Tyrone talisman Cavanagh laments ‘exhausting’ physical demands
Published 25/01/2012 | 05:00
There was time in the not so distant past when Tyrone were held up as a template for how other football counties could go about their business and achieve success.
When Pat Gilroy took charge of Dublin in late 2008, the one county he openly name checked as market leaders in how to do things was Tyrone. Kerry are Gaelic football's great constant, but Tyrone offered a clear formula, a method for everyone else to aspire to.
How ironic then that Sean Cavanagh, one of the great symbols of that revolution under Mickey Harte in the middle of the last decade, should now look to Dublin and how they conduct their business for his vision of the future.
In the space of a few short sentences Cavanagh twice utters the word "unfortunate" in his assessment of the path that Gaelic football is taking, both in preparation and playing style.
He stops short of describing a path to destruction but you can tell that even a three-time All-Ireland medal winner is no longer comfortable with it.
It is Cavanagh's assessment that Dublin have "changed the face of the GAA" with their approach.
On the day after Tyrone's first All-Ireland success in 2003, Harte revealed a simple formula for his side's preparations, based on one night of collective training and two gym sessions per week in the early part of the season, with two collective sessions as the evenings lengthened.
Now even Tyrone have discovered that keeping pace with the new market leaders demands so much more. And maybe even more than players can give. Is it reaching that point?
"Everyone now feels they have to train every night of the week if they want to get success, and that's the way it's going," admitted Cavanagh.
"It's probably good that initiatives like this PwC GAA/GPA initiative have come to the fore because there are players who are under pressure at home and at work and they are going to need help.
"To compete at the top we have to train every night of the week. Whether that means foregoing work, foregoing time with our families, we are going to be under pressure."
Early-morning training sessions are a most unpalatable prospect for Cavanagh, and he's thankful Tyrone have not yet gone down that road.
"At 5.30am in the morning I am trying to put the wee girl back into her cot these days. I couldn't even look at training. Usually I can hardly breathe at that time of the morning, so I don't think the 5.30am sessions would be good.
"You are training every night. I would argue there is only so much you can do in a day anyway. We are all exhausting our bodies, whether it's in the gym or on the field of play at training. You can only do so much."
The light touch days of 2003 seem so far away now.
"These things come in cycles but unfortunately now it's gone to the stage where everyone feels they have to go 100mph at it. Mickey brought in this thing in 2003 where it was all to do with skills and ball work and now it has gone full circle," continued Cavanagh.
"It's gone to the stage where everything is about power, strength, conditioning. Gaelic football now is essentially basketball, 12 men behind the ball and a couple up front."
His prediction of the game's future is not one he likes, a game where it is more important to be a tackler than a scorer.
"Positions mean very little and it is more important now to be a tackler than it is to be a scorer," he said. "Whether that takes a bit of the beauty of the flair out of the game that inside-forwards have... probably.
"In our Tyrone changing room our joke is Martin Penrose is the best tackler in Ireland. Martin Penrose, whenever I started, was a nippy corner (forward) who went for goal every time he got the ball. He wouldn't worry about tackling.
"It's just the way players have been moulded and trained, and everything now is about tackling and being negative. I'm sure if it is an ugly season in terms of spectator sport the GAA will need to take a look at it and see what way they can change it.
"At least in basketball there is a shot clock. The ball has to go at some stage. In GAA the way some teams are playing, they will hold the ball for minutes and minutes nowhere near the goal.
"It doesn't make it pretty but it's unfortunately where the sport finds itself at.
"The template was put out last year by Dublin, Donegal and teams like that. Every team will copy it this year, no doubt, and it's going to be interesting to see how it will pan out."
Cavanagh has been forced out of the game for six months because of a strength and conditioning training drill he had never engaged in before.
Taking part in his first 'maximum bench press' in Armagh with the northern members of the International Rules squad, his "bravado" in trying to keep up with Down's Danny Hughes triggered a rare but very serious shoulder injury that has often ended sports careers before, a ruptured 'pec' major tendon that came away from the bone.
The surgeon in Santry Clinic had only seen it done twice or three times before, revealed Cavanagh.
"I'm 28, it was the first time I had done maximum bench press. I didn't know what sort of level to go to. Danny Hughes was doing weights with myself and Ciaran McKeever," he said.
"Danny hadn't even started yet -- he is some sort of a freak of nature when it comes to bench-pressing. He was only starting at 120kgs, myself and Ciaran were starting at 80kgs.
"It was a wee bit of bravado almost, we'll try and go as hard as we can here. It snapped at 120, I heard the snap on my shoulder. It was a really freak injury, it was only diagnosed after two or three X-rays. I was lucky. I always felt I had a strong chest but obviously there is some sort of weakness there and it snapped on me."
Tyrone's third match in the National League is the competitive return he's aiming for, a return to a vastly changed Red Hand landscape after so many retirements. He admits that Tyrone were "naive" in their tactics against Dublin last year, a defeat they never saw coming.
But he warns while they are not the force of old they aren't "a stone's throw away" either and are making the necessary changes. Even ground breakers are having to readjust fast in a rapidly changing market.