Great survivor Colm Cavanagh at the peak of his powers
By John Harrington
Colm Cavanagh admits it feels ‘surreal’ to be embarking on a 12th season of inter-county football with Tyrone.
His debut back in 2007 doesn’t feel all that long ago, nor does the sensation of being one of the new kids on the block finding his way at this level of the game.
He’s very much a veteran now, though. 30 mightn’t be all that old in the greater scheme of things, but it makes him the eldest player in the Tyrone panel and he’s also the only survivor from the 2008 All-Ireland winning team.
His brother Sean’s retirement after last year’s championship exit is partly to blame for bestowing those two dubious honours on him, and campaigning without him this year has only reinforced that 'surreal' feeling.
“It has, to be fair,” Cavanagh told GAA.ie “We've travelled together for 11 years together in the car for every single campaign so it'll be strange and even more strange as the season progresses.
“But it’s a natural thing, he was never going to go on forever.
“He's won all the team awards and all the persona accolades so he's done it all and can go out on a positive note.
“I've a new companion in the car now, Harry Loughran, and he's good craic. It will be a different conversation than the one myself and Sean would be having, I['ll put it that way!
“But it'll definitely be a change not having him.”
With Sean no longer around, Colm’s stature within the group dynamic will be even greater.
That’s not to say he hadn’t already stepped out of his brother’s shadow.
Tried in various positions over the years, he’s really blossomed since being given the responsibility of locking down the Tyrone defence in a sweeping role.
It’s easy to make the case that he was their best player in the last two Ulster Championship winning seasons, an argument reinforced by the All-Star award he picked up last year.
“I'm really enjoying it,” he admits, "I seem to have a role now that suits me.
“I suppose Mickey has persevered with me over the years and tried me in many different positions and this one has taken a wee bit.
“I'm fully aware that can change on any given day. You have to be able adapt on the field in football. I'm delighted with what I've done to date, but who knows what role I'll be doing going forward.”
Tyrone wing-back Tiernan McCann spoke recently about just how crucial Cavanagh is to the team’s game-plan.
Not only is he formidable obstacle for opposition forwards, he’s very much the orchestrator of Tyrone’s counter-attack.
McCann described him as the loudest man on the pitch, the one who gives the order to flood forward in numbers when necessary and when to batten down the hatches.
When I get on the pitch I make sure guys are doing their job right
If you’re not doing the job you’re supposed to be doing at any given time, then it won’t be long before Cavanagh is on your case.
“It's vital to be able to add that to anyone's game,” says Cavanagh.
“It seems like such a simple thing, communication, but there are a lot of guys who can play with their heads down at times and not actually communicate.
“Talking is important, but listening is also very important. It's something that's probably always been in my game whereby I'd always be very vocal on the pitch.
“Not always positive, but always trying to keep the guys on their toes, and letting them know what they're doing right and wrong.
“Personally I wouldn't be a massive speaker behind the scenes, but I talk when I need to talk. And then when I get on the pitch I make sure guys are doing their job right.
“The lads understand I'm trying to help them, even if some days you might have a bit of a fall-out on some things.
“It’s about trying to keep it as positive as you can because it's important in this day and age when you're playing football that all the guys are tuned in because the moment you take your eye of the ball is the moment something goes past you.”
They all learned that the hard way in last year’s All-Ireland SFC semi-final when they were blitzed by Dublin, eventually losing a game by 12 points that many had tipped them to win.
The post-mortem after that defeat was a difficult one, with no easy answers as to why a Tyrone team that had travelled in such confidence to Croke Park found themselves so badly outmanoeuvred.
“They probably did get the run on us early on and that made it very, very difficult,” said Cavanagh.
“I felt had we got in front of Dublin and made us come at us it may have changed a wee bit.
“But it's very, very hard to put it down to any one thing that made the difference. They were better than us on the day and won comfortably in the end. That's football, that's sport, things don't go for you sometimes.
"Dublin were great that day. They played out of their sinks and only kicked about two wides. They were impeccable that day.
"But we didn't cover ourselves in glory at all. We made a lot of mistakes. Even for the goal, I think someone kicked the ball away and I wasn't in a position I should have been.
“There were just so many things that went wrong on that day. And when they cascade that's what happens.
“We had our ducks in a row and were prepared well. It just didn't go our way, but that doesn't make it any easier.”
Tyrone have now lost two All-Ireland semi-finals in a row in disappointing circumstances, so they need to at least reach an All-Ireland Final this year to prove they haven’t plateaued as team.
They have an awful lot going for them – a good age profile and a depth of talent in every position that could be especially handy were they to reach the round-robin quarter-finals – but they have a lot to prove too.
“There are no guarantees with any season, but we have a good mix of guys there and it's a very strong panel whereby you could probably replace like for like players on any given day which is a real plus to have,” says Cavanagh.
“We can't be too hard on ourselves. We've won back to back Ulster titles which is a fantastic achievement in itself.
“Obviously you want to go for the elusive All-Ireland, we have a lot of quality in the group, and personally I'm feeling very positive about the year ahead.
“We've added a few more guys in again this year to strengthen things up. There's no guarantees that we'll be there again this year, but there's no guarantees Dublin will be there again.
“It's a new season and you just have to take it as it comes and see where it takes us.
“But we're feeling very positive and it all starts on Sunday against Galway.”