‘Colm Cavanagh, in that position, I don’t think there’s any player near him’

Former Tyrone star Joe McMahon gives a unique insight into Mickey Harte’s team

"Colm Cavanagh, to me he's the man."

And Joe McMahon would know. For 13 years he had been leading Tyrone from full back, centre back, midfield, and dropping back from the half forward line. So often the one covering, initiating the break, organising; the unseen work.

According to his former team-mate Seán Cavanagh, the two-time All-Ireland winner who was forced into retirement by a combination of injuries last May, was the ‘best all-round player I have come across’.”

Now Colm Cavanagh is fulfilling a similar leadership role, he’s Tyrone’s sweeper-midfielder.


“Yeah I think between himself and Justy (his brother, Justin) in recent years they have (taken over his old role). He sets everything up at the minute. How he’s able to hold the shape, how he’s able to push up when the time comes.

“Colm Cavanagh’s ability, I mean in that position; I don’t think there’s any player at present that is anywhere near him.

“Because for me, there is his ability to drop back and spot danger and then get forward. But his ability just to read the game, in whatever situation that they are in, for example if he reads the play and he sees a man coming into the zone that he’s covering, a strong ball carrier, he’s able to read it to push up and stop the easy score and easy pass,” says McMahon.

“And that ability comes from two things, I think he’s practising it certainly, but it’s a natural gift as well that he has. Countless attacks from the opposition this year, that he has broken down, to me he is the main man on that team.

“Also he has this ability if the ball is coming in high you can count on Colm Cavanagh to win that high ball, and come out with it.”

High praise indeed, and his manager Mickey Harte clearly agrees. The younger of the Cavanagh brothers has played every minute of his team's 10 League and Championship games in 2017.

Protecting a full back line who have conceded scores (0-4 from play) to only two of the opposing nine starting full forwards they faced in the Ulster championship. And he’s bagged a respectable 0-3 so far in 2017 himself.

Last time out in the Ulster final, the big midfielder was involved in four turnovers, he made a spectacular mark and an excellent assist. All within 25 contributions. He still managed to be inside his defensive 21-metre line for 20 of Down’s shots at the target. And it was one of his quieter outings.

Six-year wait

This Tyrone team ended a six-year wait for the Ulster title last summer. McMahon was involved with both the 2010 and 2016 teams. What’s changed?

“The big thing that you’ve seen from years ago that hasn’t changed is that you’ve to stop the other team from scoring, and it’s nullifying, and one thing you’ll have in Tyrone is taggers.

"For example, years ago Stephen McDonnell or Conor Mortimer or whoever it was, they would be tagged. And there was a man in front of that, and along with that, there was a player dropping back there sweeping too – the likes of myself or Conor Gormley and we were also adding more protection to that player. The go-to person.

"Then the likes of Philip Jordan, Ricey (Ryan McMenamin), whoever it was, was to break up the field. And then you'd Peter Canavan, Stephen O'Neill, Mugsy (Owen Mulligan), Seán Cavanagh, inside. I mean you were spoilt for choice in that sense.

“There are more positional places for players to get back to now, whereas maybe in the past you were just advised to drop back, where now you’re told positionally-wise exactly where to drop to. But I think the big contrast to now, is their ability to break at pace from the back.

"You have Mark Bradley inside, Mattie Donnelly, but to compare those lads to the likes of O'Neill, Mulligan, Canavan, is unfair. I mean these lads were the top forwards and will always pop up in the best 15s of all time.

“What Tyrone now try to do, is they try to break at such speed and in numbers so they can lay the ball off for shots in front of the goals a lot quicker.”

No scoring general, but in Tyrone’s three championship games so far this summer they’ve twice had 12 different scorers, and had 11 in the Ulster final.

“So I think the big ability for this team is to get back in numbers and defend in numbers, and then they always have an outlet to break out to and go at big speed.

The average time from the start of their attack to the ball being kicked for a score was 20 seconds

“And I suppose the base of both teams in how they set up is the same; just keep yourself in your zone, and you’re in your zone and anyone who comes into your zone he’s yours, and you have to make sure that if they are trying to get through you let them know it’s yours.”

Breaking at speed indeed. Against Down, the average time from the start of their attack to the ball being kicked for a score was 20 seconds. Some scores were as quick as nine and 10 seconds.

Occupying zones

While defensively, over the past two years, Tyrone have conceded a goal in only 10 of their 23 league and championship games. This summer their average concession from play is 0-8, and in league and championship over the past two seasons their average overall concession is just over 0-12.

Breaking in numbers, fulfilling roles and occupying zones. Tyrone football moved away from the traditional 1-15 positions a long time ago.

“In preparation for games you were given a game plan, your number is only a number. You line out in a position but you might have a specific role, to track back and to watch the runs of players and where they are moving to.

“If you are going into a particular zone to pick up a player for a kickout you are not confined to that one area of the pitch for the game. I never really cared where I played and I just knew my role in the team.

“The ability to be that footballer, to adapt and play in different positions is worked on in training and worked on in their own clubs . . and Tyrone are blessed to have that array of players.”

As for the expectations ahead of Saturday’s quarter-final against rivals Armagh?

I find it hard to see Armagh coping with them to be honest

In the last 10 championship meeting between the teams, stretching back to 2002, Tyrone have five wins and Armagh have three. Since 2010, they’ve met just three times with Tyrone winning two and Armagh winning their last meeting in 2014.

“The contrast to years ago is where you had a young up-and-coming Tyrone team coming from minor and U-21 into senior, and in a way they didn’t have that pressure on them because Tyrone hadn’t ever succeeded at senior level.

“Where now these fellas who have come up from successful Under-21 teams, that’s happened before, but now there’s almost that expectation that they’ll take it on and win at senior.

Big factor

“So I think the big factor was the Donegal game last year. I think the monkey off the back was that game. This year they won the final, they beat Down convincingly, got the job done, and they were back to work training on the Tuesday night, and I know they had a great session there.

“I think there’s just a new focus to this team and I find it hard to see Armagh coping with them to be honest.

"I'll always remember in the 2005 All-Ireland final, coming off after a kick in the calf from Eoin Brosnan. I tore the calf and I came off and Chris Lawn came on for the last 20 minutes. And the performance he put in for those 20 minutes, what a way to end a career. I always took inspiration from that.

“Them lads brought me into the team many years ago. As a young lad looking up to these lads you just thought ‘it’s time I stood up and started supporting these lads because they can’t keep doing it forever’.

“I feel the younger boys are doing the same now. Even them talking to Colm, Sean and Justy, who have the experience of Croke Park and playing against these teams. It’s almost a comfort having those lads there, knowing they can produce it on the big day. Now the’ve to step up themselves.

“Tyrone have great potential to go on with the players they have and the squad they have . . .But time will tell.”


McMahon has played under the two managers involved on Saturday, Mickey Harte and Kieran McGeeney. For over a decade he played under Harte in Tyrone. And in 2011, when his former opponent McGeeney was a selector with the International Rules squad, he played under him too. He has big respect for both.

“The players are in tip top shape, able to run at such a high space, for such a long period of time, and I don’t think any other sport would match it.

“That’s the Peter Donnelly factor. He’s able to get the best out of the players, that bit of advice he’s able to pass on if players feel there’s an area of their game, or their physical conditioning or their strength; he’s there to advise them. I mean, that’s such an ingredient to success and he’s been a massive addition to the set up.

“The one constant in Tyrone though is Mickey Harte, his approach; and the players have so much respect for what he has done, and what he’s come through personally too.

“He wants to maximise your potential and get players to play at the level they are capable of playing at, all of the time. Whether its training or a McKenna cup game.

“The great thing about Mickey though is he never gets over excited. In a changing room team talk, everything he says is just a direction and positivity and working towards the game plan they want to play.

“Tyrone would have core principles that he would talk about, and I’ll leave that to the Tyrone camp, but one of things is just that ability to work for the team. Work hard at your role in the team, and know what you have to do to make the team work. And the players, they admire him for that. And they want to get the best out of themselves too. And it’s worked so far.”

McGeeney’s Armagh team that started against Kildare are an average age of just 25. McMahon acknowledges the fine job he has done in turning around the team’s season after the provincial defeat to Down.

“The thing about Kieran McGeeney, the talk is always that he’s such a serious character and he doesn’t show much emotion. But I was fortunate enough to get to know him over one of the compromise rules trips. And I sat beside him on a plane journey and had a good chat with him and found him to be a very impressive man, I found him to be very motivated, and I can understand how players and certainly younger players from his own county would draw a lot of inspiration from him.

“I think he’s just very knowledgeable of the game. He’s an excellent reader of the game, and he’s shown that already. And he’s just an interesting person to listen to and I got on well with him.

“And I just think what he will be suggesting to these Armagh players is to have this belief and to throw the shackles off.

“And not just with McGeeney, there’s Paul McGrane, McKeever, John Toal; these lads have been there, they have done it. Young lads are looking up in the dressing room and they know what these lads did and the pride they showed in the jersey for Armagh. They probably feel they would love to bring that back. And they have to an extent, and you seen the emotion from the fans after the last game, that bit of excitement, the joy, the passion, and McGeeney will look to feed off that. And they’ll look to have a go off Tyrone.”

They’ll have a go yes, but he can’t see them doing it.

“It’s a bit of nostalgia, remembering the noughties, playing against Armagh, and what that brings. Putting on that jersey against your neighbours. The intensity.

“I do miss it. I miss the build up in weeks like this.

“I think as the years have gone on, Armagh’s transition has taken longer then Tyrone’s. And they’re still trying to get up to that level. If Tyrone were to lose this game it’s a huge step back in their development and their progress.

“What the game means and what it brings and the background to it, it’ll all be there come Saturday. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty I think Tyrone have just too much for them now.”