By Frank Craig
Rory Kavanagh says Donegal have brought a new variety to their game that makes it extremely difficult for the opposition to pin them down.
The 2012 All-Ireland winner explains his new vantage point of a comfortable seat high up in the Hogan Stand finally allows him to fully appreciate what actually unfolds at pitch level on the real big days out in the GAA football calender.
He’s watched Donegal in Championship action many times since he opted out back in 2016. But none of those outings came close to what he witnessed a fortnight ago in Croke Park when Tir Chonaill and Kerry played out a quite brilliant 1-20 to 1-20 draw.
He explained: “What’s great about watching a game like that live is that you can see so much off the ball or the off camera stuff.
“The man-to-man battles were so intense. Odhrán McFadden Ferry went at it. Every inch was battled for. Stephen McMenamin and (David) Clifford, the runs they were making before a ball even came their way was fascinating.
“You can see both forward lines creating space from that high vantage point. It was so interesting. Then there was the acceleration of Ryan McHugh. He was just able to put on the afterburners. Michael Murphy was absolutely everywhere. It was phenomenal watching those two in particular.”
His own St Eunan’s teammate Shaun Patton has been superb between the posts for Declan Bonner’s team. His restarts are a serious platform for the side and like Dublin, the variety to them makes it almost impossible for their rivals to negate.
“Shaun’s ball striking, I was watching himself, Paul Durcan and the goalkeeping coach just pinging balls in the warm up,” he continued. “Shaun’s striking has gone to a new level.
“What he has now is real confidence. He has options long and short. He can go between the lines if he needs to. He has real variety in his kicking. It’s almost Cluxton-esque or like Paul.
“I never thought we’d find someone on ‘Papa’s’ level again. His kicking when I was there was on a different level. Shaun is now up at that same level. It’s just brilliant to see.
“He’s changed the game for Murphy. It’s freed him up in the sense we’re not this one dimensional team where we always attempt to go long to Michael. Michael is playing with greater freedom as a result. Everyone is.
“When you retain that much possession from your kick-outs the same pressure just doesn’t build on the team.”
The percentages and inches that Patton wins for Tir Chonaill are what makes the ultimate difference when the top teams collide. Kavanagh says so much of what makes Dublin tick is based on Stephen Cluxton’s consistent ability to put Jim Gavin’s side on a front foot.
He added: “Teams are now gearing their scoring chances off their own kick-outs and how to create space up front directly from them. That’s how the top teams are thinking.
“The gains Shaun has given Donegal this season has been one of the big things for the side. It can’t be underestimated.”
With Saturday’s crunch Super 8s encounter against Mayo in Castlebar almost upon us, Kavanagh admits it’s a feisty rivalry. Although he says it’s difficult to pinpoint the genesis or the exact reason for the needle.
Of course 2012’s All-Ireland final seems like the obvious place to start but Kavanagh feels the bad blood emanates from the most unlikely of locations where little or nothing was on the line – a behind closed doors challenge game in Sligo back in the winter of 2011.
Both James Horan and Jim McGuinness had just taken over and Mayo, Kavanagh insists, were just a little too keen to impress their new manager.
“There has always been a good bit of rivalry there,” he said. “I remember playing a challenge down in Swinford in 2012. There was spice to that game. There was a lot of stuff going on off the ball. But I think it all began the time we played them in Sligo in Markievicz Park in 2011.
“There was another melee there! We didn’t really know where this was coming out of. I remember getting boxed around the middle. Then it became instinctive and before we knew it there was a scuffle!
“Ever since then there was no love lost between us.”
The hostilities had well and truly commenced. But when the chips were down and the stakes truly high, Donegal proved they had Mayo’s number on the grandest stage of all.
Mayo have suffered their fair share of hurt in their quest to land a first All-Ireland title since 1951. They’ve lost nine finals since 1989.
Donegal were convincing and deserving winners in 2012 but for some reason many Mayo fans view it as the one that got away. It’s the one they dwell on. Less than 12 months later and a vulnerable Donegal suffered the wrath of a Mayo side out for much more than just revenge.
Kavanagh admits that his highest and lowest moments on a football pitch are bookended by the footballing enigma that remains Mayo.
“Well it was definitely a bump back to reality for us,” he says on that 2013 All-Ireland Qualifier pummelling. “It wasn’t just a defeat, it was a hammering. In a way, it was a blessing in disguise for 2014 as it refocused our minds.
“We went in favourites in 2012 but in Mayo they wouldn’t have seen it that way. There was no Dublin, no Kerry. I think they still view that one as the one they could or should have got.
“Maybe we just had that little bit more experience. Our key players had those few more years on them. It gave us a crucial edge. But look, we’d no reason to dwell on it. We won the game!”
Kavanagh doesn’t know Stephen Rochford. And he insists that none of his Eunan’s teammates are giving him any inkling or hint of what he is or might be bringing to the Donegal set up.
Regardless, it adds even more heat to what is an already bubbling pot ahead of the weekend.
“It is (extra spice). But it could be a crucial ingredient that tips the scales our way. He has the inside track on all those players. It’ll be second to none.
“We’ll not need a man up a tree in Castlebar! That will be brilliant for the management. He’ll be on top of the match ups and psychologically, it’s a lift.
“You can see some of the things he’s done with Corofin being implemented with Donegal. We have that kicking game element.
“He’s come in from outside the province and for such a traditional running side like we were it probably took some time for the lads to grasp all of that. But the variety to their game is now brilliant.”