Don't mention Keane, this is Kavanagh's day

Cardiff reunion comes quickly for combative Wigan midfielder eager to fulfil a dream
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The answer: 10 months later, in front of 73,000 people, in a cup final, against some team called Manchester United.

"Yeah, who would have thought it, it's a bit surreal, isn't it?" said Kavanagh last week as Wigan's dream-seekers prepared to board a private jet en route to the Millennium Stadium. "But then, that doesn't just apply to me. The whole squad, the whole town, the whole of football even, didn't expect all this back then, did they?"

Indeed, as his new team-mates drove out of the Welsh capital that 2005 afternoon, happy to have ducked the insults - never mind the odd polystyrene cup - after a 2-0 win that put their march to the Premiership back into formation, they too must have been saying: "Strewth, we won't have to come back here for a while." How wrong they were, how wrong everybody was.

Kavanagh laughs when he reflects just where that £400,000 transfer he palpably did not want has taken him. "You know, I owe so much to Cardiff," he said. "Not only did they give me my most memorable day in football up to now, with the play-off victory at the stadium that led to everything for me, but the old gaffer Lennie Lawrence also changed me into a player who could get there. If we hadn't been promoted to the First Division in 2003, Brian Kerr wouldn't have had me in the Irish squad and Wigan would never have bought me. And if Lennie hadn't taken me into his office after dropping me in 2004 and told me I had to stop trying to being this brilliant, 15-goal-a-season midfielder then I would never have progressed."

So Kavanagh went back to being what he had always been; the poor man's Roy Keane. Except, as the holding man had scraped and scrapped in the lower Leagues, predominantly with Stoke after being released by Middlesbrough, he was, in truth, more "the penniless man's Roy Keane"; a crude moniker made all the more appropriate by the Republic's desperation in calling him whenever the great man wasn't available. It is a tag he has not altogether shaken off.

"Maybe it's because I'm Irish and play the same position or something, but everyone's been asking about Roy this week," he said. "But although he told me a bit and I respect him for being a great player and all that, this Sunday's not about him - he's not at United any more."

Thank goodness for that, the Latics faithful may scream, although Kavanagh has remained pretty indifferent to the absence, as befitting a player with such new-found confidence that at 32 he is not so much enjoying a fresh lease of life as his very own freehold. "I always knew I was more than capable of playing at the top level, but it's taken a manager like Paul Jewell to put his faith in me," he said. "It's the same with a lot of other lads, too, and it's translated itself into our football. The way we have adapted to the Premiership has surprised a lot of people; not just with all the points we've collected but also with the way we've approached the games.

"We've played positively in every match, we haven't just defended, and invariably the games have been close, apart from at Anfield, which could have been six or seven, and the Man United game, in which we got absolutely battered."

As a form guide, that 4-0 drubbing makes humble reading for this avowed bookworm, although Kavanagh is not letting that put a shadow over what he calls "the best day in my and Wigan's life". "I honestly don't think it will have a bearing, and if it does let's just hope the only one it'll have will be in them taking us lightly," he said. "We won't be negative, I can tell you. We will set our stall out not to give anything away in the first 20 minutes, just as we have all season. Then, when the game opens out a bit, with the pace and the power we have up front, we'll try to hit them on the break. We'll definitely get one, two or maybe three chances and, when they come, we've got to take them. And if we do..."

The first thing Kavanagh would do is reach for the champagne, despite having to fly back to Dublin, his birthplace, tomorrow morning to join up with Steve Staunton's first international squad for next Wednesday's meeting with Sweden. "Stan's said I don't have to train on Monday," smiled Kavan-agh, before confessing it was anything but grins as he waited for the nod from the new manager when he was appointed in January. "We were playing Leeds in the FA Cup, and with five minutes left, Liam Miller stood beside me just when the ball had gone out of play," he recalled. "I whispered to him, 'Have you spoken to Stan yet?' Liam said 'Yeah, he rang me the other day'. And I thought, 'Bollocks I'm not involved'. But the next night, the call came. Jeez, I was relieved."

As a proven Premiership performer Kavanagh need not feel such insecurity any more. Incon-trovertible proof may just be provided today in the city where it all started coming together.