The leaving was touching, but
Kavanagh knows his day is done

By ANY yardstick, the figures are staggering. He will be 33 on April 6. For the past 16 seasons, nearly half his life, he has worn the black and amber at some level.

By ANY yardstick, the figures are staggering. He will be 33 on April 6. For the past 16 seasons, nearly half his life, he has worn the black and amber at some level.

It has been a great journey. The massive harvest includes 18 Leinster medals; eight senior All-Irelands which takes him up alongside luminaries like Ring and Doyle and a bucketful of other gongs, including National League (5), All-Stars (4), Railway Cup (4), Fitzgibbon Cup (2), an All-Ireland club crown and even one national title at colleges level.

There was one glaring omission, an All-Ireland winners’ medal at minor level. He laboured for three seasons with the under-18 side, but a losing appearing in the final was as close at he got to gold.

Michael Kavanagh of St Lachtain’s (Freshford) and Kilkenny has seen and done it all on the hurling field. The end arrived. He knew it would.

Still, it wasn’t without pain that the last step was taken. He admitted that even for a man who was born into the pub business, calling time wasn’t easy.

Tossing around the idea

Michael didn’t go back training this year. He was tossing around the idea of leaving. Since the All-Ireland final last year it has been in the back of his mind.

“After losing the All-Ireland final in 2010 and losing out on the five in-a-row everyone was disappointed, but no one was going to give up,” he said when he sketched out the background. “Everyone was mad keen to get back and get Kilkenny back to winning ways. Leaving wasn’t an option then.

“It was great to win last year’s final and to be back on top again. To be part of that effort was a great honour.”

Defeat by Tipperary avenged and Kilkenny back on top, the scenario changed.

“It is a good time to step aside,” he told me when he broke the news in the foyer of the Newpark Hotel last week. “I have given everything I can for the cause. It has been a privilege. I was very fortunate to come through what has and is a golden era for Kilkenny hurling.

“To be there from the start, from 1998 onwards, and with Brian Cody coming along in 1999, was wonderful. The years flew by. It was a privilege and honour to be part of the set up for so long.”

So how hard was it to end something he has known as boy and man?

“Every player likes to get out at the top,” Michael said in reply, his gentle voice offering a hint of disappointment. “It is probably easier to do it after Kilkenny won the All-Ireland. There is such a good feeling around.

“There was a bit of doom and gloom around after losing in 2010, I suppose. I have given my all. I am grateful for what hurling gave to me. When I started out established players stepped aside to give me an opportunity. Now I have to do that for the next generation. The thing has to evolve.”

In terms of the inter-county scene, Michael Kavanagh started with the minors in 1995. He served three years apprenticeship there. When called into the senior squad by then manager, Kevin Fennelly in 1998 he ended playing with the seniors before making his debut at under-21 level.

Quiet, gifted performer

That was typical of Kavanagh, a neat, quiet performer, and gifted stickman. There were times when he brought a new level of efficiency to corner-back play. With caman in hand he had the delicate touch of the deadliest forward, but his natural instints were those of a defender.

It had a lot to do with position and timing....spotting the potential problem, moving to kill the angle, guarding your goal, getting in a disciplined tackle, be it to win ball or win time for a stretched defence to cover.

His last day at the office brought a typical play. It was another big day, the 2009 All-Ireland final against Tipperary, the afternoon the four in-a-row was completed. Kavanagh was Kavanagh, in control, at his best under pressure.

Tipp had been reduced to 14 men. He was used as the free defender.

At the height of battle Kavanagh chased a ball towards the Hogan Stand at the Canal End. The momentum generated by the sprint nearly carried him out over the sideline as he slid along the ground. He kept his hand, complete with sliotar, in play as the rest of his body crossed the line.

Up he bounced to deliver an aimed clearance down the sideline. Kavanagh and Eoin Larkin turned little into a golden goal chance for Martin Comerford. The clincher!

As it turned out, the title was won the instant Kavanagh kept that ball in play.

He smiled when reminded. He remembered the moment, the incident.

“That year will always be one of the highlights of my career,” he admitted. “Completing the four in-a-row against Tipperary and the birth of my first son, Charlie the Tuesday before the final, were great moments.

“The year 2009 was a terrific one all round. Freshford won their first county final in 25 years and went on to win the All-Ireland club intermediate title. It was a great honour to win All-Irelands with club and county.

“The game owes me nothing. I did very well out of it.”

New faces invigorate things

And new faces on the scene will invigorate things, he insisted. He pointed to the Kilkenny squad last year. The freshness of new players in the panel was a bonus.

“Possibly we might not have won the All-Ireland without those new players,” was Kavanagh’s verdict. “I had great times. I leave with wonderful memories.

“The body is in good nick, which leaves me with the chance to try and achieve another championship win with St Lachtain’s.”

The game, the dedication to training, the sacrifices needed to remain a top level performer, came easy to a player who grew into it. In the early years county training was a two night a week thing, or a bit more in exceptional circumstances.

Things changed. Now being a hurler at the top level takes a 7-day commitment for around 10 months of the year.

“No one puts a gun to your head to do it,” Kavanagh said when he explained his philosophy. “You do it because you enjoy it. It is the hurling, the winning, the taking part, the friendships. That is why you do it.

“There is great camaraderie, a great system in the Kilkenny squad, led by team management and people on the County Board. When I came in Ned Quinn was chairman, and he was a powerful leader, a great man for the players. That attitude still prevails.”

The support, encouragement started at home, however. His father Johnny is a mad keen hurling man. His mother, Brenda, is a member of that famous Tullaroan hurling family, the Mahers’

The club then, from the early days working with Tom Doheny, Ned Kennedy, Brian Waldron and others, was never lacking in support. The move into St Kieran’s College, where Michael Kavanagh came under the influence of top coaches Denis Philpott. Adrian Finan, Tom Hogan, Art Anglin, Pat Murphy and others helped expand the talents of a promising youngster with a passion for the game.

Games makes you selfish

Since he married Hazel, the former Miss O’Neill from Gowran, she has been the facilitator, the one who made the space for Michael to continue to follow his dream.

“Being an inter-county player you have to be a bit selfish,” he admitted. “Everything revolves around the hurling. Now I will get the opportunity to spend more time with Charlie, Jamie and Hazel.”

Like Eddie Brennan who stepped off the inter-county stage some weeks ago, Michael reckoned the under-21 All-Ireland final win over Galway in Tullamore in 1999 was the door opener for the current good times enjoyed by Kilkenny.

“Youngster should always remember that an All-Ireland win at under-age level can lead to anything,” he said when he put context on that success. “We were delighted to get that one under Richie Power, Murty Kennedy and John Marnell. We hadn’t a clue where it would lead, but look what happened afterwards? That gave us a taste for success.”

The arrival of Brian Cody as team manager added impetus to things. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I have no regrets,” Michael said when he looked back over the years. “When I came into the set-up I was lucky to have a chairman like Ned Quinn driving the whole things. There is a wonderful set-up in Kilkenny.

“You always had to be driven. I enjoyed the challenge of performing. Chasing the winning feeling is what it is all about. The challenge was always to be as good as you could be.”

His chance arrived in Parnell Park in 1998 against Dublin. It was a day many reckoned Kilkenny were vulnerable. They survived, contested the All-Ireland final and the one after it, losing both. After that it was onwards and upwards for Kavanagh and his colleagues.

An honour and privilege

Was he tempted to hang on, to go for that 9th All-Ireland winners medal?

“Not really,” he assured. “It was never about the medals. One year flowed into the next. You were so busy prepared and the years go by so quickly. It was never about the medal count.

“It was about being involved and enjoying it. A lot of things have changed in my life over the last few years. I have to give commitment to that now. I am delighted with what I got out of the game.

“It was an honour and privilege to win eight All-Ireland medals. In years to come when I look back on the career it will be great. To be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Christy Ring and John Doyle and others is wonderful.

“The young lad starting off in Freshford was delighted when he won one. To finish with eight was beyond all expectations.”