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How Rory Kavanagh wrote a glittering new chapter

By Declan Bogue

Published 19/12/2015

Chapter and verse: Rory Kavanagh goes into gritty detail about how Donegal rose to the top in his autobiography ‘Winning'
Chapter and verse: Rory Kavanagh goes into gritty detail about how Donegal rose to the top in his autobiography ‘Winning'

Last summer, Rory Kavanagh's ghost writer Liam Hayes sent the former Donegal player some of the raw transcripts of what would become his autobiography, 'Winning'.

Kavanagh asks now: "You know when you are reading something and your heart is pounding?"

He called his brother and told him he was pulling out. He texted Hayes and said that it was just too raw. Too close to the bone.

That Hayes managed to dissuade him gives us possibly the most under-rated read of this winter, as the 33-year-old teacher in Scoil Colmcille, Letterkenny, recounts his journey from what Eamonn McGee termed the 'Tracksuit Raver' years to the calculated, winning era of Jim McGuinness.

If McGuinness' own autobiography 'Until Victory Always' is akin to Phil Jackson's 'Sacred Hoops', then Kavanagh brings us the GAA version of Eamon Dunphy's 'Only A Game'; the warts, rows, sweat and vomit of Donegal football.

Kavanagh spent this summer in Boston along with his wife Kathryn and daughter Zoe, holed up in a Starbucks cafe around the corner from their apartment while he drafted and re-drafted chapters.

In late October, he launched the book in the Mount Errigal Hotel, immensely encouraged by the sight of former players like Barry Monaghan, Brendan Boyle and Brendan Devenney as well as a healthy slice of the current crew.

Kavanagh says there was the perfect balance in the book, so much so that he wouldn't change it given the chance.

As rich as it is in anecdote, 'Winning' tells us more about the modern inter-county player and the lengths they have to go to in order to succeed.

Like leaving little Zoe at home when she was only a few months old.

He explained: "With anything there is always a constant battle with voices in your head. It was the same in training whenever I was running over the dunes or sometimes when I was injured and going to training anyway to sit and watch it.

"I think it was the bond, the togetherness that had been built up over those two, three years that you felt you were letting your team-mates down by not being there. I didn't want to be making excuses that I had a kid. I wasn't the only one."

The language and the quotes in 'Winning', he maintains, come from the trenches, pushing themselves beyond their limits.

"We were at the coalface, being absolutely dogged and pushing yourself beyond the threshold every single night," he said. "When you are in that situation, it gets raw, it gets primal.

"I told Liam he could take those things and polish them up as he would like, but at the end of the day you have to give some sort of an insight into what it was actually like running over the dunes and some man is dragging you off the ground and you are bent over puking your guts up, asking you to run another 400 metres with the wind and rain driving in your face.

"He (McGuinness) was unbelievable at driving you every single night. He used to say that there was no other teams in the land training as hard as we had that night."

The brutality continued into the team evaluation sessions. The side would sit in silence studying a performance, with the commentary turned down. Then, they would break off into little groups and mark themselves out of five for 20 different key performance indicators.

"Jim would have went to town if you had a high mark. The example in the book was the 'Belief in the system' indicator, if you didn't track back on this occasion, or break the ball on another occasion.

"So how could we tell him that we believed in the system, when we were contradicting ourselves?"

"You were challenged like that in front of the whole group, and you almost fumbled through your words to back yourself up! It was almost like you were a little child getting scolded!

"Maybe that is too harsh, but we did go into fine detail on our own performances. Those evaluation sessions were savage, you could be in for three and a half hours with them."

All that work culminated in three Ulster titles and an All-Ireland. While it is fun to read about that, the meat and the real enjoyment always comes with the journey, superbly detailed by Kavanagh.

Nowadays, he has lost something of his county physique. In McGuinness' first year he felt like a chef, constantly preparing chicken fillets and boiling eggs, eating up to eight small meals a day.

Occasionally, McGuinness would tell him to buy a tub of ice cream and eat it on the sofa when he got home, in order to push the calorie count up to 4,000 a day.

If any team are best placed to judge whether things were better in the days when you could skull a few pints after a league game, it is Donegal.

"Can you enjoy football at the highest level when everything is on the line? There is that element always there, that you need to be nasty," said Kavanagh.

"I see McGuinness' take on it, that there was a purity that these boys were pushing themselves and that we enjoyed it."

He gets to the bottom line of how and why Donegal changed.

"Winning is a business, and that was lost on me for so many years," he admitted.

"You were playing county football and it was all about a few pints afterwards.

"We didn't understand what it meant and what it took to represent your county and actually win things.

"I enjoyed the whole experience. Ulster titles, the All-Ireland and when you go back to your home county and you see your parents and your brothers and sisters, sharing the moment. That is just unbelievable."

Some players missed out on the title-laden McGuinness years, such as Kavanagh's club mate Devenney.

Kavanagh knows that he is one of the lucky ones. To play. And to win.

Belfast Telegraph

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