Sport Soccer

Friday 18 January 2019

Underdog in a strange world

Dion Fanning

IT is no surprise that Graham Kavanagh finds many things strange. Strange that he ended up the Irish captain of a Welsh club playing in the English league. Strange that a few words on the sideline in Basle last September caught the public's imagination. Strange that he is only being noticed by some at an age when many footballers are checking their pension plans. Strange that

IT is no surprise that Graham Kavanagh finds many things strange. Strange that he ended up the Irish captain of a Welsh club playing in the English league. Strange that a few words on the sideline in Basle last September caught the public's imagination. Strange that he is only being noticed by some at an age when many footballers are checking their pension plans. Strange that in parts of Ireland where he spent years travelling anonymously, they now do double takes. Life is strange, football's stranger.

Graham Kavangh's journey has been on the side-roads of football. He's had glimpses of the shining city and always believed that he was capable of competing with its citizens. On Wednesday night, he will lead Cardiff out in an FA Cup replay at Ewood Park against Premiership Blackburn. Kavanagh will observe the philosophy that has been sharpened by a career in the lower leagues.

"For the majority of my career, I've been the underdog or I've been with teams who have been the underdog. And while you play at that low level you still think to yourself, 'well I feel as though I can compete against you.' That's not an arrogance, that's not shouting from the rooftops because if you don't have that, these players, who are absolutely quality players, are gonna walk all over you."

When he was young, he felt invincible, they all did. He was part of the Home Farm team that could never lose. Maybe they should have been showered with rose petals wherever they went, but football doesn't work like that. Instead, it was tough and brutal and the Home Farm boys loved it. "We felt it was them against us and nobody liked us because we were always winning. We learned that as long as we stick together, nothing else really matters."

They needed their unity. Kavanagh remembers when they'd go to play out in Cherry Orchard or someplace where they wouldn't exactly be Home Farm supporters. "Parents would come to the game and you'd be running down the wing and the parents would trip you up," Kavanagh recalled on Thursday, sitting in the John Charles suite at Ninian Park.

Home Farm's games became showcases. Every Sunday, they'd wonder which clubs would be watching and soon they started going away to England. Graham Kavanagh, who was one of the last to join the team, was not one of the first to go. First, he worried if they would keep their run going, then he started to ask himself if he'd ever get his chance to do all he had dreamed of - "when I was a lad, I used to time myself running to the shops with the ball at my feet, mad stuff."

The last two to go to England were Kavanagh and Gary Kelly. They are the only two who made a living from the game - "maybe we had that little bit more to prove" - and they played against each other yesterday in a relegation battle at Elland Road.

Kavanagh had chosen Middlesbrough when the scouts started making offers. He figured they were a club that needed to bring young players through and this way he'd get a break.

As a plan, it had logic and reason and it didn't stand a chance. He made his debut in 1992 and played more than 20 games over the next couple of seasons. But Middlesbrough had bigger plans. Ayresome Park became the Riverside and Lennie Lawrence - now his manager at Cardiff - gave way to Bryan Robson.

"It became apparent that the club would be signing big names, then the names got bigger and bigger." Kavanagh watched as Ravanelli, Juninho, Emerson and Branco rolled into town.

There ways were different and as a young player he loved their style, the confidence they brought to the game, but there were times when he could only scratch his head at their strange behaviour. "I always remember one pre-season we were doing these 800 metre runs. You had to do them in a certain time and halfway through Emerson pulled up and said, 'I'm not a horse, I don't run like this'. I remember thinking, 'Jesus, we've just signed this guy for six million and he's telling the manager he's not a horse'"

But they were stars, capable of transforming a game in which they had previously played no part. It was why, as he says, "they paid the big bucks for them".

The last two to go to England were Kavanagh and Gary Kelly. They are the only two who made a living from the game - 'maybe we had that little bit more to prove'

They had paid nothing for Graham Kavanagh and he felt the pressure. When Stoke came in for him he took the chance and, looking back, he feels it was the time he learned the truth about the game. When he first came to England, there had been a shock. "At Home Farm, we were big fish in a small pond, but when we got to England we were absolute nobodies." Now he learned more. "You can play all the reserve games you want, you can play with all the senior players you want in the reserves, it doesn't mean a great deal until you step out onto the first-team and you give away a mistake and it's costing people money, then the senior players are on your back."

Looking back, though, he also thinks Stoke were a "strange" club. They went through three managers in his second season there, another two the next season. Every time a new man came through the door, they sought out Kavanagh and told him the same thing: the team would be built around him.

But it wasn't enough. In 1998 they were relegated. Kavanagh felt responsible and decided to stay. He regrets that decision now, feels he could have played at a higher level if he'd left. On the other hand, he might never have ended up at Cardiff and he wouldn't want to have missed out on that.

Before Christmas, he had some tough times, "the lowest I've been emotionally in football". When he was sent off at Sheffield United, it was his second sending-off in six games. Certain sections of the press roared, there were calls for him to be stripped of the captaincy and even Sheffield United's manager, Neil Warnock, had a go. Kavanagh quietly fumed but came back, the underdog again, running the show again. "I knew I'd let everybody down. But there were two ways I could go, I could sulk or I could stand up and be counted and the next 20 games are going to decide what happens in our season."

From Home Farm and beyond, he has always loved a hostile atmosphere. "I like going into games with the feeling that everybody's against you. It's something I think you need to have, the desire and the hunger in your belly, it's courage as well in one respect to be able to say, 'look, give me every bit of stick you can give me and I'll show you'."

He would hate for it to go wrong at Cardiff, he's never known a club like it, never met a chairman like Sam Hammam. At every other club, he might see the chairman in the dressing-room at the beginning of the season when he came in to wish them luck and at the end, when he thanked them for their efforts. Hammam is different, in the dressing-room constantly geeing them up, taking the piss. "He's also the only chairman I've ever known who bets with the lads. He'll have a race with the lads and start on the edge of the box and we'll start on the endline. He'll bet us 50 quid that he gets to the halfway line before we do."

He wants to finish his career at Cardiff and he wants to end up at the World Cup next year. Kavanagh would do anything to play for his country. In 1999, he was prepared to call off his wedding to Rosemary (Liam O'Brien's sister, so she understands) when Mick McCarthy asked him to play in Macedonia 24 hours after he was supposed to be walking down the aisle.

In the end, the game was postponed and he married the girl he had gone out with as a teenager before getting back together after an eight year gap. "The understanding we had of each other from the past was important because it's mad what goes through your head as a footballer, especially in a relationship, you're wondering, 'does the girl know me?' and that was never the case with Rosemary." So she understood when the wedding hung in the balance because her fiancé might be playing a game of football instead, understood when he woke her at three in the morning when they were holidaying in Vegas in 2002 to watch Ireland play in the World Cup.

He was a spectator in 2002, but he has no intention of being on holiday for the next one. He never felt settled under Mick McCarthy, but describes Brian Kerr as "different class". He had waited a long time to make his competitive debut after playing first in 1998 against the Czech Republic.

Last September, he got there against Cyprus, but it was the game against Brazil in February, that he felt was the turning point." There was an awful lot of pressure on me going into that game - maybe the other lads didn't feel it - but I thought, 'this is where everything comes to a head'." A characteristic early tackle on Gilberto set the tone and when he walked off at the end, he felt he'd made his mark. Then he picked up an injury and missed out on the summer friendlies. "I was thinking, 'here we go, I'm going to miss out on a few caps and somebody's going to come in and take the opportunity.'"

The 'young buck' determined to make his mark in Kavanagh's absence was Roy Keane. Kavanagh and Keane had shared a few moments early in their careers when all seemed possible. They had played against each other when Kavanagh was in the Irish U16s and they played a team of FÁS kids a couple of years older.

'Becoming a professional footballer is all I've I wanted since I could walk and I'll be doing it for as long as my legs will carry me'

A few years later, Kavanagh made his league debut for Middlesbrough against Nottingham Forest, where Keane, in less than a season, was being coveted and spoken of as a multi-million pound footballer. They had a drink, exchanged pleasantries and went their very separate ways.

By the time Graham Kavanagh was making his mark in the Irish team, Roy Keane's brand had scalded the nation. Kavanagh was as curious as anybody and when he roomed with him in Switzerland, he found it very easy. "I think he's a very nice fella and to be honest I wouldn't have a bad word said about him. He's a very down-to-earth, normal fella, and I think he's misinterpreted a lot of the time."

He hadn't much to do with him when they were both suffering in very different ways under Mick McCarthy, but even then he noticed the difference in training when Roy was around. He thinks, too, that he's probably more approachable now than he was in those days.

If Kavanagh's ability caught the eye against Brazil and Cyprus, his street style in Switzerland where television mics picked up his words to Bernt Haas as the Swiss took a throw - "arsehole" and Hakan Yakin - "Do you know what you are? You're a wanker, a f**king wanker" - increased his popularity. "The guy was annoying me, I'd seen their antics before, the unsportsmanlike behaviour. I thought, 'I'm sick of you' and I gave him some verbal abuse, little did I know it was picked up on camera."

It was a reminder of the game Graham Kavanagh plays and of its importance. "Becoming a professional footballer is all I've I wanted since I could walk and I'll be doing it for as long as my legs will carry me." It won't seem so strange if they take him to Germany.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport