Brian Kavanagh celebrates after Longford defeated Monaghan by 2-13 to 1-13 in the 2016 All-Ireland SFC qualifiers at Clones. Photo by Declan Gilmore
“The GAA has been very good to me,” admitted recently retired Longford marksman Brian Kavanagh.
His departure from the inter-county arena follows hot on the heels of revered team mate Dermot Brady, and the primary school teacher based at St Olaf’s, Dundrum, who got his first taste of senior action with Longford in 2005, revealed what kept him motivated over the years.
“Not everybody might have the same haul of medals at the end of their career. It is the journey that is much more important. The enjoyment of trying to maximise your potential as an individual but also as a team; the friendships you build and the character building that is involved too.”
His philosophy is one we all could learn from.
There have been negative sound bytes from some high profile GAA retirees but Brian doesn’t subscribe to these.
“There are choices. When you go into a vocation like teaching the time off does suit players to be able to dedicate more time towards an inter county set-up.
“Without a doubt there are so many players whose personal careers are suffering. But at the end of the day there is nobody holding a gun to people’s heads.
There is a lot of training and there is a lot of time - it is a 30 hour a week job. But I really, really enjoyed it and if I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t have done it. I loved the team mentality of Longford, training together, progressing together, winning together and losing together.”
The holder of two Dublin, two Leinster and one All-Ireland club SFC medals, Brian transferred to Kilmacud Crokes from St Patrick’s, Ardagh in 2008 and he was recognised as Leinster club footballer of the year in 2010.
He saw no action with Longford during 2017 and he apportioned the blame to hip and groin related injuries.
“I was suffering from injuries in 2016. My body just demanded a rest. There were four or five years here where the club scene amalgamated with the county scene as well and there was no clear start of one season and the end of another. Eventually it just caught up with me.
“I soldiered on in 2015 and 2016 carrying injuries that I never properly addressed and I needed a step back to get the body right. Over time, constant training and playing of matches just wears down the body. Recovery is very important and perhaps that was put on the back burner a small bit.”
Brian indicated that he is ‘happy with his lot’. “I attended the league game against Armagh last year with my Dad and I have huge respect for the boys putting in the effort now. A lot of my peers have moved on. There is a new generation to represent the Longford jersey as best they can and hopefully bring success and I’m sure that they will.”
On St Patrick’s Day, 2009, he featured for Kilmacud Crokes as they overcame Crossmaglen Rangers in the All-Ireland club final and fitness permitting, he intends to continue lining out for the Crokes.
Managed by Johnny Magee, the Crokes boast household names like Paul Mannion, Cian O’Sullivan, Kevin Nolan and Mark Vaughan.
Deciding to transfer from Ardagh to Kilmacud was ‘hugely difficult’ admitted Brian.
“I was young at the time. I secured a permanent job and was offered the opportunity to play in Dublin and I’ve no regrets. The standard is high in Dublin and develops you as a player.” Five hundred pupils attend St Olaf’s and sixth class teacher Brian coaches the school football team.
He has no aspirations to enter senior management ‘at the moment’ but does monitor, with understandable pride, the progress of pupils that he put through his hands and who are now breaking into the Dublin minor and U-21 squads. He says, “Every pupil wants to be the next Con O’Callaghan.”
Now that’s ominous for the rest of the country!
Brian said he has many great football memories. “I always cherish some of the earlier ones the best. At Glen national school, I was playing out the back with all the friends you grew up with - Ciaran Kelly, Philip Gillen and the rest of the lads in 6th class. It is where everything starts. There is no pressure involved and you just enjoy it.”
In 2006, Brian won a Longford intermediate football championship medal with his native Ardagh St Patrick’s after they defeated Kenagh by 1-16 to 1-6 in the final. “Liam Keenan was our main man at midfield. I was 19 myself. We had lost the final the year before that (1-7 to 0-11 versus Rathcline). It was tough to get back and it made the victory all the sweeter.”
The winner of a Railway Cup medal, Brian outlined that he ‘always loved playing for Longford’. “Whether it was U-14 right up to minor, Fr Manning Cup wins, Hastings Cup wins, Leinster U-21 Final against Laois in Pearse Park (2006) was a huge occasion. Going down to Killarney in 2006 to play Kerry and all the supporters travelling. They are obvious one’s as well as the All-Ireland qualifier wins against Mayo, and Derry three times, the win over Monaghan up in Clones in 2016. There are so many. Winning the intermediate title with Ardagh.”
He expressed thanks to the coaches in Ardagh that mentored him; Gerry Belton in Ballymahon VS; the managers with Longford, from Luke Dempsey right up to Denis Connerton. However, he said his biggest supporters were his Mam and Dad, Barbara and John, along with the sister Edel. “They never missed any game I played in and I will always be indebted towards them.”
Just out of the minor ranks, Brian’s senior championship debut in 2005 was a baptism of fire. Longford played Dublin in Croke Park and they lost by 19 points, 2-23 to 0-10. He played senior for the first time in the NFL against Carlow.
“2005 is a long time ago now. It is 12 seasons later and I feel I have my time served. The demands on a county player are huge. It is five times per week now and especially when you are not living in Longford and you are living in Dublin and away from home. It is a lot of travel and a lot of time. There are other things in life apart from football and it is nice to give those things time as well.”
Travelling to training in the depths of winter, was there ever a time he considered jacking it all in? The short reply was, “No!”
“There’d be eight or ten of us gathering in the Spa Hotel at 5pm after driving through city traffic to get out to there. You’d probably be questioning the wisdom and sanity in November and December but at the end of the day we did it because we loved it. And when you are doing it with your good mates as I did.
“I was lucky enough with that U-21 team - we also played U-16 and minor together - and I think nine of that team went on to play senior. We were all such great friends and that helped us get through any tough times in Slashers or Cullyfad, wherever we were training, and kept the humour light hearted.”
The first senior championship full-forward-line that Brian figured in was alongside Padraic Davis and Niall Sheridan. “They were two players I used to emulate when I was at home in the back garden from watching them play. I also recall Paul Barden in the O’Byrne Cup in 2000.
He was absolutely lightning. Longford defeated Offaly and Dublin, and then we beat Westmeath in the final. I’ll never forget the buzz when Paul would get the ball and it was great to be playing with the likes of him.”
Brian added, “I never saw Declan Reilly get a roasting in all my career - he was rock solid, as was Damien Sheridan in goals. Bernard McElvaney was so underrated and Shane Mulligan. These guys were just top players and it is great to see there are so many talented players coming up in Longford.
The likes of Robbie Smyth and James McGivney are flying it, and Barry Gilleran is still to the fore. I’d be very optimistic for the future of Longford. There is a great attitude and a great management team.”
Losing to Laois in the 2006 Leinster U-21 Championship Final at Pearse Park still haunts him somewhat.
“We came through the tough half of the draw that included Meath, Kildare and Dublin. Things didn’t work out in the final. We lost 0-11 to 0-9. We felt that if we had got over that we were looking at an All-Ireland title. That’s how ambitious we were that year.”
He was quick to put things in perspective. “We won many games that we weren’t expected to win - to overturn Mayo in Pearse Park (1-12 to 0-14 in 2010); even in 2016 to go up to the home of the Ulster champions and beat Monaghan (2-13 to 1-13) and in the previous round to score twenty-four points versus Down in Newry (2-24 to 3-17).” He also derived immense satisfaction from the 2011 qualifier victory over neighbours Cavan in Breffni Park, 2-16 to 0-11.
What was Longford’s formula for qualifier progress? “We didn’t fear anybody,” was the immediate reply.
Brian expressed admiration for players like Mattie Forde (Wexford), Declan Browne (Tipperary), Barry Owens (Fermanagh) and Dessie Dolan (Westmeath) that were able to deliver performances when other teams were going out to stop them.
He believes that the ‘Super 8s’ concept ‘might be catering for the elite’.
“It cuts out a surprise package making the semi-final. The romance of the GAA was well alive the year when Tipperary got to the All-Ireland semi-final. It will be harder for the likes of Tipperary, Longford, even Meath and Kildare to get to that semi-final now because they have to play so many games. The only advantage of the rejigging is that the catering of the club players in April and the bringing forward of the All-Ireland Finals because club players deserve to play on pitches when they are dry. Club players are the heart and soul of the GAA. The money the GAA creates is from the county players but it is important not to forget where every player has come from as well.”
Brian isn’t a fan of blanket defences and sweeper systems.
“When I started out, I was marking either a corner-back or a full-back and it was a one on one battle and he got the better of me or I got the better of him. That’s how it was a few years until the defensive systems became more fashionable with Donegal implementing it and then everyone wants to copy the teams that are successful and now for the last few years, it was a blanket defence, it wasn’t about the man you are marking because there were three men marking, with two men sweeping. And now it is a system against a system and who can come out on top.”
He says championship points he scored in 2015, against Offaly and Clare, stand out. “People were raving about a point I got from near the sideline against Offaly. That was a total miskick. There was an unbelievable gale behind me that brought the ball around! We played Clare in Ennis - they were always a bogey team for us. We were under the cosh and I got a point near the end to get us over the line.”
And he added, “At the end of the day, the scores you get, whether they against Dublin, Derry or Mayo, you are only as good as the lads giving the ball into you.”
Winner of Division 4 and 3 NFL medals in 2011 and 2012, respectively, Brian also enjoyed a stint playing with the Longford team in New York. They were crowned Intermediate champions in 2017 and he commended the great great work being done by Brendan Donoghue (Ballinalee), Cormac McCormack (Ballymahon) and Finbar O’Neill (Longford Slashers).
Brian concluded, “The GAA has been very good to me and I’ve met so many great people because of it. It does mildly inhibit your professional career but I’d be a positive person. It does open doors in other ways as well and I wouldn’t have had those experiences in America unless I played football. I met so many people that helped me out in different ways through the GAA and I’ll always be eternally grateful for that.”