Kavanagh finds home comfort at end of long road
He is back following his own footsteps now, re-immersed in the game and drawn, again, to that vast, arcing sun of early-season hope.
For James Kavanagh, it feels like a homecoming. Galway isn't exactly in his blood, but the place doesn't press down on him as remotely foreign either. On Tuesday night at training, he felt the energy of maybe 30 young county men lean into their work with such pure, untainted focus, it reminded him just why it is that he plays football. Maybe the year he took away from Kildare made this rebirth possible, allowing him deal with all the cluttered furniture in his head.
The baby that Linda was expecting is now 11-month-old Tom and sleeping like the perfect son. From the back of their new house, James can see the Milltown training pitch. His work as a garda takes him just half an hour away to Galway city.
At 28, there is order in James Kavanagh's life. Order and a compelling sense of gratitude.
For five years, he was part of a Kieran McGeeney revolution in Kildare that would come up short. And, though glory never quite fell their way, they shared a journey that challenged each and every one as human beings. He specifically remembers that first night in Newbridge, the group gathered upstairs in St Conleth's Park and McGeeney's steely Armagh voice instantly scraping away at any possible delusion.
"There are no short-cuts to winning an All-Ireland," he told them. "If there was, ye would have found them."
The national profile of Kildare football was unflattering, McGeeney seeking instantly to challenge it. And Kavanagh seemed to represent much of what a hard, northern eye picked up as part of the broader problem.
Paul Grimley, McGeeney's drill-yard sergeant, would suggest subsequently that – before their arrival – James had "got away with things that maybe he shouldn't have got away with." With the gift of time, Kavanagh understands where Grimley's light was shining.
"I suppose I was young and in college and maybe, well there's no maybe about it, I wasn't giving it 100pc," he remembers now. "I wasn't giving it everything and maybe people were getting frustrated because they knew I could play, but they were only seeing glimpses of it.
"When Kieran and Paul came in, they changed that. Whatever they said, whatever they wanted me to do, I did it. I didn't ask questions, I trained hard and I suppose that reflected in my game. My work-rate improved and I suppose that's what wasn't there before Kieran arrived."
Under McGeeney, Kavanagh's inter-county form earned him two All Star nominations and a reputation as one of the calmest, more polished finishers in the game.
Kildare would ride to the edge of epochal achievement, but never quite to its epicentre. In particular, a narrow All-Ireland semi-final loss to Down in 2010 has been fire-branded into the memories of supporters, franked by the broad acceptance that a critical Benny Coulter goal should have been disallowed for a 'square ball'. Not long after that game, Kavanagh shared a room with Coulter on International Rules duty and they got to talking about that fork in the road.
"We were lying on our beds and I said to him, 'Benny, you should have been cleaned out of it. You should have been broke in two!'" he recalls. "I just felt if it had been an Ulster Championship match, he would have been left picking himself up off the floor.
"And that's not meant to be harsh on Shane McCormack, the goalkeeper. I just felt that against the likes of Tyrone or Donegal in an Ulster ground ... " Kavanagh's voice trails away.
He loved that time with Kildare, the endless sense of possibility. The supporters, he says, were good to him. When the team was called out on stadium tannoys, Johnny Doyle and Dermot Earley always drew the loudest cheers. But Kavanagh became conscious that he, too, would generate a decent roar.
"As a player, you'd notice that," he smiles. "I'd like them to think that I always tried my best for them, that I was a good team player. And it's frustrating that we didn't even win a Leinster, because we had a great panel of players, great leaders in that group.
"We bought completely into what Kieran was trying to do too. The training was ferocious, especially under Grimley. That tested your head. If that voice in your head was expressing any doubts at all, I suppose you were going to be found out.
You learnt a lot about yourself."
Their misfortune would maybe be that, when Dublin looked beatable, Kildare couldn't quite find the nous to do it. And, as Kavanagh set about his sixth pre-season last year, he got to hear that voice.
Linda was pregnant in Galway, heading to the site in Milltown every evening on her way home from work to check the progress on their new house. And James? He was living in Kildare, working in Dublin, commuting west whenever the schedule allowed. Football, suddenly, felt a chore.
"Just after five years, I suppose my priorities were elsewhere," he says. "I was going training but I quickly found that my heart wasn't really there. I needed to get things sorted work-wise and family-wise.
"I didn't want to be going in half-hearted, wasting everyone's time."
So now, maybe, let us do the formal introductions. Linda Mullahy is the sister of Darren, with whom Kavanagh won a Hogan Cup medal for St Jarlath's of Tuam in '02. They met the night of the victorious homecoming in Source nightclub. Linda would become his reason for building a future in Galway.
James had been 15 when sent west to board in the famed nursery. So why Jarlath's?
"A friend of my father's had sent his son there, so I think that's where the idea originated," he says. "We had no connections with Galway. But I went down as a fourth year with my younger brother, Shane, who went as a first year. And a friend from my old school, Adam Kilbane, came down too. And that made it less daunting."
Maybe the first thing a visitor notices in Jarlath's is football pitches. And, soon, he was caught up in the rhythms of a colleges' season.
Jarlath's had lost a Hogan Cup final to St Pats of Navan the year before, but would now make amends with Michael Meehan as captain.
Kavanagh took some time to get himself noticed. Already picked for an U-17 International Rules squad, he would get his first start only in the All-Ireland semi-final against Colaiste na Sceilge, a two-game epic that still gets spoken about to this day. They subsequently trounced St Michael's, Enniskillen in the final.
It was Meehan's last year and, 12 months later, Kavanagh had the captaincy as Jarlath's mounted a staunch defence of their crown, losing the final narrowly to St Pat's of Maghera.
He learnt a lot from a lot of good people in Tuam, none more so than the late, great Fr Oliver Hughes, Jarlath's revered football patriarch.
And, by '05, Kavanagh had a Leinster U-21 medal won with Kildare and had graduated to Padraig Nolan's senior county panel. But they were trounced by Laois in Croke Park on his Championship debut and, for all the optimism of the subsequent McGeeney years, silverware never followed.
So he has thrown his lot in with Galway now, he hopes, with a Kildare blessing.
Having transferred his club allegiance to Milltown, Kavanagh's form was decent in the club championship last year and Alan Mulholland asked to meet him.
"I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about it over the last year," he reflects. "I'd spoken to Linda about it. So, when I met Alan, I said I had three things on my mind. One, the new baby. Two, I was doing shift-work. Three, I have an ongoing issue with my knee that needs managing.
"These didn't put him off, so we decided to give it a shot at least."
The early signals have been encouraging, Kavanagh deemed man of the match in a recent FBD League encounter with Sligo. He says he already feels settled.
"I suppose you couldn't blame lads if they were a bit stand-offish, a fella only recently moved down from Kildare," he says. "But I was made to feel very welcome by everyone. The lads have been great, I'm back to the stage where I look forward to going training."
Mulholland has set no targets for a group that, at least, pulled respectability from a season threatened with infamy by their Connacht mauling against Mayo. Kavanagh was in Croke Park the July day Cork eventually evicted them from the Championship by a single point. Galway, he believes, looked a team with a future.
Tomorrow, they open their Allianz League campaign with an outing against Meath in Navan's Pairc Tailteann, Kavanagh reckoning Division 2 to be "as competitive as it has looked for many a year."
He makes no promises for the year ahead.
"I'm back enjoying playing football and I just want to contribute as much as I can," he explains.
"Whether that's starting and playing 70 minutes or whether it's coming in for 15, I'll just be excited to get in there and help the lads progress.
"With Galway and with Milltown, the people have been great in just accepting me. It makes you want to not let them down."