Nerves of steel
Published 27/08/2010 | 05:00
For Francis Stockwell, son of the great Galway forward of the same name and trusted lieutenant to Fr Oliver Hughes, the memory of the ice-cold 18-year-old stepping up to take the penalty still lives with him.
It was a Connacht colleges semi-final in 2003 and the St Jarlath's captain didn't hesitate or flinch.
The Tuam giants had their backs to the wall against Ballina and, having just conceded a soft goal that left them two points adrift, the defence of their provincial and Hogan Cup titles was hanging by a thread.
But James Kavanagh only saw one outcome. He stepped forward and despatched the penalty with an air of authority, an iron will that convinced those who had already made up their minds about him, that one day he would take his game to the highest plateau.
"He had nerves of steel. Not just that day, but any time he played," recalls Stockwell. "The penalty was typical of the way he approached things."
Fast-forward more than seven years to the last of the All-Ireland quarter- finals and Kildare were reeling from a blistering Meath start.
Kavanagh has his eye on Daryl Flynn's punted delivery and gets his moment behind a stranded Eoghan Harrington.
He turns, clears his marker and just as he is about to pull the trigger on the advancing Brendan Murphy he dummies, realigns and finds himself with an open net to embrace. Some 29 minutes in and Kildare are level, 1-5 each, the ship steadied through the cool hand of their versatile forward.
Watching him sell the dummy that afternoon brought to mind for Paul Grimley, assistant coach at Kildare up to the end of last year's championship, a daring move that only the top forwards have the nerve to carry out.
"In close encounters like that, there are very, very few forwards who will do the right thing and that is to bring it out around a goalkeeper. The split second you do that, you have the advantage. But very few forwards try it," says Grimley.
"Most will shoot at the goalkeeper. Look at Pearse O'Neill for Cork last weekend. Now Pearse is a great goalscorer in his own right, running on to the end of moves and that.
"But in tight situations with the goalkeeper, I'd say only a handful will take the extra touch. 'Gooch', Oisin McConville made a habit of it, Michael Meehan, Owen Mulligan. James Kavanagh can do that too. That's the level he is taking his game to."
Few, if any, Gaelic footballer has improved over the last three seasons at
the same rate as Kavanagh. No player reflects Kildare's journey under Kieran McGeeney more than the Ballymore Eustace man.
His performances this season have been so consistent, so full of vibrancy in a two-man full-forward line that right now, he is one of the few challengers to Bernard Brogan's coronation as Footballer of the Year.
You don't view him as a natural scorer, yet he has already amassed 2-13 this season, one more point than his total in 2009 when he and Alan Smith unburdened Johnny Doyle of the responsibility for carrying the attack on his own.
"James would always have had ability," says Jarlath Gilroy, former Kildare footballer and current player-manager with his intermediate club side Ballymore. "But it's really only in the last couple of years that he has started kicking those outrageous scores. His kicking has become really refined.
"We would have felt that he was one of the better Kildare players against Louth in Navan on a night when so much went wrong. His pass for the Padraig O'Neill goal was top drawer and he followed up with another pass soon after for the next point."
With Kildare, his progress in his initial three years was staggered. Padraig Nolan liked him and introduced him for the 2005 league, giving him his first start against Limerick, when he responded with 1-2.
His championship debut came against Sligo in a qualifier later that year on a night in Markievicz Park when Kildare were sent tumbling out of the competition.
It didn't get much easier and by 2007, Kildare were stuck in a rut. So too, it seemed, was Kavanagh, the first man off in both qualifier games against Roscommon and Louth.
He was missing on the day Wicklow turned them over in Croke Park -- McGeeney's first game in charge -- but when the team was redrawn for the qualifier, he had been restored.
For Grimley, the first game against Cavan in Newbridge, when they diced with death again, was the turning point in Kavanagh's career.
Kavanagh grabbed a late goal that night to break Cavan hearts, getting the right connection in a goalmouth scramble that corroborates Grimley's take on the goal against Meath.
"I'd say when James looks back he'd say that was the turning point himself and he knows why," says Grimley. "I'd consider James a cocky sort of fella. He had the ability, but what he lacked was a more disciplined approach and that's why Kieran took a harder line with him.
"He got away with things that maybe he shouldn't have got away with, but in fairness to him, he has responded in the right way. He didn't take off in a huff when things were said to him. He stood up to it, worked on it and has come out a much better player."
A former U-17 International Rules player, his time at St Jarlath's signposted his way to the future.
How a 16-year-old living on the border between Kildare and Wicklow ended up at the famed nursery to so many great western stars, is probably down as much down to football as much as studies or a family connection.
He only arrived as a fourth- year, but once Fr Hughes and Stockwell ran the rule over him in a challenge against NUIG freshers, they knew they were on to a good thing.
His timing couldn't have been better, coinciding with Michael Meehan's last year there and a student population heavy with future Galway footballers.
The following year he would play his part in what is widely considered to be the greatest college football game ever played, the 0-20 each draw between St Jarlath's and Jack O'Connor's Colaiste na Sceilge.
He played his part in the controversial goal that forced extra-time in the replay, flighting the ball into the opposition goalmouth for Damien Dunleavy to poke home, sending O'Connor into a spin. St Jarlath's won the replay and O'Connor was so livid at the goal and the contention that it was a square ball, that he sent a video to referee Brian White afterwards to illustrate his point.
"He was one of the best Jarlath's players in modern times, one of the last boarders too," says Stockwell. "An intelligent lad, with a really strong nerve."
There are some who argue that Kavanagh still isn't an out-and-out full-forward, that his skill sets lie somewhere between wing-forward and midfield.
But that adaptability has been a measure of Kildare teams for the last three years, three years that have seen James Kavanagh rise to the top.