Tyrone captain Seán Cavanagh has given the strongest indication yet that this is his last year playing intercounty football. At a promotional event in Croke Park yesterday for the Allianz Football League Division Two final between Cavan and Tyrone, he was asked had he given thought to retirement at the end of this season.
“Yeah, for sure,” he said. “I’d say there’s a fair chance, there’s no point in me saying any different. I suppose I’m 33 now and like anything in life the injuries start niggling at you a wee bit.
“I’m lucky enough at the moment that I’m in pretty good shape, but it just gets tougher; it gets tougher every year for the time commitment and the injuries and everything to do with it. You always think about these things in the off-season, but I’d say there’s a fair chance it will be.
“The reality is there’s a serious team coming behind me and I suppose you have to give them their day as well.”
Cavanagh has been one of the best footballers of the last 15 years and is the only survivor of Tyrone’s first All-Ireland winning team in 2003 still playing at county level. Originally a specialist centrefielder with outstanding athletic ability, he adapted over the years to become a flexible presence between the middle of the field and attack, where his performances in the county’s 2008 All-Ireland win earned him the footballer of the year award.
On Sunday week he leads Tyrone out at Croke Park for the curtain-raiser to Dublin-Kerry in the Division One final but only last summer Cavanagh’s team ran Kerry close in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Asked would there be a chance that he could decide to wait around until the bitter end and play a non-starting role, he was sceptical.
“You never say ‘never’ but I always had made the promise to myself and to my wife that I wouldn’t want to see myself limping to the end either. It’s not fair to do that on the team either – that it would be come to the stage where you are living on a reputation or something like that. I don’t want to be that sort of a person and as I said it’s not fair to anyone.”
He also said that standards of fitness had risen so much that team training metrics have indicated that he is actually getting fitter himself even at the end of his career.
"Yeah they have, surprisingly enough! I suppose with the level of strength and conditioning and power and training I think every player's body has developed so much. I was speaking a couple of months ago to Philip Jordan and saying to him 'God, training has become so much more difficult', and I remember thinking to myself at the time is it because you are getting older or is it because the player there is now in GAA at the moment, and I genuinely believe it's because the type of player.
“There used to always be a group of corner backs or corner forwards that were never as athletically powerful as maybe somebody playing around the middle. Those types of players are gone; everyone now is a serious athlete first and foremost and probably to a certain extent a footballer secondary. Whenever I started out it was more important to be a football player than an athlete but that just the way the game has gone. Running power has become so important and whenever you see it in black and white the GPS stats really hit home how the game has evolved.
“I just said to myself as long as I’m fit and healthy and enjoying myself I would do it. As years go on it just gets tougher to maintain that level of training. I was saying to someone earlier on, I was comparing some of the GPS stats back in 2013 to where they are now, and in some instances there’s like a 10 per cent speed difference, even from three years ago.
“It’s up 10 per cent in terms of top speeds we are hitting; it’s amazing to look at. I suppose that’s the beauty of having the data: you realise how quick and powerful the game has become. I was just looking generally at the team stats, and the average top speeds and the average output of top-speed running and total running in a game.”
Disagreeing with Armagh coach Kieran McGeeney's recent assertion that Gaelic footballers aren't "elite athletes", Cavanagh cites the example of Northern Ireland soccer international Niall McGinn, who plays in Scotland with Aberdeen and is a good friend of Cavanagh's brother and Tyrone team-mate Colm.
“He’d be home from time to time and he’d call in and we’d be chatting, comparing training schedules. We’d always be looking to see what brilliant training regime they’d be on. Their S&C stuff seems to be way behind what we’re currently doing. He’s gotten to a stage where he’s looking at our stuff going, ‘hey, what are you doing, what’s the secret? How are youse doing this?’
“I’m not sure how much more a person can output more energy out of their body.”