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Saturday 23 September 2017

Sean's last stand for the Red Hand

Cavanagh is aiming to savour his Tyrone swansong

Tyrone’s Seán Cavanagh at the launch of the 2017 EirGrid GAA Football U21 All-Ireland Championship in Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tyrone’s Seán Cavanagh at the launch of the 2017 EirGrid GAA Football U21 All-Ireland Championship in Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
At the launch of the 2017 EirGrid GAA Football U21 All-Ireland Championship were (l-r): Seán O’Donoghue (Cork), Brian Reape (Mayo), Mikey Murnaghan (Monaghan) and Cillian O’Shea (Dublin). Photo: Sportsfile

Sean Cavanagh is an accountant by profession so, when he declares himself "99 percent confident" that this will be his last year as a Tyrone footballer, you can be pretty sure the numbers stack up.

The Red Hand talisman - three-time All-Ireland winner, five-time All Star - has embarked on his 16th season at senior level. He knows, deep down, there won't be a 17th.

"I really don't want to finish my career where I'm limping out and I know my body can't compete," he explains, speaking in his role as an ambassador for the EirGrid U21 football championship.

"It gets tougher every year but I feel quite strong at the moment - and I feel as if I have something to offer this year. But I know, as the years go on, it will get impossible to do that."

Cavanagh turns 34 tomorrow. That makes him almost two years younger than Denis Bastick, 36 in May, who has signed on for another year with Dublin.

The flip side is that, whereas Bastick was a late inter-county bloomer, Cavanagh has been a Tyrone mainstay since 2002, when he was just out of minor. There is high mileage on that Rolls Royce engine.

"You want to be fair to the rest of the guys," he explains. "I'd never like to think that I'd be living on a reputation or something like that.

"I have been incredibly fortunate throughout my career to win what I have won but, at the same time, I don't want to be the person who is training once a week or training every other session to try and be part of something where the rest of the guys are putting in the hard work.

"That was the basis on which I came back this year - that if I wasn't fit to do the things that everyone else was doing, including the gym stuff and four or five nights a week, I wouldn't do it. I know that will be more difficult next year and the year after, so I have it in my head that this is it."

Double-whammy

Mind you, Cavanagh had previously intimated that 2016 was likely to be his swansong season. That was before last August's All-Ireland quarter-final, and that crushing double-yellow dismissal against Mayo. The double-whammy of disciplinary woe and what-if defeat coloured everything.

"It was probably a week after the Mayo game," he says, when asked when he knew he was definitely coming back.

"At that stage you were still demoralised but, at the same time, I knew I couldn't leave it and walk away on those terms. Something inside me said, 'No, you can't walk now'.

"I wasn't sure how the body was going to feel but I knew inside me ... and my wife could read me more than I could read myself, and she knew that I couldn't walk in the way I left that Mayo game."

Was it the red card or result that made up his mind?

"Everything. Being sent off wasn't ideal, but we had greater ambitions and we expected to get through that game. The chances we missed. And leaving that group of players (when) I feel I still have something to offer the team, I felt it wouldn't be right.

"Everyone keeps telling me, 'You'll be retired long enough'. I've been listening to that for a while so I said, 'Let's give this one more shot' because I feel we do have a really strong side at the moment and a side capable of challenging at the top."

Craving

Cavanagh has launched his final Allianz League campaign, against Roscommon and then Dublin last Saturday, as an impact sub but stresses that he is "no different to the rest of the guys" in craving a starting position. He aims to live every minute of this season.

"This is it and genuinely I absolutely love every minute that I'm training. It's absolutely Baltic in Garvaghy, but I do love going up," he enthuses.

"I love spending time with the guys. I know that you'll never be able to replace that camaraderie that you have with the team. We're lucky in Tyrone that we don't have any club rifts, we have everybody who turns up to train and play for Tyrone is 100 percent committed to try and do the best for Tyrone.

"That environment is a great environment to be in. I'm just living it, training by training, day by day, and I'm really enjoying it at the moment because I know that this will be the end of it."

But not, he suspects, the end of Mickey Harte.

For all the debate spawned by the county board's failure to extend his term last autumn, his on-field general concludes: "Genuinely I'd be very surprised if Mickey still wasn't there next year.

"Like anything, it'll be determined by success but I know Mickey has no plans to walk away. And if we can deliver for him on the pitch this year, there's no doubt I think Mickey Harte will be back in the years to come for Tyrone."

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