THERE was a time when January was a slow month and the O’Byrne Cup began without much fuss but football, even in the first week of the year, seems to be moving at a quicker pace than ever before.
I’m not a fan of the O’Byrne Cup but it was a welcome distraction at the weekend given the bad news that had come earlier in the week. Let no one underestimate the loss of James Kavanagh from this Kildare squad. On form, he was comfortably keeping company with the best forwards in the country and even on his bad days, he was worth his place if only because he always possessed the potential to turn a game on its head. Players like him are rare in any county but his creative flair will be sorely missed by this current team.
Supporters probably took a while to come around to the Ballymore man but it’s easy to forget that he began life as a very young man in a very average county side. He had to find his feet at a time when a host of great players were departing or departed. Instead of fuelling excitement, Kavanagh’s glimpses of brilliance often fuelled frustration among those watching because it suggested he always had more to offer. No doubt he has become a more complete and honest player over the course of his career but he was often judged too harshly during his early days.
Maybe that is the eternal dilemma faced by players of his ilk. As much as we admire them for their creative abilities, we are quicker to slam them for falling down in other areas. Kavanagh was the kind of player who was put on this earth to thrill. Who will ever forget his goal against Meath in 2010? Who could ever have imagined a Kildare forward could have the imagination to conjure something so magical?
Nothing will eclipse the memory of Bryan Murphy arriving to fire home the winning goal in ’98 but there hasn’t been a better score by a Kildare man in Croke Park. I can still see the moment, the scene suspended in time as Kavanagh juggled the ball past the Meath goalkeeper, using both feet to execute a move that took your breath away.
He could create as well, which is what we’ll really miss. At a time when football games are ruled by mass defences, the ability to unlock the opposition is maybe the most valuable commodity in the game. Kavanagh possessed that rarest of skills, the vision to see something no one else does.
His absence is disappointing not just for Kildare fans but football fans in general. There is, I think, something wrong when the demands of the game are beyond a 27-year-old. Surely there is room for a player of his ability if he can keep himself in good shape from now until the championship? He says himself that it is ‘all or nothing’, which saddens me because if inter-county football can’t cope with men becoming fathers and husbands then the game is asking too much. Other players have taken breaks and entered the fold late in the year so here’s hoping the tug of championship football could bring Kavanagh back later in the year. He is still too young and far too good to have taken permanent leave of inter-county football.
Thankfully some of the new faces in the Kildare side last Sunday lifted the gloom surrounding Kavanagh’s departure. Cathal McNally looked a real star in the making and given his finishing ability, his rise could really help to counteract Kavanagh’s departure.
For a relatively young player, McNally has a lot about him and it would be really interesting to see him deployed alongside Tomas O’Connor in the full-forward line, where he could be a serious threat. The fact that he looked comfortable further out the field bodes well though because the side desperately needs a bigger spread of scoring threats. Paddy Brophy’s impressive second half turn was another shot in the arm but it was the performance of Eoin Doyle in defence that really captured my eye.
Such was the ease with which Doyle patrolled the defense, you had to remind yourself that this guy only made his debut last year. To say he looked like a veteran in disguise would not be overstating his display and it’s exciting to think just how much he might develop this year. The guy looks like a ready-made leader at the back.
It was also good to see Gary White back in the fold and back in a position that plays to his strengths. While Eoin Doyle seems to be way ahead of schedule, White is a man with plenty of time to make up after a number of frustrating seasons. He showed with his club last year that he has lost none of the ability he showed at under-21 level and an extended run in the side early in the year can only be good for him.
After a week that started on such a downer, it was good to leave Newbridge with the head up again.