Growing up, the only county games Marty Kavanagh went to were Kilkenny games and he was typically there for one reason, to watch Henry Shefflin.
His father and uncles were all big Kilkenny fans, despite living in Carlow, and young Marty happily tagged along, marvelling at Shefflin’s majesty and developing a gra for the game that turned into an obsession.
Word has it that as an U-12, Kavanagh was described by one coach as ‘the best young lad I’ve seen since Tommy Walsh’, a summary that has held up pretty good.
Now 24, the Carlow attacker is the main man in a St Mullins team pitching for a memorable AIB Leinster club title success, the delicious irony being that it’s the Shefflin managed Ballyhale Shamrocks standing in their way.
“A lot of lads would never have thought you’d be going up against these lads in a Leinster final,” admitted Kavanagh.
“It’s brilliant. It’s obviously a star-studded team but look, you want to play against the best and we’re certainly going to do that next Sunday.”
Whilst Ballyhale are chasing a perfect 10 of provincial titles, St Mullins are just the second club from Carlow to reach the decider, following the lead of Mount Leinster Rangers six years ago.
Kavanagh said they take some inspiration from the fact that Mount Leinster Rangers won that final, beating Oulart-The Ballagh, though Ballyhale, the reigning All-Ireland champions, are a different kettle of fish, tipped by bookmakers to clear a nine-point spread.
“It doesn’t get much bigger, playing the best team in Ireland, they’re going for back to back,” said Kavanagh. “Everyone knows the name Ballyhale Shamrocks. We’re trying to just look at it as another game but we’ve huge respect for them. Kilkenny as a county has done a lot for Carlow hurling. They let us play in their competitions at the start of the year.
“We play in the junior pre-season leagues for club players. So St Mullins can play February, March, April May, June. It brings their hurling on a lot.”
With just four senior clubs, Carlow need to think outside the box like that if they’re to improve and progress. There’s been tangible signs in recent seasons that it’s working, from the 2018 Joe McDonagh Cup success to the fact that Carlow will compete in the top tier of the National League in 2020.
Holding their own against the might of Ballyhale would be another giant statement on behalf of Carlow hurling. It’s an uncannily similar story in football terms with Éire Óg in the exact same position.
“It’s mad, both ourselves and Éire Óg are after having great runs,” said free-taker Kavanagh. “Éire Óg beat the Wexford, Kildare and Laois champions. We beat the Dublin and Laois champions. We’re doing our best to make the point. If people don’t see now that we’re well able to compete at that level, there’s not much more we can do.”
Ever the street-fighters, St Mullins have won their last three games by a single point, including the quarter-final win over Cuala, the 2017 and 2018 All-Ireland winners.
Yet instead of cheers after that landmark win it was tears following the heart attack suffered by selector Micheal Ryan in the secondhalf, an event that thankfully wasn’t fatal.
“It was a surreal experience, everyone was crying, the match was just completely gone out the window, the result, the whole thing,” said Kavanagh.
“It was completely gone. Everyone’s thoughts were just on Micheal and his family. I didn’t really know what was going on myself, I saw there was a commotion over there but I didn’t know who it was or what it was.
“There were a lot of people over there but I didn’t know if it was one of our players or how serious it was. His son came on and then I saw him getting taken off. So then I kind of realised it must have been his father. After the game, within five or 10 seconds, we knew how serious it was. It really didn’t look good.”
The tale had a positive ending and after watching the semi-final win over Rathdowney-Errill from hospital, there’s a chance Ryan may attend Sunday’s game.
“It would take a brave man to stop him from going,” smiled Kavanagh. “I don’t know what they’re going to do with him. He’ll probably be on the line but I don’t know to be honest.”