Rory Kavanagh: ‘After Crossmaglen we didn’t know if we would play football for Donegal again’

Alan Foley


Alan Foley

Rory Kavanagh: ‘After Crossmaglen we didn’t know if we would play football for Donegal again’
While in recent times Donegal panels returned to the Diamond in Donegal town to heroes’ receptions - both in victory and sometimes even in defeat - that wasn’t always the case.

While in recent times Donegal panels returned to the Diamond in Donegal town to heroes’ receptions - both in victory and sometimes even in defeat - that wasn’t always the case.

In 2010, the curtain began hurtling down on Donegal’s campaign before the month of June was out. The spillover - not for the first time in that era for an end of season gathering - made headlines for the wrong reasons.

Donegal limped out of the qualifiers at Crossmaglen, having been trounced 2-14 to 0-11 by Armagh.

Jamie Clarke, a day shy of his 21st birthday, had scored two goals inside of six minutes to kill off John Joe Doherty’s Donegal and the hour and a bit that followed was strung out like a wake and funeral without the tea and sandwiches.

The manner of the defeat bore similarities to the 1-27 to 2-10 loss against Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final some 10 months beforehand.

“It was probably the lowest of the low,” midfielder Rory Kavanagh recalls. “After Crossmaglen, we didn’t know if we would play football for Donegal again. What was the point? We were listless. Colm McFadden was going to go? Kevin Cassidy was gone.

“The spirit in the team was torn asunder. Two brutal hammerings in a row - Cork in 2009 and then Armagh - to go out of the championship. What direction were we going?”

That night was Kavanagh’s fiancée Kathryn’s birthday; just a couple of months after their engagement in New York. Members of the Donegal panel and some of their partners arrived at the home of the couple at the Maples in Lismonaghan, on the outskirts of Letterkenny.

Kavanagh had spent a few months travelling around the world with his St Eunan’s clubmate, friend and neighbour Damien McClafferty, with Kathryn only joining them for the tail-end of the trip.

On his return home that April, Kavanagh was taken off the bench and “plonked at full-forward” with “not a lot of training under the belt” as Donegal saw their chances of promotion from Division Two quashed by Armagh, who were 2-12 to 0-6 winners in Letterkenny.

From then on it was championship preparation and Donegal’s rally proved ultimately fruitless in a 1-15 to 2-10 extra-time loss to Down in the Ulster SFC opener. Then there was a full duck or no dinner type of clash in Crossmaglen. Donegal went home with their tummy rumbling.

“That went into print,” Kavanagh says of the house party, which, by all accounts, was a rather more timid affair than plenty of those that had preceded it when Donegal had been knocked out of the championship.

“It was Kathryn’s birthday, we were out of the championship. The criticism we received from our local media, well I feel they went a little bit too far. Sometimes the criticism doesn’t fit the crime. We’re amateurs after all.

“Some of the lads, like Paddy McGrath and Mark McHugh, were just out of the U-21s having just played in an All-Ireland final a month or two beforehand. We were dubbed as being ‘a disgrace’ and ‘having no pride in the jersey.’

“There was a lot of bullshit flying. I remember thinking ‘these are really hanging us out to dry here.’ We didn’t want to be seen as these booze-hounds. What did Eamon McGee call us since? The tracksuit ravers? We were on the ground. ‘Another kick won’t do these boys any harm’ was the mentality.”

That night in Letterkenny, few would’ve imagined in just two years Donegal would be lifting Sam Maguire.

Less than 48 hours after Crossmaglen, Doherty had stepped aside and there was only one runner in the race to succeed him.

When people look retrospectively at Jim McGuinness’s four years as Donegal manager now, it’s mistakenly considered he just waved a magic wand to turn the panel from zeroes to heroes.

In fact, the process itself was a much more gradual affair to start with, certainly for Kavanagh, who would’ve had a few clashes with McGuinness as the rivalry of their respective clubs - St Eunan’s from Letterkenny and Naomh Conaill of Glenties - was at the forefront of football in the county.

“I was very sceptical when Jim was coming in,” Kavanagh adds. “He was a Glenties man who I had come across on the pitch and had battles with many times. He was the buck who used to drive around Jordanstown with the sunglasses in the Toyota Celica.

“Yet here he was now - the Donegal manager. St Eunan’s played at the Kilmacud Sevens the weekend of the 2010 All-Ireland final and I’d actually met Jim the night before our very first Donegal training session, which was a kind of trial in Ballybofey. But I’d met him outside Copper’s!

“I just couldn’t imagine him being this sort of father figure that we needed there and then. I thought he was too much like us.

“For me, Jim was a very different person to what I know now. The person I thought that he was and the person he actually is are two completely different people.”

Kavanagh took more than one meeting at the Clanree Hotel to confirm his intentions. He adds: “Jim was saying all these crazy things to me - putting medals in my back pocket, gym regimes and nutrition plans and what we were going to do in year one, year two and year three.

“I can’t say now I was right behind it at the start. I doubted whether this man was the real deal.

“I met him for a second time in the Clanree. I just thought I had nothing to lose so I decided to go for it as I would have no regrets then. At least then I would’ve known I would commit to it for one year at least. Let’s see what happens.”

Then came Rosapenna. That famous crisp November day in 2010. The autumnal remnants were having their last stand before winter. McGuinness, who later admitted his early morning nerves, rolled out his collective plans for the panel.

There was the two-page spread in The Irish News titled ‘The State of the Nation’ which had Donegal ranked at 19th place in the country. There were the groups of six and seven; a break for lunch and an afternoon of home truths and appraisals.

“Jim was there with a PowerPoint presentation telling us how we would set up for the kick-outs and where Neil McGee would be standing,” Kavanagh adds. “He was telling us we’d be intense, defensive and competitive and that people mightn’t like it but we didn’t care.

“It was then I started to think this man isn’t a bullshitter. He’d put serious thought into this. That was when I bought into everything. We couldn’t win a match in Ulster and yet he was talking about taking home the Anglo-Celt Cup.

“His deliverance was outstanding. That’s the difference between a decent manager and a brilliant manager.

“Jim showed some balls in going for the job three times when nobody wanted to manage Donegal.”

McGuinness was true to his word as Donegal lifted a first provincial championship in 19 years. Then, Donegal, with 14 men behind the ball, lost 0-8 to 0-6 in the All-Ireland semi-final to Dublin.

That morning, McGuinness had gathered the playing panel, the backroom team, the medics and the bus driver to the meeting room of the Ashbourne Hotel and passed around a bag into which everyone was to leave their phone for the day.

“There are things about the Dublin game that people forget,” Kavanagh adds. “It’s that we, the players, only knew about the gameplan with the double and triple sweepers three hours before the game.

“Even if you watch it back now you can see it was very early in our development. The ball-carrying in particular is very poor, men getting caught on their own. It’s nowhere near as crisp as it would become in 2012.”

Donegal’s players and management evaluated the 2011 season and although a vast improvement from 2010, knew there was a requirement for offensive development.

There was another meeting, this time at Slieve Russell Hotel, the night before Donegal began their 2012 campaign with a preliminary round tie against Cavan.

Kavanagh, on his 100th appearance for Donegal, would captain the team at Breffni Park the following day.

“That was the first time I really believed we could win an All-Ireland,” Kavanagh says. “Everyone in the panel felt the same. When Jim spoke you could hear a pin drop. Michael Murphy spoke. Everyone listened.”

The night Donegal actually won the 2012 All-Ireland, Kavanagh and teammate Martin McElhinney were among those suited and booted at the Burlington Hotel.

Like the hundreds both inside and outside of the hotel in the early hours of Monday morning on Upper Leeson Street, they were in good spirits following the 2-11 to 0-13 win over Mayo just a few hours beforehand at Croke Park.

“Martin said to me, ‘wait till you see this Kav’ and he opened his wallet and pulled out an old crumpled note with his own handwriting scrawled upon it.

“It said: ‘We will win the Ulster championship and the All-Ireland’ - Martin wrote that after the meeting in Cavan. We both laughed our way to the bar. We really did believe it.”

Aside the three Ulster titles and the 2012 All-Ireland, McGuinness’s greatest legacy to Donegal football remains the positive mindset he left.

After years twiddling under Armagh’s thumb having lost to Joe Kernan’s team for five successive years in the championship from 2002 until 2006, Donegal are now a side without the psychological baggage.

“They always seemed to have one over us,” Kavanagh, who debuted in 2002, adds of Armagh. “They had the mentality and the physicality and invariably we would get beat. We didn’t know how to beat them and that was the bottom line.

“You were almost going through championship seasons hoping that you missed Armagh. There were days we turned up having been playing well but you would always have a sinking feeling.

“The more the game went on, Armagh would find a way to beat you. You have to give them credit for that.

“They had that winning mentality. No matter how badly you sensed they were playing, you always felt they had something coming around the corner.

“We were capable of these big performances. We never feared Tyrone and always had a decent record against them. But we had a psychological block that was always there with Armagh. It was something then that they could play on: ‘We’ve got Donegal’s measure here’.

Kavanagh retired from inter-county in January following a career that spanned almost 14 years and consisted of 132 appearances.

It’s a decision he had come to long before last season started but last month, when Tyrone were coming to Ballybofey for the preliminary round in the Ulster SFC, there was a want on him.

“I wouldn’t say ‘regret’ but in the lead-up to that game I was almost thinking ‘I could nearly play here’ but I had prepared for those feelings,” he says.

“I just decided to watch the match at home on television. So the Armagh match will be the first championship match I will be going to.

“The feeling towards championship football are very different in May or June than they are in January.”

Kavanagh will be holding the commentators’ microphone as co-commentator for Highland Radio at the Athletic Grounds on Sunday week when Donegal and Armagh renew hostilities.

Then, at the end of the month he will fly to Boston with his wife of three-and-a-half years Kathryn and their 16-month-old daughter Zoe for a summer with Donegal Boston, who he featured for in 2003.

That will provide the family with something a little different for the summer. In terms of Donegal and Armagh, there’s a significant difference. Donegal haven’t lost to their rivals since 2010 and McGuinness, with last day Allianz League wins in 2012 and 2014, relegated the Orchard County from Division One to Three.

With Kieran McGeeney, the 2002 All-Ireland winning captain now their manager, Armagh won promotion in March. Last year, they shaved the tails of McGuinness’s team at Croke Park in the All-Ireland quarter-final when McGeeney was assisting Paul Grimley, with Patrick McBrearty eventually striking a late winning point in a bruising Donegal 1-12 to 1-11 win.

It was an afternoon that showed Armagh’s slump was over with Donegal fortunate to win there was no quarter given - a notion made evident when Aaron Findon, the Armagh midfielder, flung Donegal team doctor Kevin Moran to the ground. Grimley and McGeeney’s template provided Kerry with a framework to outfox McGuinness in the All-Ireland final.

“From what I saw of Armagh last year, they had that edge back in their play,” Kavanagh adds. “You saw what happened to the Doc (Dr Moran), the off-the-ball grapples, the verbals. We just about got over the line. They have still very good players and it’s going to be a huge challenge.

“I would go as far as to say that this is the acid test for Donegal. If they can get over this one then Donegal can go all the way in Ulster, even if that means having to get the better of Derry or Down and then probably Monaghan.

“We didn’t know how to beat Armagh for years and years. Donegal now, they know how to win games. They don’t panic.

“Last year was the case in point. Armagh got a late goal through Stefan Campbell to go ahead. We knew to keep playing and to use our experience. Armagh used to have that and we didn’t. Now, it’s the other way around. It’s gone full circle.”

In 2010, Rory Kavanagh’s inter-county career could’ve fizzled out but his decision to stay on fulfilled the talent he always had.

His career in the Donegal colours, too, went full circle.