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Kavanagh glad to take a back seat in fiercest of rivalries

Tyrone v Donegal, Ulster Championship semi-final: Clones, Sunday, 2.00pm

By Declan Bogue

It's never a good time to realise your time as a county footballer is up, but for Rory Kavanagh, it came in the most unforgiving of environments - the Ulster Championship 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. He felt the trio of wonder scores from Sean Cavanagh, Peter Harte and Kieran McGeary masked Donegal's underlying issue.

"I felt last year's Ulster final, we - and I mean myself - cost us. It's a difficult thing to say but that is the reality. I think the older players cost us more so than the younger cubs," he reflected.

"Playing against Tyrone and the way they 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. Old legs not being able to do this game at a high level anymore cost us."

If 'transition' is the buzz word for attacks now, Kavanagh readily admits to 'sitting on a transition' as they went down the field. The body could no longer do what the mind was telling him.

In the dressing room afterwards, he took in his surroundings 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 convince him to come out of retirement, but now he knew it had come to an end.

"Looking around the dressing room, reading body language and 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'," he said.

In some ways, it was fitting that it was Tyrone. The two Ulster neighbours kept each other sharp and brought the best and worst out of each other.

In 2007, for example, Kavanagh was in his second year as a corner-forward when Tyrone beat them in an Ulster semi-final by 11 points.

Having been in the previous year's final, Donegal weren't allowed to get carried away.

"So, 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'," he said.

"Tyrone were very cute. The boys like Dooher, Gormley, McMenamin, you were getting beat but they made sure you knew all about it. They were breaking you psychologically as well."

It took them four years to catch up, but it was notable how the white jersey still caused panic among Donegal 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 filled out further to play midfield.

To do that, he needed to take supplements. "Creatine and protein," Kavanagh recalled.

"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 lifted weights every day and split his eating into seven small meals daily. The transition took time and patience, and on several occasions he 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 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. Thinking I was in bother, that I was not able to run. I was carrying more weight, the body wasn't adjusted properly," he said.

Wins over Antrim and Cavan got them to the tie McGuinness obsessed over - Tyrone in an Ulster semi-final.

"We started abysmally. We were well under the cosh for the first 15 to 20 minutes and Tyrone could have been well out of sight. I remember having to haul back Sean Cavanagh at one stage and I took a yellow card. You talk about cynical tackles, that was the most cynical of them all!" laughed 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, Lacey got spat on and Murphy got the line. That was a wild atmosphere to play in," he said.

This Sunday, it will be a lot less stressful in the Gerry Arthurs Stand for Kavanagh, though he has an appointment with RTE to shoot a sequence prior to the game, just one of the duties since he slipped effortlessly onto the sofa of League Sunday and The Sunday Game.

"They look out for the rookies and they don't throw any curveballs," he laughed. "The first show was all about the Super-8s and proposals and so on. It was a lot to get your head around, all these motions passed and you had to get your head around it."

So for his GAA spiritual guide, he seeks the counsel of his father, an incurable GAA chat addict.

"You have to get yourself clued in, ask questions of yourself, what side of the fence you are on with these issues. I found the wee discussions with my father as my best help," he added.

"My oul boy is nuts like that. He would talk football night and day!"

Tyrone (V Donegal, USFC): N Morgan; A McCrory, R McNamee, P Hampsey; T McCann, R Brennan, P Harte; C Cavanagh, C McCann; K McGeary, N Sludden, C Meyler; M Bradley, S Cavanagh, M Donnelly

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