Top of the millennium class
The case for the Moy Maestro: Why Sean Cavanagh's exploits over 15 seasons are enough to see him crowned the best of a talented bunch
Published 21/05/2016 | 02:30
It's the ultimate in subjective judgment so let the debate begin: who is the top footballer of the new millennium?
My choice is a man who at around 1.40 tomorrow afternoon, will pick up a football in Derry's Celtic Park dressing-room and lead his team into the 2016 Ulster championship.
Seán Cavanagh is facing into his 80th senior Championship game in a Tyrone career which began 14 years ago with a courageous attempt to derail Armagh in the Ulster quarter-final.
In Joe Kernan's first Championship outing as manager, all was going to plan when Armagh took a three-point lead into stoppage time before 19-year-old Cavanagh scored the equalising goal.
Peter Canavan, one of the best finishers of his generation, had a chance to shoot for what surely would have been the winning point but he opted to pass to the better-placed Richard Thornton, whose kick flew wide.
Armagh won the replay and went on to win the All-Ireland title for the first time, leaving Tyrone looking on enviously as their neighbours made the big breakthrough. Still, Red Hand resolve was hardening and by the end of 2003 they too were on the All-Ireland honours' list for the first time.
It all seems a long time ago, yet when Cavanagh lines up against Derry tomorrow, the vast majority of the characteristics which stood out from the start of his career will be as much in evidence as they were in 2002.
Obviously his pace has dropped a little and he no longer patrols the pitch from end-to-end but the others remains in place. Plus, of course, they are decorated by the vast amount of experience gained in a 220-game inter-county career.
So why rank Cavanagh as the new millennium's main man?
First, let's establish the criteria: skill, pace, power, energy, consistency, versatility, leadership, judgment, courage, vision, character, reliability under pressure, longevity. There's also big-day temperament and those undefinable extras, which only become apparent when you see them.
Line all those boxes up against Cavanagh's name and watch the ticks flow in.
Every player in the accompanying top 20 - and many others - would beat Cavanagh in specific aspects but, in my view, nobody matches him when all the headings are put together.
Kernan recalls Cavanagh's role in the 2002 close call at the start of a massively intense rivalry with Tyrone which raged for several seasons.
Fourteen years on, his respect for Cavanagh remains immense.
"The way he plays the game, it's some achievement to be still going so well all these years later. A lot of players maintain a high standard over a number of years but only the great ones keep it going for as long as Cavanagh has.
"You'd hate him when you were playing against him because you knew the damage he could do but after that you'd have nothing but admiration for him. He's the genuine article on and off the pitch, no doubt about that," said Kernan.
Cavanagh's capacity to deliver under extreme pressure has always been one of his biggest assets. It's more noteworthy because of the attention he attracts from opposition who have always known that if they can curb him, Tyrone's threat will be seriously diminished.
Of course, it would be wrong to portray Cavanagh as an innocent victim of nasty opposition forces, who get away with blackguarding him.
He is well able to look after himself in the physical exchanges and can be quite adept at 'buying' frees.
And when they arrive, his accuracy level is consistently high, albeit with a kicking style that's effective, if not tidy. There's nothing especially pretty either about his famous dummy trick where he reduces speed to zero and dances on the spot before taking on the opponent.
Every defender/midfielder in the country knows what's coming but they have been largely unable to counteract it, which greatly adds to their frustration.
Ironically, Cavanagh's importance to Tyrone is perhaps best illustrated by a game where he didn't start.
On the morning of the 2009 All-Ireland semi-final (Tyrone were defending All-Ireland champions) against Cork, he informed Mickey Harte that he hadn't slept the night before and felt wrecked. As Harte recalled in his autobiography, he knew there was a problem.
"His body language isn't good. There's something wrong," he wrote.
"Are you telling me there's not 70 minutes in you?"
"Aye, I don't think so."
Cavanagh didn't start and by the time he came on, after 46 minutes, Cork were six points ahead and on their way to victory. Would a fully-fit Cavanagh, firing on full cylinders, have made the difference?
Quite possibly. Cork didn't have to do anything special to win that day and were also quite ordinary in the final, where they lost to Kerry.
"It's only when a player like him is gone that people will realise how good he was. You'll hear some Tyrone fans saying that he's not what he was but what does that mean?
"He's still one of the top players in the country. Don't look at what age he is - look at what he does. He plays with such a great sense of enthusiasm, whether for club, county, province or country that it's obvious he loves the game as much now as when he started out."
It's a measure of Cavanagh's versatility that his five All-Star awards have been divided between midfield (2003-04-05) and left half-forward (2008-2013).
He wears the No 14 jersey nowadays but likes to drift outfield to re-visit old stomping grounds now patrolled by his younger brother Colm and various others.
Still, his primary role is as the main reference in the Tyrone attack where tomorrow he will be supported by five players who between them have played only 40 Championship games, 39 fewer than Cavanagh.
As has been the case so often for Tyrone, they need him to be on his game to raise the team's overall performance level.
"When he plays well, Tyrone do well, always a sign of a great player. The thing is that he improves as the seasons go along. But then the bigger the occasion the more he thrives. Again, a sign of a great player," said Kernan.