'I thought it was gone . . . had they pinched a point, we were dust'
Derek Kavanagh will sit on the bench today, itching for a chance to shine, says Damian Lawlor
HE pulls up outside his home, looks around and loves what he sees. A few years back, Derek Kavanagh's older brother Joe bought a house and when he moved out, Derek took over. He loves the sense of community in the Ballyphehane estate, where many of the residents have lived for 20 years.
"People stop and talk; there's a great spirit," he says. "I'm here a few years and you'd know a lot of people now." He's not lying. Not long after, his young neighbour Calum is over. He's still only at pre-school but he wants to play Frisbee on the green. The man next door might be an established Cork footballer preparing for his third All-Ireland final, but to young Calum he's simply a pair of hands to return the Frisbee.
"Howya boy?" says Kavanagh.
"Do you want a match?" asks the kid. "Football or Frisbee."
Kavanagh chuckles: "No problem boy, just give me 10 minutes to finish the dinner and I'll be out to you."
It's 6.15. Every evening a similar request is submitted at his doorstep. Kavanagh usually has to be at Cork training for 7.0 and it's no different tonight but, type of guy he is, he'll always find a few minutes.
"He's a gas man, he sees the car pulling up in the evenings and the ball and the Frisbee are produced," the Nemo Rangers midfielder says.
It suits Kavanagh that the locals are easy with each other. He's a laid-back guy himself, from an easygoing family. His oldest brother, Larry, was another fine footballer, playing for Cork at underage level and winning club All-Irelands with Nemo.
Joe, a former All-Star, was one of the most natural talents Cork ever produced and his 1999 All-Ireland final goal against Meath, when he sold three dummies, beat three men and scored from 21 yards ranks as one of the greatest ever. But he lost both that year's decider and the 1993 one. It still hurts the family and it doesn't help that Derek's also lost two. They're hoping today will be third time lucky.
"Jesus, you'd be hoping for a happy ending at this stage and a break from the bad old days," he says, ruefully. "I was over for dinner with the parents the other day and we were talking about arrangements for the All-Ireland final. They were going through their experiences; Joe losing two finals and today being my third attempt. I was only thinking on the way home that they've been through an awful lot.
"Like, they would have started bringing Larry and Joe to games in Coláiste Chríost Rí 20 odd years ago. They've been following us all over that time, going to games. Seeing us lose those All-Irelands, it's in the back of my head. They could do with a happy ending alright."
He too could do with a happy ending after last year thinking his days as a Cork footballer were over. Kavanagh missed most of last year's league while working in Sweden and when he returned he found himself playing catch-up with his fitness. In training, one night shortly after his comeback, he damaged his hip and that proved a major setback.
"Last year, the only game I played was the All-Ireland final. I was just back after that hip injury and had missed the league working in Sweden. To be honest, 2009 was a complete write-off. I very nearly quit before the All-Ireland quarter-final. I was way off at training and whereas other fellows were getting better, I was getting worse. They had me at full-back in practice games and I was getting nowhere. The weekend before the All-Ireland quarter-final, I was roasted. Not within an ass's roar of the team."
In desperation, he went to the sports clinic in Santry and this paid immediate dividends. "I was literally a new man within a week, that's the truth," he says.
"I ended up pushing hard for a starting place in the final and came real close to it. In the end I came on and injury-wise I haven't looked back since, although I hoped I'd be more of a fixture on this year's team, I have to say."
He won't start this afternoon against Down, but he's happy that he gave Conor Counihan a real selection dilemma and he'll be ready to play a part when required. The thing is, Cork's problem is unique: they've four quality midfielders jostling for two positions -- Kavanagh, Alan O'Connor, Aidan Walsh and Nicholas Murphy.
There is little to separate them, as Kavanagh acknowledges. "The margin is tiny to be honest. I could start, Alan O'Connor could start, so too could Nick or Aidan but I don't think it will affect the team whoever plays. Same up front, whether it was Colm O'Neill or Ciarán Sheehan.
"As for myself, it's good to be coming on in every game but I'd prefer to be on from the start obviously. There's a platform there to discuss these things with Conor but there's also a bit of distance there between management and players. So I'm better off keeping the contact to a minimum and doing my talking on the training field. There's not a whole lot of dialogue -- you just try to prove your point in training rather than sitting down and having a chat.
"I don't go along with this stuff that changing affects the team. For the qualifiers, we've had a settled team with maybe only one or two changes per match. Conor uses five subs and I think he's right to use five subs with our panel. The bottom line: if there's a fella going better in training, he will start. If management are going to pick me -- fine. If they're not -- it's not my problem."
Despite losing a starting place, he has continued to work hard. He has been involved in every one of their championship outings this year, being called upon early during the Munster semi-final replay with Kerry when Aidan Walsh's hamstring gave way.
The qualifier against Limerick saw him make his first championship start since the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final against the Kingdom. He kicked an early point and fought hard for 58 minutes before making way for Alan O'Connor.
His impact from the bench was considerable in subsequent games against Cavan and Wexford and last time out, against Dublin, he came on and contributed a crucial late point. Watching most of that game from the bench, Kavanagh thought at one point that Cork's championship was over.
"I thought it was gone; we were five points down and were being over-run. Bernard Brogan had something like 1-7 but then they hit two silly wides, himself and Eoghan O'Gara. That's what we were doing a few years ago, not taking chances. Had they pinched another point, we were dust."
He reckons it was his most dramatic day in a Cork jersey, and was desperate to get into the game. "I only got on for five or six minutes and how many times will it happen that I'm totally unmarked with time to shoot?," he says of his point. "That happens only once in every 10 games. I'd rather get 20 more minutes and be more involved in a few kick-outs."
One thing that impressed him about the Dublin game was the vocal presence of the Cork supporters, not always the most fanatical, with the hurlers invariably stealing the limelight.
"We have to earn their respect too," he insists. "We had a much bigger crowd than expected that day. The truth is that people support a winning team and, to be fair, I can understand that. If I was a supporter back in 2007, I'd have made a vow to never again go to see Cork football. There's no point in giving out. It's up to us to win back the crowd."
He turns 30 later this year and has almost 10 years of experience clocked up with Cork. You can't help but learn along the way. These days, he leans as much towards preparation and recovery as he does weights and fitness training.
Each week, he clocks up two pitch sessions and three recovery sessions in the pool, every second night. It might only be 15 minutes of aqua jogging but it will do the job. It's all aimed at delivering that elusive title for the county and family.
That will have to wait for now. The kids are at the door again. Never mind winning back the Cork fans; the locals have to be kept onside first. All part of being Derek Kavanagh.