Born leader Cavanagh ready for fresh start


MALACHY CLERKIN,talks to Tyrone’s midfield powerhouse ahead of their Allianz Division One match against Donegal tomorrow

“There’s a jacks down the corridor there,” offers the photographer as Seán Cavanagh picks up a T-shirt to change into for the snap. Since we’re standing in the empty bar of a Dublin hotel, Cavanagh shrugs at the thought. “Not at all,” he says. “Sure who’d be looking at me?” Except that once he takes off his shirt, it’s hard to look away. A pair of matching scars train-track from shoulder to oxter on both sides of his upper torso. Lanyards of raised flesh, half a foot long apiece and ugly every inch. Most footballers have scars. Nobody has these scars.

That’s not over-egging it, by the way. Dr Hannan Mullett is the shoulder guy in the Sports Injury Clinic in Santry and has been popping, stitching and reattaching them for two decades now. He sees about four people a year turn up with the ruptured pec major tendon injury that sent Cavanagh his way with in the autumn of 2011. He has never seen it happen twice in the one body.

“There have been a couple of cases in the literature where it has happened before so he’s not totally unique,” says Dr Mullett.

“But it’s exceptionally rare and I had never seen it before. There’s no record of it having happened to a GAA player. It’s just a freakish occurrence.”

The pec major tendon essentially runs from the breastbone to the shoulder to the elbow. If you think of that as a triangle, Cavanagh ripped the apex of the triangle off the bone on both sides of his body. The left shoulder went first, tearing off – “like a frayed rope” in his own words – as he was lifting weights a week and a half after Dublin bounced Tyrone out of the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final.

Tackle a runner

A spell under Mullett’s knife and six months of rehab later, he made it back and caught the end of the league for Tyrone last year. But playing a club match for the Moy at the end of May, he threw out his right arm to tackle a runner and heard nothing but a loud snap. The pain hit first, then the sick and surreal feeling of familiarity. His wife Fionnuala, a GP, came out on to the pitch when it was obvious there was a problem. He delivered his own diagnosis before she could say a word.

“I was lying on the pitch and I was saying to my wife, ‘I’ve done it again, I’ve done the other side’. She was like, ‘Nah Seán, there’s not a chance.’ Because there’s only a one in so many million chance that you can do it in the first place so to do two in seven months would be crazy. She gave me some morphine so the pain eased off but I knew what had happened. Lo and behold, we went to Craigavon again the next morning and it was confirmed. Frightening, freaky and all the rest.”

In 10 seasons as a Tyrone footballer, Cavanagh reckons he’d only ever missed one matchthrough injury. He remembers way back in 2003, himself and Cormac McAnallen sitting in the stand in Casement Park as Tyrone played Antrim after he’d rolled an ankle against Derry three weeks previously. So to go from that to missing a whole summer didn’t come easy to him.

“The only thing that really got me to go to the games last year was that my younger brother Colm was involved and I was able to put my focus and support into him. But apart from that, it gutted me to know that I couldn’t be part of the team and couldn’t be helping them. I’ve always been that way.

“I remember when I was younger, there were a couple of times I had done an ankle or whatever and I couldn’t bring myself to go to club championship games. My whole family would be gone away to the game and it would be only five minutes away over the road but I’d be sitting there in the house watching Coronation Street or something.

At the flood

In the years when Tyrone’s summer ends early, if he can at all, he’ll tune the championship out.

When the 2009 All-Ireland final clashed with the Manchester derby, he was far more engrossed in Michael Owen’s last-minute winner than whatever Cork and Kerry were at in Croke Park. He and Fionnuala were in Rome for the 2010 final but though he stood into an Irish bar to watch the Tyrone minors play that day, by the time the senior game began he had her away sight-seeing. He has watched maybe a half an hour of last year’s final.

“It’s just that jealousy, you know?” he says. “Last year felt a little bit like when Armagh won it in 2002. Back then, I knew a few of the Armagh guys playing – I knew Ronan Clarke from schools football and whatnot. It really hurt because you knew that Tyrone were as good as that Armagh team and I knew that I was as good as the Armagh players.

“While you had to accept that they were the best team and deserved their All-Ireland, we knew that we could have been there and should have been there.

“There was a bit of that last year as well. Donegal won the All-Ireland by rights, they were the best team in the country without a shadow of a doubt. But you still had that jealousy and that belief that said, ‘You know what? If we had been injury-free, if X, Y and Z had broken for us even in the game against them up in Clones, potentially we could have been there.’ It hurt. While you have to acknowledge how fantastic they were and how much they deserved it, it hurt. And I think it probably hurt us more being a neighbouring county.”

Hops the fence

That neighbouring county bound into Omagh tomorrow for their Allianz League clash as the first Ulstermen to win an All-Ireland since Tyrone themselves. Tyrone have lost four in a row against Donegal in league and championship going back to 2008. But Cavanagh has had plenty of days on teams that skipped over Donegal hurdles – he just hasn’t had them in a while.

“That’s why you have to give them respect,” he says. “Because they always had that soft underbelly although they were very talented. I remember them beating us in Clones in ’04 on a day when Colm McFadden was untouchable. He scored 1-7 or 1-8 I think. You always knew they had the talent and you have to give it to [Jim] McGuinness, he has got them into a state now where they are extremely hard to play against and to defeat . . . .”

Tyrone’s year won’t soar or sink on the back of what happens tomorrow but it’ll thicken the plot all the same. Cavanagh turned 30 a couple of weeks back and when he looks around the dressingroom, he sees only four other faces who were there for the first All-Ireland in 2003. He remembers being in a car with Philip Jordan a few Januarys ago after they’d been to the one-on-one sessions Mickey Harte holds to begin each year. “All I said to them was that they needed a new team,” said Jordan. “They need a complete fresh start.”

This feels like it for Cavanagh. He spent the first weeks of this year getting names wrong. It felt very strange to all of a sudden be the old guy who didn’t know young players . “My first training session with Tyrone in January 2002. I was 18-years-old and I was the only player from the previous year’s minor team at that training. I genuinely knew nearly nobody there outside of clubmate Philip Jordan.

“I remember standing there going, ‘These guys are my heroes. I’ve been standing at matches for the last 10, 15 years cheering for these men.’ But Peter Canavan came over to me – I can still see what he was wearing, a blue jersey and black shorts – and he said, ‘Here Seán, me and you will go together for this.’ Just for him to do that meant the absolute world and it will live with me until the day I die.

“On the back of that kind of thing, the older guys know that it’s on our shoulders to do the same with the new players that have come in. This year more than ever, you know it’s part of your role now.”

With Cavanagh, that kind of leadership comes as standard.

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