Tuesday 20 March 2018

'All that I ever wanted was to give all I had for that jersey'

Sean Cavanagh leaves inter-county football after 16 years but Mickey Harte intends to stay at the helm

Sean Cavanagh embraces Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton at Croke Park yesterday. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Sean Cavanagh embraces Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton at Croke Park yesterday. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

At the end Sean Cavanagh got up off seat in the Hogan Stand, where he had been since his 55th-minute withdrawal, and made his way out to where his beleaguered colleagues and management were assessing the damage of the storm that they had been exposed to.

There were a few Dublin players to negotiate first though and each had a respectful word or embrace for one of the truly great footballers and leaders of this era. Paul Flynn's was warm but perhaps Stephen Cluxton's dwelled for that bit longer.

They share a lot, inter-county championship debuts within a year of each other, 2001 and 2002, at a time when jerseys sagged and it was acceptable for jaw bones to be concealed by an extra bit of condition even in high summer.

Cavanagh is dropping anchor on a 16-year career, flagged from this time last year, with 89 appearances. Cluxton went one more yesterday, becoming the first ever footballer to break the 90 barrier.

So between them there is an understanding as to where they have taken their bodies and their lives for more than a decade and a half.

"There's obviously huge mutual respect between myself and Stephen. we have been soldiering against each other since 2002," recalled Cavanagh.


"He said a few nice words to myself and I told him it was an absolute honour to play against one of the greatest footballers ever. And he is that, he is an inspiration, even to me.

"He is a fantastic guy off the pitch. I have been lucky enough to get to know him as well. You find in sport, most of the top, top players are really good human beings and good-hearted people," said Cavanagh.

"Stephen is one of those, Paul Flynn is another. Dublin are blessed with those type of guys who are really unselfish.

"I probably had the upper hand on him for a number of years in the 2000s and he has had the upper hand in this decade. There are fond memories."

But as he left a Croke Park dressing-room as an inter-county player for the last time the emotion of such a departure is quickly supplanted by the 'mind blowing' nature of what he just experienced. He had to be in it to really appreciate just where Dublin are taking the game right now.

February and March league games under the lights of Croke Park had painted an illusion so at odds with the virtual reality tour that he got in those chilling 55 minutes of near perfection, the idea Tyrone had a system designed to thwart Dublin lying in rubble now.

How does a group of players that have given everything identify areas of improvement? How far adrift do the four teams that they themselves racked up 6-77 and a cumulative 46-point winning margin against feel they are?

Cavanagh has existed with teams that have shaped the game in different ways - Joe Kernan's Armagh, a Kerry team that reached six successive All-Ireland finals, a Donegal side that continuously strangled them in Ulster.

But nothing prepared him for yesterday.

"Every one in that group tried their best and we've just come up against probably the greatest GAA team I've ever played against and I've told a few of the Dublin lads (that)," he said.

"It's tough luck to be part of an era and a team of that magnitude that's dominating the sport in a way that I never thought was possible to dominate.

"That win today? I just can't understand how far ahead of everyone they are. I didn't think they were that far ahead but you have to give it to them, incredible set of athletes and an incredible set of football players."

"I've told our lads, I feel sorry for them. You have to look around some of the guys we have at the moment and they deserve so much more for the effort and the energy and the brilliance of skill they have.

"I was lucky. I came into that team where we were on the rise and had won minors and 21s and just was able to get the success quite early. Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly, Niall Sludden, Tiernan McCann, every bit as gifted, and would have played on those teams every bit as I would.

"But you have to sometimes bow to greatness and superiority. That's where Dublin are at at the minute," said the five-time All Star.

Cavanagh has pushed his body in gyms in ways he didn't think he would in the latter end of his career. Until yesterday he thought he was at peak output.

"We pushed our bodies to the very top end of the limits and I believe we have phenomenal athletes in that team but they were just breezing past our guys. It is dispiriting but at some stage you just have to accept it and this year it is probably easier to accept than it was last year for me because this year we've just been beaten by a far superior team."

He leaves now hoping that back home in The Moy some old mementos and photos will now blend in with his wife Fionnula's decor!

Consciously he steered clear of nostalgia and memories but that's all this Dublin team are leaving for the rest now.

"I've never dwelled on it. I don't have one picture of myself, I don't have one trophy in my house, I don't have one medal in my house. Maybe I'll start looking for those," he said.

"I walk away and hold my head high because all I ever wanted to do was to give all I possibly had for that jersey."

"I was lacing up my boots today and I remembered the very first day I laced up my boots in Clones to play in the Championship against Armagh. I remembered the type of boots, how I tied the knot. You do begin to be a wee bit nostalgic, but I've had an incredible journey."


One man however not preparing for departure is Mickey Harte who is intent on staying despite the apparent reluctance of Tyrone County Board to extend his agreement up to now.

It's a conversation that will have to happen soon but one that has been a little awkward in recent years. His desire to have an overlap of time on any agreement has not been realised.

"I think I've made that suggestion many times during the year (that he wants to be there in 2018). I do expect to be here. It's not in my hands. Somebody else might choose to do something different - that's their prerogative to do so. At this point in time, I've no intention of walking away."

Harte contended that Con O'Callaghan's fifth-minute goal altered the terms of engagement and forced Tyrone to play in a manner that didn't suit them.

Their system is predicated on drawing opponents out but with the cushion of an early goal the terms were, most definitely, Dublin's.

Thus the champions were able to sit back and protect what they had, congesting the pathways that Sludden, Harte and Donnelly like to navigate.

Unlike Cavanagh however, Harte sees a way forward. "Before we played them I didn't see the gap as that significant. So what we have to believe is that it shouldn't be that wide, that we should be capable of taking that team on.

"Therefore, we must go away and do what we need to do that we as a group can do something that will give us the capacity to close that gap. I do not believe that we should sort a give up and say 'this is an impossible task'.

"There is nothing impossible, if you put your mind to it. I believe we will be capable of coming back and reaching the level that is required out there. I can't say exactly when but I believe we will be back and will compete at that level."

And he's convinced he'll be part of that journey.

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