Rory Kavanagh's excellent league campaign ended frustratingly. The Division Two final brought Donegal back to Croke Park for the first time since Mayo knocked them out of the 2013 All-Ireland championship in merciless fashion. That April match against Monaghan was still up for grabs when Kavanagh drew a straight red card for a moment of uncharacteristic foolishness.
To make matters worse, he picked up a minor injury which refused to clear ahead of the championship opener against Derry. Darach O'Connor was named as a replacement minutes before throw in at Celtic Park and, amusingly, the diminutive forward took his place at midfield in the parade.
But for Kavanagh, that day marked the beginning of an All-Ireland summer which has been about patiently recovering full fitness and inching back into contention. Jim McGuinness and the management held him and held him and by the All-Ireland semi-final, he was ready to go.
“Ah, a bit of it was my own fault, really,” the Letterkenny man says of a season interrupted.
“I’m back now to full fitness and that is the main thing and pushing hard now for the place again. It was hard. The talk about Donegal is that we only have 17 or 18 players but that’s been pushed out to maybe 20 players. The boys who came in did very well and it was very hard for Jim to overlook them again for the next round of the championship. It’s been a push to try and get back into the team.”
The emergence of Odhrán Mac Niallais and the robust showing by Martin McElhinney in the Ulster campaign has deepened the Donegal midfield options. It is an area with which Donegal constantly tinker. Michael Murphy drops in there at times, Christy Toye can fill a role when required and Kavanagh has played most of his career there for Donegal but was named at right half forward for the Dublin match.
The Donegal team were staying in the capital on the eve of that match and the Kerry-Mayo replay happened to coincide with their free time. They decided that it was a good way to kill a few hours. “We had our meeting afterwards and got refocused.”
But the strength of the Kerry midfield left a big impression on Kavanagh and like the others, he began to absorb the pressure points which were hurting Mayo.
“[David] Moran had a horse of a game in the middle of the field with Maher. Obviously, [James] O’Donoghue and [Kieran] Donaghy have given them a new lease of life at the edge of the square. There are threats everywhere . . . It’s hard to put your finger on one aspect of the game. Midfield, from my own personal point of view, is going to have a big bearing on the final.”
Like the rest of the country, the Donegal players became caught up by the wild theatre of that replay in Limerick and Kavanagh was struck by the calmness of Eamonn Fitzmaurice in a charged atmosphere.
“He’s a shrewd operator. Tactically, he can mix it up too if he wants to. I’m sure he will have a few surprises in store for us . . . He’s a very good manager, very good tactically. You saw with the decision to drop Marc Ó Sé that he is not afraid to make big calls either and it worked out a treat.”
Kavanagh had his own big call to make last autumn. After Donegal’s dispiriting All-Ireland title defence, he was uncertain of whether he would commit to another year. He spoke with family and friends and heard the encouragement that he needed.
“It was family, really, with the baby and all that. That was a big thing and I just had to go away and talk to my family and see what could be done. I’ve always had great support from my family and I’m delighted to be back and it would be nice to try and go out on a high.
“We got together and we made our plans for the year and the general consensus was we didn’t want to end it like what happened against Mayo and that was a big, big factor. We wanted to show a bit of character and show what we were about. That was important to us. That was a big factor in coming back.”
During the maelstrom Dublin imposed on Donegal in the early period of that semi-final, Kavanagh fired a shot under pressure when his team were desperately trying to buy a score. His effort flared wide and jeers rang out: it was a moment that might have rattled a younger player.
But Kavanagh shrugged it off and stepped up to kick a big point during Donegal’s recovery late in the half. It was a mark of experience earned over many seasons, some of those bitterly disappointing.
During Donegal’s All-Ireland winning run in 2012, the day they played Kerry in the quarter-final was hugely significant.
“They came at us very hard that day and possibly with more composure they could have beaten us. But definitely getting over the line was a big, big one for us because we had beaten a big power in Gaelic football and it definitely gave us confidence going in to [face] Cork.”
He is conscious that, despite the glaring absence of Colm Cooper and the departure of Tomás Ó Sé and Paul Galvin, this year's final will mark a renewal of acquaintances.
“They won’t fear us and you just have to go in and perform on the day. Whoever makes the least mistakes and dominates will come out on top. Playing Kerry on All-Ireland final day – it doesn’t get much better than that.”