BY CHRIS MCNULTY
REVENGE is not on Rory Kavanagh’s mind ahead of Sunday’s crunch Division 2 meeting with Monaghan at O’Donnell Park.
The sores of last summer’s Ulster final might still grate in Donegal, but Kavanagh’s eyes are firmly looking forward.
Monaghan prised the Anglo-Celt from Donegal’s grasp on a day when everything that could go wrong went wrong for Jim McGuinness’s weary side.
The past has been parked for now and it is redemption rather than revenge that they seek.
“It’s water under the bridge now,” he says.
“We didn’t play the way we could have that day. Monaghan were just far superior to us on the day. They fully deserved the win.
“We can’t start to dwell on that day or start bringing up the past. The fact of the matter is that Monaghan are Ulster champions.”
The winter months ignited the spark in Donegal again and they sit atop the pile in Division 2 after claiming impressive wins in Laois and Galway in their opening two games.
Monaghan roll up to Letterkenny on the back of a big win over Meath. With the undercurrents still rippling from last summer there are plenty of talking points and the fixture will likely be heading close to full-house territory.
It is clear from Kavanagh’s demeanour that there is a new-found spring in the step.
A few weeks ago his wife, Kathryn, gave birth to a baby girl, Zoe and life has got busier for the couple. “She’s doing great, but it’s some change. All of a sudden there is this wee person that you’re responsible for,” he says.
It’s given him a new lense through which to look at life.
On the pitch, too, he’s enjoying things.
The headstart gained with a full pre-season behind them has worked wonders and the game of catch-up they played around this time last year is perhaps only now being seen in its full light.
The Scoil Colmcille schoolteacher wants to ensure the good start means something when the season comes to its business end.
“We all just want to keep going with the hard work,” he says.
“It’s a case now, every time we get together, of saying: ‘I’m going to work as hard as I can’. We want to make the most of now. When everyone is in that same mindset you become hard to beat. You develop something inside that makes you tougher.
“We’re going out now trying to produce the maximum every day we go out onto the pitch. Monaghan will be a huge challenge for us. The games will come thick and fast now, but that’s just the way we want it. We got two victories on the road, they were two massive wins for us. Hopefully we can kick on now.
“Those wins have set us up well.
“Men have come in and taken their chances. Christy Toye is like a new player for us, he’s been brilliant. You have the boys then like Odhrán (MacNiallais), ‘Jigger’ (Darach O’Connor) and Hughie (McFadden) who have come on and really taken the chances handed out to them.
“There have been a lot of positives and Jim will be thinking to himself now that he has a couple of good men for each position.”
Kavanagh was one of a number of players who required surgery over the off-season.
He was troubled by hamstring tendinopathy, which was slow to heal and needed an injection in Cappagh hospital back in November.
He says: “I’ve had a couple of good weeks with full sessions under my belt. It’s been great to get the fitness built up again. I’m not just at 100 per cent but I’m getting there.
“It has been a huge boost to turn up at training and see most of the boys there healthy. It’s been a big help when we’re playing games against one another.”
In 2012 he made his 100th Donegal appearance. Now 31, he’s started to think about the future, but hasty decisions aren’t his style.
“It’s something I think a wee bit more of because I’m at a different phase of life now,” he says.
“I’ll try and plough on, see where this year takes us and assess it after that again.
“I just take it game-by-game now and I’ll see how the injuries treat me. I’m feeling great again now. I did a lot of work with the physios on the hamstring and I feel it getting stronger every night I go out on the pitch.
“A lot will depend on the injuries and I’m not looking too far ahead. I’m taking it one game at a time and hopefully that road takes us to a good place.
“I want to get in the best possible shape for the Derry match.
“Ultimately the Championship is where you’re judged. Every game now is a step closer to that day. It’s step-by-step and every game between now and Derry in May we want to show improvement.”
The return of Karl Lacey cannot be underestimated. With four All-Stars and a Player of the Year award to show, Lacey’s absence left a void that couldn’t be filled.
“When he’s tackling, it’s like a boxer in action. His hands are so fast; his tackling is so clean, too,” Kavanagh says.
“Karl’s a huge part of what we do. He drives things on. It’s his overall influence on things. To have him out and able for seventy minutes gives the whole group a lift.”
For a player of such experience, there is very little that fazes Rory Kavanagh these days.
The St Eunan’s ace still expects the heart to skip a beat this afternoon when he bursts out the doors of O’Donnell Park and onto the pitch he’s grown up on.
This meeting with Monaghan will be the eighth occasion on which Donegal have played at the Letterkenny venue since 2007.
When Kerry were beaten in March 2007, it was the first time in three decades that senior inter-county football was played at the Cathedral Town ground. It is now known as the home ground of the Donegal senior hurlers and it hosts its share of big club championship games.
From his house at The Maples, Kavanagh looks down on the ground.
“It’s a place that is very close to my heart,” he says.
“I’ve been heading out there since I played in the Under-8s. Playing for the county anywhere is a massive honour, but running out with Donegal at O’Donnell Park is an extra special moment.
“When you’re running out on home soil in front of your home fans, it means a little bit more, for sure. Hopefully we can put in a good display in Letterkenny.”
Kavanagh sits in on St Eunan’s executive committee meetings as a representative of the senior players.
His eyes were opened at a recent sitting when the club discussed their plans for the visit of Monaghan; a game that will stretch the compact venue’s capacity.
“They were talking about the number of people they’re expecting to be at the game.
“I couldn’t believe the amount of work that goes into staging a game. From people selling tickets, to stewards at the car park and in the stand, to people making tea and sandwiches, it’s such a big operation. Everyone in the club really has rallied around, though and they always do a great job.
“It’s exciting for everyone to be looking forward to holding a big game like this. It’s a great boost to the club to have the county team back playing there again.
“It’s testament to all the hard work that had been done.
“We train there during the summer and the people around the club really couldn’t do enough to help you.
“We owe these people a lot; the people who have worked so tirelessly to get the ground inter-county status. The pitch is in superb shape and the addition of the stand has really taken it up a level. I love playing there.”
Posted: 3:00 pm March 1, 2014