Colm Cavanagh confident Tyrone now have the experience to win

Former midfielder was the only one with any final experience to call upon in 2018

 Colm Cavanagh in action for Tyrone against Dublin in the 2018 All-Ireland final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Colm Cavanagh in action for Tyrone against Dublin in the 2018 All-Ireland final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

You only play your first final once. When the anthem ends next Saturday and everybody rubs their hands together, there will be 30 players on the pitch without an All-Ireland medal – the first time that has happened since 2012.

Yet depending on selection, it’s likely somewhere in the region of 22 of them who will already have played in an All-Ireland final. For context, that number was only three in 2012.

Whatever ends up dividing the sides, big-day experience shouldn’t really come into it. Mayo were in the final just nine months ago. Tyrone’s last appearance was in 2018. This is almost nobody’s first go-round. They know what to expect. They know, most of all, what they don’t want out of the day.

On the likely Mayo starting team, only Pádraig O’Hora and Darren McHale haven’t played in a final before. Enda Hession made such an impression after coming on in the semi-final that he will surely feature at some stage, bringing Mayo’s likely tally of All-Ireland final newbies to three.

The number will be slightly higher on the Tyrone side but only slightly. Of their presumed starting 15, five will be playing in their first final – the midfield pairing of Conn Kilpatrick and Brian Kennedy, auxiliary defender Michael O’Neill and inside forwards Darren McCurry and Conor McKenna.

The question for Tyrone this week is what use, if any, that final was to them. The record books show they got soundly whipped that day, with only a late Peter Harte penalty giving the scoreline any bit of a sheen. Colm Cavanagh was the sole survivor from the 2008 team playing a decade later, the only one with any final experience to call upon.

“There was a real expectation that we would go and dethrone Dublin. That’s what really stands out from the build-up. There was excitement in the county that we were going to go and do this. That’s not how it worked out.

When Tyrone licked their wounds in the aftermath of 2018, it became clear and obvious to all that their style of play needed to evolve

“The guys learned a lot in that final. Even just in terms of the way we approached it, a lot has changed in the meantime. Back then, I think we were very one-dimensional. When Dublin got on top of us, we didn’t really have a Plan B.”

If nothing else 2018 showed Tyrone the importance of expecting the unexpected. The one thing nobody saw coming that year was Mickey Harte’s team getting off to a flyer. They were 0-5 to 0-1 ahead after 15 minutes, wiring into Dublin and throwing them off balance. On the face of it, they had started exactly how they meant to go on. Problem was, it was almost as much of a surprise to them as it was to everyone else.

Preparation

“We did a lot in preparation for that final,” says Cavanagh. “But I suppose one of the things we didn’t do as much of in those days was planning for the different scenarios that could play out. Things like going 5-1 up or getting someone sent off early or getting a black card at a crucial time. We didn’t really plan for those scenarios. We felt, ‘Look, we have a gameplan and we stick to it and that’s it.’

“We probably found ourselves in uncharted territory when we were 5-1 up and I remember thinking at the time, ‘Jesus we’re flying here.’ And we did take a lot of uncharacteristic shots after that. We probably could have been in a much stronger position.

“And what really struck me was that Dublin knew to shift back and got people behind the ball so they could counter-attack us then and regain control of the game. They got the goal and pushed up on the kick-out and really it was over quickly after that.”

There has of course been regime change in the meantime. Not alone that, but the team leaders - from Mattie Donnelly to Pádraig Hampsey to Peter Harte and Kieran McGeary and more - were all on the pitch that day. Cavanagh is confident that whatever happens on Saturday, none of it will present Tyrone with a scenario they haven’t thought of.

“I think the preparation this time will be much different. The boys will have learnt from that. Hindsight is a brilliant thing - you have to learn from those moments. You have to be able to feel where the game is at. That’s why Dublin were able to succeed over the last few years - they were very good at recognising when the game needed to be switched from full attacking to full defending. They were good at having a balance between the two.

“I don’t think Tyrone have had that in the past but they seem to be better at it now. They seem to be able to change tack better. I suppose the water breaks help that. If something is not going right, you’re able to make proper changes at the water break and fix it.”

When Tyrone licked their wounds in the aftermath of 2018, it became clear and obvious to all that their style of play needed to evolve. They had tried mass defence twice against Dublin in Croke Park and paid for it both times. If they were ever to get back to an All-Ireland final - and more to the point, if they were ever to win it - they had to be more expansive. Of all the changes since then, nothing outweighs that.

Style and system

“It was a big disappointment,” Cavanagh says. “In terms of takeaway, it was all around the style and system of play that we had. We were fairly rigid in what we were doing and I think the management and players all recognised that that would get you to a certain point in the competition but ultimately it wouldn’t get us over the line. It was a realisation that, ‘Look lads, we need to do something different here.’

“Looking at where Tyrone are at at the moment, they seem to have a bit more balance to what they’re doing. They seem to be able to switch easier than we were. If you watched Kerry on the weekend, when the black cards happened, Tyrone were able to revert to type very quickly, if you like.

“They were able to get men behind the ball very quickly and look to counter-attack. But then when they had a full quota again, they were able to go at Kerry and hit them hard up the pitch as well.

“I do think that’s something that Tyrone have developed since that 2018 final. A defeat like that is a big experience to have. We came away from that All-Ireland final thinking we hadn’t really given it a fair crack, I don’t think.”

Of all the promises they’ll make to each other this week, avoiding that feeling will be high up the list.

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