THE DISTANCE REMAINS the same every time — long — but the road-trip between Donegal and Croke Park takes on a wildly different tone depending on whether you’re coming or going, travelling down south with hope and promise or back home with the dull ache of what might have been.
Rory Kavanagh remembers 2009. He remembers how Conor Counihan’s Cork played Donegal off the park, quicker to every ball and alert to every laboured threat that the northerners half-heartedly mustered. He remembers the result, a 1-27 to 2-10 drubbing; neither a performance nor a scoreline worthy of a team in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
That he wore the captain’s armband or scored a goal in Headquarters that day hardly seemed to matter. By the time he struck in the 54th minute, it only served to cut the deficit from 14 points to 11. Donegal were well beaten.
Now as the Tír Chonaill men prepare to meet the same foe in the same venue — this time in a semi-final — Kavanagh can only contemplate how much has changed in the intervening years.
In the two seasons of Jim McGuinness’s reign, the county has won back-to-back Ulster championships for the first time in its history and a Division 2 league title to boot. Now attracting as much praise for their industry and seamless alternation between defence and attack as they did criticism for their supposedly “negative” style last year, this Donegal team is a different beast entirely.
“It was a tough day at the office for us that day and we were going down the road not really knowing if we were good enough if I am being perfectly honest,” Kavanagh told TheScore.ie.
Since that we have got a wee bit of extra big-game experience under our belts and that helps us when you have a lot of young boys and all they are used to is winning. There is a good mix there now.
2009 is definitely in the past, we are looking onwards.
He continues: “It has been a big turnaround in fairness. We learned a lot from our run last year and we got a lot of criticism after the Dublin game for the fact that we didn’t really come out of our shell and go at Dublin. I suppose some of it was warranted so we have worked hard this year on trying to improve the defensive style of play and we have been notching up some decent scores in the Ulster Championship.
“We know that we are going to have to get up the field again against Cork because otherwise they have a lot of big men up there and they will smother us so we will bring that intensity to the game.”
Mentally as well, there was a lot to take from defeat against Dublin.
You are learning and we just probably hadn’t the experience to get over the line last year. You look at that Dublin team and they had been beaten in a lot of semi-finals in previous years and they probably learned to be patient. They did that. They made the substitutions at the right time and it worked for them. They went on to win an All-Ireland.
Teams are evolving and tactics and everything else are evolving. Hopefully we can bring a few new dimensions to our game this year and we can use that to our benefit.
Should Donegal come through their Rebel revenge mission, the next step could be every bit as sweet with Dublin possibly awaiting in an All-Ireland decider on 23 September. With no disrespect to the defending champions, who have steadily failed to get out of third gear this summer, or to their Mayo opponents, many feel that the winner of Sunday’s first semi-final will be favourites to go all the way.
It will be a heavyweight clash when the conditioned machines of North and South collide and few, not least Kavanagh, are willing to predict how it will all unfold.
“It will be a tough game. We can’t really predict until it gets going out on the field. Cork have a lot of quality in there. There are a lot of big men there and there might be an element of that [physicality] alright. We’ll have to see what we both come up with.”
Jim McGuinness: “If we stagnated and we were just doing what we did last year, I don’t think it would be good enough”