. “He wants to remember it for all the right reasons, so hopefully he can do that.”
As it turned out, 2012 was a year to remember. Donegal reclaimed the Anglo-Celt Cup for the first time and went onto defeat Kerry, Cork and Mayo to win a second All-Ireland.
It was the apex of Kavanagh’s achievements, something that made all those early morning starts, forced dinners and cold nights worthwhile.
In 2014, with his mind made up it would be his last season, he won a third Ulster title and was part of the Donegal side that lost 2-9 to 0-12 against Kerry.
McGuinness stepped aside two weeks later. Kavanagh is the first to follow him out the door.
For new manager Rory Gallagher, there were no dissenting words.
“He’s had a very long career, after 14 years being involved in the squad,” Gallagher said. “He had a wonderful last four years and must be very content with where he is.”
McIver feels a player likes Kavanagh retiring shows what football has now become.
“Rory’s still a young man,” the current Derry manager said. “But that’s the nature of county football now.
“With the talent and the shape he keeps himself in I’m sure he will play successfully for St Eunan’s for a number of years.”
Moran, who began the process, said: “It’s sad in a way. Rory’s got all that experience and he’s confident having done it all.
“You could see that in the club championship with St Eunan’s.
“He’s still got that youthful love of football and just wants to play. He enjoyed what he was doing.
“I hope it goes well for him - in club football and with his work and his family in life. Rory certainly deserves it.”
In all, Kavanagh played 132 times for Donegal. A bit like McGuinness, Kavanagh had probably decided by the time of last year’s All-Ireland final that was it. There would’ve been the same strain to maybe give it one more year but now the decisions of both have been made. Donegal was lucky to have them when they did.
“My whole driving force when I was Donegal manager was to make people happy and to improve the players and get them medals in their back pockets,” McGuinness added. “That eluded players in my time and I’m just so happy now that Rory Kavanagh and anyone else who was part of that set-up at least have their All-Ireland medal and their Ulster championships,” McGuinness added.
“It’s a final haul and Rory’s well entitled to enjoy his retirement and I wish him well in whatever he decides to do in the future. He has been a fantastic servant to Donegal.”