Kavanagh: The old guard let Donegal down last year
It's never a good time when you realise your time as a county footballer is up, but for Rory Kavanagh, it came in the most unforgiving of environments - the Ulster final.
Facing Tyrone on a baking hot day last July, the St Eunan's veteran came to the realisation that his 34-year-old legs were shot. The trio of wonder-scores from Sean Cavanagh, Peter Harte and Kieran McGeary masked the underlying issue, he felt.
"I felt last year's Ulster final, we - and I mean myself - cost us. It's a difficult thing to say but I think that is the reality. I think the older players cost us, more so than the younger cubs," he reflects.
"The way Tyrone set up, they force you to run the ball. You look up as a midfielder and you are seeing a sweeper and a double sweeper. It's very, very hard to hit your full-forward line. It comes down to who can run the ball best.
"We just didn't do it; a combination of old legs, not being able to do this game at a high level any more cost us."
If 'transition' is the buzz word for attacks now, Kavanagh readily admits to 'sitting on a transition' as Donegal went down the field. The body could no longer could do what the mind was telling him he needed to.
In the dressing-room afterwards, he leant against the cold, concrete walls and took in his surroundings for one last time. The Donegal flag still hung on the wall, the physio bench was still in the showers, but all had changed around and within him.
Rory Gallagher had once shown up on his front door to meet him coming home from teaching one day, convincing him to come back out of retirement, but now he knew it had come to an end.
"I just thought, looking around the dressing-room, reading body language and reading training sessions, injuries creeping in with other players, players sitting out training sessions, not being able to train at the level they once were… I thought, Nah… This is the right time."
In some ways, it was fitting that it was Tyrone. The neighbours kept each other sharp and brought the best and worst out on each other. In 2007 for example, Kavanagh was in his second year as a corner-forward when Tyrone beat Donegal in an Ulster semi-final by 11 points.
Having been in the previous year's Ulster final, Donegal weren't allowed to get carried away with themselves.
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According to Kavanagh, Tyrone adopted an approach that "We will make sure we bury them, even though we will annihilate them on the scoreboard. We will demoralise them mentally".
"Tyrone were very cute," he continued. "Boys like (Brian) Dooher, (Conor) Gormley, (Ryan) McMenamin… you were getting beat up a stick and they made sure you knew all about it. They were breaking you psychologically as well."
It took Donegal four years to catch up with each other, but it was notable how the white jersey still caused panic among the Tir Chonaill men in the opening stages of the 2011 meeting.
By that stage, Kavanagh had filled out to become a wing-forward, but new manager Jim McGuinness wanted him bulked up further to play midfield. To do that, he needed to take supplements - "creatine and protein", Kavanagh recalls.
"It wasn't a case if we felt it was necessary. It was that we were told this was the best way to get weight on and that's what we did," he explains.
He lifted weights every day and split his eating into seven small meals daily. The transition took time and patience, and he often wondered what good it was doing, though he had full confidence in the Donegal medical team who supervised all the weight-gain products they used.
Some nights at training, McGuinness would observe him and advise him to eat half a tub of ice cream when he got home to get the calories in.
"I remember when I was playing against Antrim in the preliminary round, blowing hard," he says. "Thinking I was in bother, that I was not able to run. I was carrying more weight, the body wasn't adjusted properly."
Wins over Antrim and Cavan got them to the tie that McGuinness obsessed over: Tyrone in an Ulster semi-final.
"We started abysmally too. We were well under the cosh for the first 15-20 minutes and Tyrone could have been well out of sight. I remember having to haul back Sean Cavanagh at one stage - I just hauled him back and took a yellow card. You talk about cynical tackles, that was the most cynical of them all!" laughs Kavanagh.
"McGuinness was all-consumed by Tyrone that whole year. He knew that was on the horizon. They kept us sharp and had one of the all-time great coaches too in Mickey Harte. And you had a man who was obsessed with taking him down in McGuinness.
"That dynamic with the management, and the dynamic of us trying to become fitter, stronger versions of Tyrone ourselves kept the thing very edgy."
League meetings did nothing to encourage conviviality between the two tribes either.
"The time we were All-Ireland champions coming to Omagh, and (Karl) Lacey got spat on, (Michael) Murphy got the line that day," recalls Kavanagh. "That was a wild atmosphere to play in."
This Sunday, it will be a lot less stressful in the Gerry Arthurs Stand for Kavanagh.