Colm Cavanagh: ‘Something different’ needed to beat Dubs

Tyrone know greater intensity and bite required to vanquish reigning champions

What a difference a decade makes. On the morning of his last All-Ireland football final, Colm Cavanagh was lounging around the Tyrone hotel at Citywest, wondering if anyone fancied a game of tennis.

He found an opponent in his roommate Johnny Curran, the sub goalkeeper, and off they went. Later that afternoon Tyrone were All-Ireland champions, having beaten Kerry 1-15 to 0-14, with Cavanagh coming off the bench and kicking their last point.

“Aye, that was the mindset back then,” Cavanagh recalls, as if to highlight the different mindset going to this year’s final showdown against Dublin on Sunday week.

“We were young lads, 19 years of age, and there probably wasn’t the same emphasis back then on the whole preparation side of things. We took it upon ourselves to have fun and enjoy ourselves. Looking back it was probably a crazy thing to do, but things have moved on.


“Everything was fly-by-night, take things for granted. It’s a little different 10 years on, a bit older and wiser, and things mean a lot more now. Back then this was the norm in Tyrone – it was going to happen again – but it turned out 10 years later it wasn’t the case.”

Cavanagh is in Dublin to collect his PwC GAA/GPA Player of the Month award for August, in recognition of his central role in bringing Tyrone back to the All-Ireland final for the first time since 2008. He and Cathal McCarron are the only two survivors from that team, plus of course manager Mickey Harte, and Cavanagh makes no secret of the fact things have moved on since 2008 in other ways too.

Different circumstances

Dublin chasing a fourth successive All-Ireland, and Tyrone trying to close that decade-long gap since their last, make for a different set of circumstances too. Dublin took Tyrone apart in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, and even though it was a lot closer in Omagh in their Super-8s meeting, surely something will have to change, or give, if Dublin are to be beaten?

“There’s probably a fair enough point, in that we have to do something different. If we keep the same approach, same style, same personnel, it may not be enough because it hasn’t been enough to date.

“So I’ll agree in that we probably have to bring something different to the game, but it’s probably no different to any other game in that we have to change every game. And I’m assuming every manager looks at the other teams and says, ‘How are we going to stop this team?’ and ‘We have to adapt a style or players’.

“Any style or system on any given day, you can’t keep that the whole time, so we have to do something different. I won’t say ‘Tear up the script’, but we’ll have to change a wee bit to go at it. We’re coming in and nobody is giving us a chance here. We are heavy underdogs but the lads have no fear. If we don’t have a go, that’s the worst-case scenario.

“So we’ll have to change and adapt, and, you know, really take it to Dublin, see where that takes us.”

Exactly how much or how far Tyrone can adapt is the challenge for Harte, and one Cavanagh says he will embrace: “Mickey has made some really good moves and good tactical decisions over the years. We firmly believe that he can pull out another one, but again, it’s going to be one of those things where we are going to have to believe that we can do it and get in behind Mickey in terms of what he’s going to bring and what he’s going to ask us to do on the final day.”

Sibling rivalry

One thing is for certain: even with his brother Seán only one year into his retirement, there is no great sibling rivalry. “Not at all now. To be honest, since Sean left the panel probably ... we live two doors from each other, so we do still see each other and we’d still be out the front playing with the kids and that, and football does come up and we do chat, have a few conversations around things.

“But, like, it’s all light-hearted. It’s not as if he’s coming giving me advice at this stage. He knows rightly I’m old enough to stand on my own feet. So it’s more light-hearted banter. He respects me from that point of view, he knows rightly that we have to focus on our own things.”

Dublin know exactly what they did to Tyrone last summer: Tyrone, says Cavanagh, know they can’t let that happen again.

“To be honest that day they just brought something completely different in comparison to what we’d faced previous to that. It was about six or seven steps above what we’d seen and met to date at that time. When that happens in a game of football, sometimes you are nearly powerless to do something to change it, regardless. Even if you change your tactics or anything.

“But again, the intensity probably wasn’t there. We didn’t press, we didn’t hit, we didn’t make tackles, we didn’t put Dublin under any pressure. So hopefully this time around there will be a bit more intensity and a bit more bite about this time. If you can’t do it on final day, then I don’t know when you can do it.”

What a difference a year might make.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics