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Tyrone's talisman Sean Cavanagh is still playing for Sam


22 November 2014; Sean Cavanagh, Ireland, on the attack against Australia. International Rules Series, Australia v Ireland. Paterson's Stadium, Perth, Australia. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

22 November 2014; Sean Cavanagh, Ireland, on the attack against Australia. International Rules Series, Australia v Ireland. Paterson's Stadium, Perth, Australia. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

22 November 2014; Sean Cavanagh, Ireland, on the attack against Australia. International Rules Series, Australia v Ireland. Paterson's Stadium, Perth, Australia. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

SEÁN CAVANAGH turns 32 next February. He has been playing senior county football for 13 seasons and has lost none of his zest for training, playing, devoting a large chunk of his life to the cause of Tyrone football.

Growing family and work commitments apart, only one thing has changed since he started out in 2002 - the last year before Mickey Harte became his senior county manager.

Thirteen years on, he hates losing even more.

Mind you, defeat has become a more familiar bedfellow during the second half of Cavanagh's career. By the end of 2008, he had three All-Irelands in the bag. Six years later, he's still stuck on three.

"As you get older, you become a worse loser. I've heard people say it before and I've no doubt about it," he confirms. "The defeat this year to Armagh was probably as tough as I've ever seen because I was captain of the team, you have that responsibility to lead the team and to lose in that manner - unexpectedly and particularly at home against our biggest rivals - was gutting for me.

"You can ask my wife - when I went home after the game I was in tears for hours. I couldn't comprehend it. I've lost All-Ireland semi-finals, I've been lucky enough I haven't lost too many finals, but I've lost big games."


He continues: "It definitely hurt a wee bit greater because my wife is from Armagh and I had a brother-in-law (Charlie Vernon) playing. But at the same time, you just know that was another year thrown away as such.

"I honestly had high hopes this year; I can see the talent of the players in the squad and I know they can compete at the top level. It's just so annoying that some of the guys aren't doing themselves justice, but maybe that will change.

"We had a decent run in 2013 and I don't think there is anything to say, if we get the right formula again, that we can't give it another title. But there are an awful lot of ifs in there."

Cavanagh is talking on the last day of the GAA/GPA All Stars football tour to Boston. He was jetting back home last night, touching down before dawn this morning, then primed to go training with Tyrone tonight.

Between this latest trip and the International Rules tour to Australia, he has been living out of a suitcase for three weeks. Others might be burned out by such a schedule but the five-time All Star has never fully grasped the meaning of the word.

"I remember Mickey Harte phoning me when I was 19," he recounts. "He was going to a conference on burnout and he asked me because I was involved in five or six different teams at the time.

"I remember telling him that I did not understand burnout, because every single time I went out and played football I never saw the consequences of burnout. I constantly wanted to be out there.


"That was 10 or 11 years ago and it has not changed an awful lot expect that the time commitments get tougher more than anything else. My body has held up reasonably well bar a couple of significant injuries.

"It is just the time element that gets tougher - my wife is a GP, I have two young kids at home being looked after in Armagh and it is a 20-mile round trip trying to get them home and then get out for training.

"And then obviously training becomes more difficult, ten years on, because we are not training two nights a week now - we are training five nights a week with maybe morning sessions thrown in there too."

Cavanagh is in reflective mood as he considers his own inter-county future. "As you get older, you realise that's another year gone," he muses. "Most players probably play until they are 33 or whatever ... all of a sudden you are 32 next February and thinking 'God, this is looming quite fast.'

"But I am trying not to concentrate too much - as much as it sounds silly as an accountant - on the number. I am more concentrating on my physical condition and my zest to play football. If Tyrone were to have a good year in the next year or two and we were to win Sam back, then it might be a nice way to cap it all off. We'll just have to see ... "

That won't materialise unless Tyrone's talented twentysomething brigade drive it on. There is an impatience among supporters for them to deliver. Cavanagh can sense, even share, the frustration.

"One of the biggest anomalies is probably Kyle Coney. He is obviously a fabulous footballer ... he played in the same (minor) final as Aidan O'Shea in '08 and you can see how Aidan has gone on to be a household name," he points out.

"There are a few guys who we have known for a few years now, the likes of Ronan O'Neill. Matty Donnelly has turned into a great player. But there are probably five, six, seven, eight of those '08 and '10 teams that have the potential to go on and become a really good name in GAA.

"For one reason or another, some of them just haven't kicked on. Maybe it's an injury. I don't know why they haven't done it but they have the potential to do it.

"We need them now to do it because Stevie (O'Neill) has gone and the likes of Marty Penrose has gone. All of a sudden, I am looking around and there are not that many guys who have been there and done that. It's time those guys stood up and became leaders of this team."

He accepts Tyrone have struggled against defensive systems - be they imposed by Donegal, Monaghan or Armagh - in more recent years. Physicality has been another issue but Peter Donnelly's appointment as strength and conditioning coach, he believes, has already made a positive difference.


As for Harte, he scoffs at the notion that he's suddenly a manager under pressure entering 2015 and can testify to seeing "a serious amount of fight" in his long-time mentor.

"Even in the past number of weeks, whenever I've managed to get to training, there's a drive there within Mickey," Cavanagh reveals.

"He knows himself that success hasn't been good enough in the past few years and he knows we have to do something (next year).

"Not because of his role but because Tyrone have let their standards slip in the past couple of years. To me, it's been a real foreign thing and I've no doubt it's been to Mickey as well."