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Sean Cavanagh: Tyrone no busted flush

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Tyrone star Sean Cavanagh insists his county still have the potential to challenge for honours. INPHO/James Crombie

Tyrone star Sean Cavanagh insists his county still have the potential to challenge for honours. INPHO/James Crombie

?INPHO/James Crombie

Tyrone star Sean Cavanagh insists his county still have the potential to challenge for honours. INPHO/James Crombie

At this stage of his career, Sean Cavanagh has seen plenty.

In fact, by the time the new season rolls around there's a chance he'll have seen more than anyone else on the Tyrone squad. If Conor Gormley and Stephen O'Neill decide to leave the table, he'll be the last remaining link to the breakthrough team of 2003.

But even he couldn't have seen what was coming last March. Heading to Killarney, Tyrone had the chance to put Kerry down after their dismal start to the League.

By the time they were getting back on the bus, the Kingdom had taken their first step towards an All-Ireland title after obliterating Tyrone in the second half. Cavanagh publicly apologised to travelling support after that, but it was a sign of things to come. Tyrone fell off the pace and were hardly seen this summer.

"We went down there thinking this was a good chance to lay down a marker and to be honest we didn't see it coming," Cavanagh reflects.

"We probably gave them too much respect maybe. I don't know. They hadn't been going too well up to that point. We spoke about James O'Donoghue that day. We knew he was good but we probably didn't realise until afterwards just how good he was."

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Tyrone have said speculation suggesting Stephen O'Neill has retired from inter-county football are wide of the mark. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Tyrone have said speculation suggesting Stephen O'Neill has retired from inter-county football are wide of the mark. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Tyrone have said speculation suggesting Stephen O'Neill has retired from inter-county football are wide of the mark. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

O'Donoghue scored a hat-trick that day and went on to be one of the stars of the summer as Kerry climbed highest of all.

Ugly

The irony that they won Sam Maguire playing ugly isn't lost on Cavanagh, particularly at a time when Tyrone's DNA is undergoing its own overhaul. They've gone the other way to Kerry. The fathers of 'puke football' have changed but lost some of their old characteristics that usually saw the physical stuff pave the way for the poetry.

And it has been a painful transition at times. Monaghan and Armagh, two teams they happily squeezed the life out of over the past decade, ended their interest in the Championship this year.

There were mitigating circumstances. At one stage, Tyrone's injury list was such that an in-house game had to be played as a 14-a-side match because the 45-strong training panel had been so decimated.

But that Armagh came to Omagh in the qualifiers and "outmuscled" Tyrone on their own patch was unthinkable and unacceptable for Cavanagh. And something that might persuade their old gunslingers to return once more.

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Sean Cavanagh, Tyrone, in action against Dick Clerkin, Monaghan

Sean Cavanagh, Tyrone, in action against Dick Clerkin, Monaghan

SPORTSFILE

Sean Cavanagh, Tyrone, in action against Dick Clerkin, Monaghan

"Most of the guys won't take too much convincing to go back. Armagh took a lot out of us. It made a few of us angry and I think we feel we have something to prove," says Cavanagh.

"People talk about the older guys like maybe myself, Stevie (O'Neill), Joe (McMahon) and Gormley but I think you'll see most of them back. Okay, you mightn't have the same role on the field but you can still offer something and be there in the background helping out.

"We didn't do ourselves justice this year. Last year we had some good days, but we were below par against Monaghan. . . we were okay against Down in the replay but overall, you'd have to say we didn't deliver.

"We felt we left it behind. It's funny as you get older you don't think about what you have won. We feel like we let a year slip by this year. So yeah, I think most of those guys have something left to offer."

Perhaps Tyrone fell between two stools. The move away from the tried and trusted to a more open and expansive style has been difficult as they mixed the good with the bad.

Their final-round League game against Dublin was a belter. Tyrone coughed up two goals in the opening 70 seconds that day - only one less than they conceded in the entire 2003 campaign - but had enough firepower to get back in the game before a late Diarmuid Connolly winner settled it.

The different type of player Tyrone are producing has prompted the change, and Cavanagh insists they will come good.

"I honestly believe we have five or six of the best inside forwards in Ulster, if not Ireland, and for whatever reason they didn't do themselves justice this year. It's probably down to the way football is being played nowadays," he says.

"The Armagh game, they probably slightly outmuscled us and we struggled with how they played on the break. That's something we'll be looking at next year.

"We are going to have to be able to adapt and we have plenty of strong lads who can play around the middle and we have lads with pace too who can score.

"Systems and styles are as important now as breeding good footballers. The day where a corner-forward has to kick seven points are long gone. Look at Jim McGuinness and what he wants from his players. Things have changed."

And as Tyrone have moved with the times, have they lost what made them great in the last decade? This year's results in the Championship suggested they were further off the pace than they have been at any point since winning their first All-Ireland.

Cavanagh doesn't see it like that.

"I genuinely believe we are still contenders. You might start questioning yourself after certain results but I've seen enough in games - fair enough they were in the League - against Dublin where we are able to compete with them man for man because we are producing a certain type of player," he argues.

"This year didn't go well but last year in the semi-final against Mayo we were unlucky to lose Peter Harte at a crucial time. We might have gotten to an All-Ireland final.

Missed

"It was the same this year against Armagh when Mattie Donnelly was sent off and we missed Petie that day too.

"I think if we can get the right guys on the pitch at the right time we are still up there. But we have to prove it now.

"If I didn't think we could win something I'd be at home minding the two wee girls."

Last year's captain resisted the urge to take a long break this winter. For the last two months, he has travelled to the various International Rules training camps. The reasoning was simple.

"This year we finished a little bit earlier with the county and I've been able to handle the body better. It's possibly the last time I'll play for Ireland.

"There's no Test next year and in two years' time there's a good chance I won't be good enough to get on the side. So I said to my wife that I was going to go again and enjoy it," he explains.

"And anyway, you can't afford to take much time off. You need to keep ticking over because the county teams will probably be back in December, so you need to stay in shape for that."

Later this month they'll take on the Aussies. After that, it's back to preparing for the new season, and this time they have a cause. Cavanagh and Tyrone have some scores to settle.

Sean Cavanagh was speaking as an ambassador for SuperValu, proud sponsors of the All-Ireland Football Championship.

 

Sean Cavanagh on. . .

The upcoming International Rules Test

The Australians wouldn't be long laying into you when you lost, so it was good to win last year but it got to the stage where it wasn't much of a challenge. That won't be the case this year. We played them in Perth in 2008. The place was wedged and I think we won by a point. It was a super game and one of my best memories from International Rules, so I think this could be a great game.

The Red Hand's recent form

It's been a while since we won anything or got close in Ulster and our supporters are getting fed up. You see the draw had been made for next year and that won't be easy but we see it as a challenge.

Tyrone's new-look back-room team

(Tony Donnelly and Fergal McCann) are there since 2005, and nine or ten years is a long time. So we have to embrace the change. I know Peter Donnelly well, he was a groomsman of mine and a really good guy. If you talk to people in Cavan they'll tell you what an addition he was for them.

Irish Independent