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'It's great news' - 8-time All-Ireland winner on GAA's roadmap to return

Michael Kavanagh is part of Michael Fennelly’s backroom team in Offaly.

Michael Kavanagh celebrates Kilkenny's All-Ireland victory in 2009.
Michael Kavanagh celebrates Kilkenny's All-Ireland victory in 2009.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

KILKENNY LEGEND MICHAEL Kavanagh has hailed the GAA’s decision to announce the return of club action at the end of July with inter-county competitions set to take place in October.

“It’s great news,” says eight-time All-Ireland winner Kavanagh who is involved with Offaly hurlers as coach under former Cats team-mate Michael Fennelly. 

“The players have been very anxious over the last number of weeks are we’re heading to nearly three months now where players have been idle so it’s good to have a bit of direction.

“Players are longing to get back into a bit of action. It’s unusual to have such a period away from the game.

“When John Horan came out initially on The Sunday Game and quenched any hope of a possible return and it looked like it might be a long way off and mightn’t happen this year.”

The GAA announced a suspension of all activities on 12 March and club pitches are set to reopen for non-contact training on 29 June.

Kavanagh can hardly recall last time he spent so long without the GAA taking a central role in his life. He was a three year Kilkenny minor before Brian Cody called him up to the senior panel in 1999, where he remained until the end of 2011.

“It’s a long time being apart from the game. Three months is a long time and generally lads wouldn’t even have that in an off-season. Most lads are training in November and December anyway, so it’s quite unusual to be away from team sport for that length of time. 

“I finished up with Killkenny in 2011 and I continued to play with my club and I’m still togging out. I’m playing a bit of junior and probably will play a small bit again this year as it looks like it might be a short season and we might be longing to get back onto the field.

“It’s been unusual to be away from the game for such a length of time but I think lads will appreciate how much GAA impacts their lives and how much time they give to GAA.

“Lads will come back refreshed and are eager to get back into the swing of things and hopefully pick things up once things are all safe again and in a manner that we can all get back involved again.”

The Freshford clubman picked up eight Celtic Crosses during his career and has remained heavily involved in the game since his inter-county retirement. 

He spent a year as coach with Wicklow and Meath hurlers, worked with various developmental squads in Kilkenny as well as club teams in his native county and in Laois.

On top of that, he’s been involved in Freshford’s underage set-up where his sons play.

“I’ve been involved with a good number of teams over the last number of years. I enjoy it and you’re always trying to learn.

“When you’re playing you probably don’t be looking too far down the line but once you get involved in GAA from day one it’s hard to walk away.

“You feel you want to give something back to your own club but also have aspirations to get involved at a higher level as well. That’s a natural progression.” 

michael-fennelly Offaly boss Michael Fennelly. Source: Tom O'Hanlon/INPHO

He admits he was surprised when the phonecall came through from Fennelly to join his backroom team in Offaly last year.

“Myself and Mick formed a good friendship when we were involved with the Kilkenny set-up. We would have spent a good bit of time in each other’s company on holidays and that.

“We were friends off the field and I was at his wedding so we’d always be in contact. We would have met up for regular meetings even when I left the Kilkenny panel we would have stayed in contact. 

“I was surprised initially yeah because he had just retired from inter-county hurling and was throwing himself into a management job straight away. It was a little bit surprising that he was considering his commitments with college, he’s studying and was involved with Ballyhale (Shamrocks).

“He came in and in fairness to him he’s been very driven and organised. He’s one I’d say that when he gets involved in something he really gets his teeth stuck into it. He’s new to the management side of things but he brings a huge amount of experience and skillset to it from his playing days and from his teaching side of things. 

“The Offaly project is an interesting one and we’re hopefully going in the right direction. It’s going to take a couple of years but there’s a good set-up there and good buy-in from the players.

“We had kicked off the year pretty well and were looking forward to the Christy Ring.”

Fennelly has put together a strong management team as they attempt to improve Offaly’s fortunes. Johnny Kelly, who brought Borris-Ileigh to the All-Ireland club final this year, is also part of the ticket. 

“There’s a good squad there and very experienced personnel involved,” continues Kavanagh.

“It was interesting times with Michael and Johnny clashing in the club championship as well. It was an interesting few weeks there around training. But the lads were totally professional, they parked that and drove on the county scene for Offaly.

“When they’re together they’re doing that job and look, we all want the best for Offaly and try to do the best we can and get the best potential for this squad.

“Confidence is huge. That comes from experience and winning as well. Unfortunately Offaly have taken a couple of losses over the last number of years and have slipped down the ranks.

“They’ve probably been judged on the successes of the past and unfortunately for these guys they haven’t had too much of it at underage and colleges level. But they’re very much a skilful, committed bunch and we have a very good panel put together.

“They’re very young, eager and want to put a bit of pride back in that Offaly jersey. It means a lot to them.”

michael-fennelly Fennelly during Offaly's Kehoe Cup campaign. Source: Tom O'Hanlon/INPHO

Kavanagh has been impressed with Fennelly’s man-management skills. In the initial weeks after the lockdown he organised Zoom calls, a juggling competition and then a bake-off within the Offaly squad to keep them engaged as a group.

Once it became clear that action wouldn’t be returning anytime soon, Fennelly left the squad off to their own devices.

“He’s not long out of the game, be it club or county, so he has his finger at the pulse in that regard but also in his job as a lecturer in LIT,” says the four-time All-Star.

“He’s very much aware of the modern player and the current demands of the modern game. It’s been an unusual few months for all squads. Initially, he was a huge influence on Zoom calls and all that but then he stepped back and let the lads off to their own devices over the past while.

“Hopefully the players will be looking after themselves as well. Lifestyle and fitness is a big part of their life anyway and will adhere to doing their own programmes.”

One thing that has kept them busy in recent weeks is a double fundraiser the Offaly senior and U20 squads have organised for over this weekend. It includes an online variety show that takes place across the Offaly GAA social media channels this evening at 7.30pm.

It features a number of high profile judges including comedian Neil Delamare and Connacht rugby player Ultan Dillane. A 20km ‘solo run’ race will take place from Kilcormac to Tullamore on Sunday. Funds raised will be donated to local charities Jigsaw Offaly and Offaly Down Syndrome.

As part of tonight’s show, Fennelly will do his best Tina Turner impersonation.

“He was eager to get involved himself so we let him off and he wasn’t looking for any backing dancers so he’s going solo on it,” laughs Kavanagh.

“It’s a good cause and to be honest he’s caused a good bit of momentum there with the lads over the last while and they were having a bit of craic with the rehearsals and posting up videos and stuff.

“It was an opportunity for them to get together outside of training as well and they’re having a bit of craic with it. It’s for a few very good local causes in Offaly during the weekend across the board. 

“It’s an opportunity for these guys to give a little bit back in their own communities and they’re eager to drive it on.

“The fundraising has gone well and there’s a few very good judges and guests lined up on the night so it will be a worthwhile experience to get online and see the lads and appreciate the lads efforts.” 

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Kevin O'Brien

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