Laverty cut from same cloth as Canavan: the small man with attitude surviving in Ulster

In the hardest provincial championship of all, you need a harder edge regardless of your size


Tyrone v Down, Down v Tyrone. Two games in six days, both of them tense and physical and hard-fought all the way. Real Ulster Championship stuff, maybe some of it the kind of Ulster Championship stuff that we get on our high horse down south about from time to time. Pity about us.

Tyrone came through it in the end, but good and all as they were, the player who stood out to me over the two games wasn’t Seán Cavanagh or Peter Harte or Niall Morgan. You couldn’t watch those games without your eye being drawn to the Down forward Conor Laverty. At least I couldn’t.

There’s something about a small man holding his own in an Ulster Championship match that makes you smile. Up there, it’s a land for big beasts. Everybody knows the terms of engagement and in fairness to them, everybody is okay with it. You either man-up or you ship out. Everybody has to pay the same price to get in the door.

They don’t discriminate in Ulster. They never have. When I was playing, you could see it in the attitude that somebody like Peter Canavan carried around with him. It was clear as day when you played against Canavan that the reason he was still standing and still going strong was because he had learned how to handle himself after years of punishment up north.

Bit of attitude

He always came at you with that bit of attitude. You’d be playing Tyrone in a league game in Killarney and sure as anything, Canavan would have a row started inside 15 minutes.

You’d hear a roar from the crowd and there he’d be, rolling on the ground with the corner-back and the ref going in to tell them to settle down.

If it went on for any length of time, you’d head back up the pitch to investigate. And in your head you’d be going, “Ah Peter, come on now. ’Tis only a league game and ye’ve a long way to go home when it’s over. Calm the head”.

I found it funny in a way, as in here you had one of the best players in the game – maybe the best at the time – and his first order of business in a league game in March would be to look for agitation. Not for the last time, I realised they’re a different breed up north.

Laverty is cut from the same cloth. In the drawn game against Tyrone, he spent a lot of the opening half buzzing around the Down forward line, looking for trouble. He dropped back into midfield a couple of times as well, just to see if he could annoy a couple of the Tyrone players.

When David Coldrick moved a Tyrone 45 up 13 metres, it was because Laverty was mouthing at Morgan and trying to put him off. He got a yellow card later on as well for a foul on Cavanagh. He’s like the neighbour’s dog that comes around yapping and biting at your ankles, but every time you draw the boot to take a kick at him, he’s gone. He annoys the hell out of you but you have to admire the survival instincts.

Most dangerous

No Down player contributed more over the two games against Tyrone. He was Down’s most dangerous forward as they came back in the first game and he more than held up his end of the bargain again last Saturday. You didn’t need a psychology degree to watch him and see that the aggression and attitude is all part of what makes him such a serious player. It was the same with Canavan when he was playing.

These guys have spent their whole life going into games feeling they have something to prove. Defenders have tried to bully them, managers have maybe overlooked them in favour of bigger lads when they were younger.

It’s all fed into a mindset whereby they feel that they have to go out with a hard edge to survive. They’ve been kicked and pushed around and they’re going out there like the fella in the movie Network – they’re mad as hell and they’re not gonna take it anymore.

Because if they do, they just won’t survive. Managers won’t want to know. You take somebody of Laverty’s build and weight, a player who if you catch him right with a shoulder you can put him into the stand. Or, like Páidí Ó Sé said in that documentary years ago, “thrown out over the sideline like a sliced pan”.

Managers can’t take a chance on somebody like that unless they know there’s a good well of bitterness and gumption inside them that just won’t take no for an answer.

I remember looking at Canavan away back and just going, “Where does he get his balls?” He was totally fearless. You could see he had decided long ago that the best way not to be bullied was to make sure everyone knew he wasn’t one bit afraid. If somebody wanted to go at it, he wasn’t going to disappoint them. As well as his genius on the ball, that was what always made me think that if there was a transfer market, he’d be top of my list.

That hard edge comes from the Ulster Championship. You go away back to Paul Donnelly throwing James McCartan’s boot into the crowd in 1994. They don’t care if you’re big or small – you’ve got to survive.

People down here can give out about the Ulster Championship all they like but it’s the only one left that really matters. Only for it, what would we be watching in the early months of the summer?

The reason it matters is that the people up there don’t give the players any choice. This is the Ulster Championship and what are you going to do? Hide? Wait for later in the summer? No chance. Not up there.

I played in plenty of games in the early rounds of Munster against the Waterfords and Tipperarys and Clares where there was a bit of belting going on from fellas who saw this as their big day to make an impression. What you’d find was those would be games for the mullockers like me to take a few clips and give a few back.

You’d be going into games like that saying to the likes of Colm Cooper that this was no day to be standing in front of the train. Wait for the Cork game, Gooch. This is no day to die. We want no Robert Emmets today.

Ulster players don’t have that luxury. You die every day up there because if you don’t, they won’t give you the chance to die the next day. It’s what makes them what they are. Let’s box I used see them in the International Rules panel and they’d be mad for action. It’s like that famous Kieran McGeeney quote. If you want to play football, let’s play football. If you want to box, let’s box.

That wouldn’t have been the way with all of us from down south. I remember a game in Croke Park one year where I was sitting on the bench beside Derek Savage. It was coming up on half-time and the game was starting to get a bit spiky. The Aussies were throwing their weight around and the hits were coming later and later.

Paul McGrane got absolutely opened and came walking off with blood streaming – I think he needed about 10 stitches in the end. The management were up in the stand and they had a runner down on the sideline relaying messages to the bench. He came over in a big panic and was going, “Derek! Derek! You’re in! You’re in!”

Now, Savo wasn’t expecting this. I think he presumed that with things hotting up out there and with McGrane being the one that was coming off, they’d be coming looking for me or someone like me. He looked at me and he looked back at your man, clearly not fancying it. “Ah Jesus,” he said. “Sure it’s nearly half-time!”

Conor Laverty strikes me as the kind of fella who’d have been up on his feet even before the runner landed over to us. It wouldn’t matter what he was facing going onto the pitch, he’d be like the lads in Gladiator. Ready for whatever comes out of these gates.

All the Ulster teams seem to have a couple of small guys in the side. Be it Ryan McHugh with Donegal or any one of Tyrone’s half-a-dozen corner forwards. None of them go missing, they all get right into the middle of the action. They do what they have to do and they’re a great feature of the hardest championship of them all.

In fairness, when you look at the Donegal-Derry game, it took a big man to settle it. Michael Murphy is one of the few players in the country that can decide a game in the space of a few minutes. He had a hand in Leo McLoone’s goal and the two points that followed it were top drawer.

The sideline ball that he pointed reminded me of a golfer who needs an eagle lining up a second shot on a par five. This wasn’t a hit-and-hope job. It wasn’t a matter of doing his best. This had to happen.

You could see Jim McGuinness going over and telling him to stop looking around for somebody else to play it to and just do what he does best. So he looked at the posts, took a few steps back and nailed it.

It was a great piece of management from McGuinness because I think sometimes Murphy doesn’t quite get how good he is. That was a fair distance out and there aren’t many players in the country who should be taking a pot from there. But when you have a talent like his, that’s what you should be doing with it.

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