Leading Ireland to International Rules win remains a highlight for Cavanagh

Red Hand legend, featured in latest Laochra Gael episode, optimistic about Tyrone’s prospects

Seán Cavanagh in action for Ireland against Australia in  October 2008 at the  Subiaco Oval, Perth, Western Australia. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Seán Cavanagh in action for Ireland against Australia in October 2008 at the Subiaco Oval, Perth, Western Australia. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

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Seán Cavanagh caused a bit of a stir back in the day when comparing International Rules success with winning the All-Ireland.

He had captained Ireland in 2008 – his annus mirabilis – at the end of which he was Footballer of the Year, having spearheaded Tyrone’s All-Ireland victory, scoring four points from play in the final against Kerry.

That year’s Test series was a delicate matter, as the GAA and AFL set about picking up the pieces after the madness of the matches in 2005 and ’06 when the indiscipline on show led to the international concept being parked for a year – a fatal break in continuity that was never recovered.

As captain he carried himself flawlessly, attending to the diplomatic duties cheerfully and on the field his dynamism and accuracy saw him top-score with 27 points over two Tests, his goal in the first match proving vital in setting up an Irish victory.

Cavanagh, the subject of this week’s Laochra Gael programme, was happy to reiterate his views 13 years later.

“I still remember the evening in Perth in 2008 when I was captain, Seán Boylan had made me captain and I was standing and Amhrán na bhFiann came on in the stadium in Perth and it was very emotional.

“It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand and I remember thinking: ‘This is as good as it almost gets. This is what I play the game for. I’m Irish captain, I’m standing thousands of miles from home and the anthem is being played. This really is it’.

“For me, at that moment in time, that was one of the high points and looking back now it still was one of those high points. There was only a few moments in my career that I can properly say the hairs on the back of my neck stood and I remember one of those actually was 2005 in a quarter-final, we were playing the Dubs and the level of noise that day in Croke Park was phenomenal.

“Whenever I look back on my career, if I was to pinpoint the moments that had the biggest emotional impact on me as a person, the International Rules sits up there.”

Some players with more than one All-Ireland have a view that regaining it is more enjoyable than the first time, which can pass teams by given the swirl of publicity that goes with it. Winning a second time is seen as more fulfilling because you know how hard it is.

Cavanagh though is more of a view that you can’t do something for the first time twice.

“The final whistle in 2003 was amazing, you know, but there were others. In 2005 it was good but it wasn’t as amazing as 2003; 2008, it was good, probably wasn’t as amazing as 2003 so, you know, you can only really live that top moment once, to get the absolute maximum enjoyment out of it.

New generation

“I have to say doing the stuff with International Rules – I know some players don’t totally engage with it but for me, it was that level of pride.

“This was me playing the game that I always loved and reaching the very top of it because captaining my country was that so I recognise the International Rules as high as I could go and I know some people don’t see it like that but for that moment, for me, it certainly was.”

Reflecting on the change in Tyrone’s management last year, which saw Mickey Harte step down after 18 years in charge and having led Tyrone to their only three All-Irelands, Cavanagh believe the future is bright as a new generation takes shape under the joint-management of Fergal Logan and former team-mate and captain Brian Dooher.

“We’ve young Darragh Canavan coming in and I know Peter [Canavan, his father] likes to keep the head down about him but he’s an incredible prospect and then you’ve the McCurrys and Sluddens and Mattie Donnellys, guys like this, who are still around. So I look at that team at the minute and it does strike me that Tyrone are as well stacked right now as they have been in quite a long number of years around attacking forward talent.

“It kind of throws me back to when I was starting out and we had that forward line with Dooher and McGuigan and Gerard Cavlan, Peter Canavan, Stevie O’Neill. Owen Mulligan and Enda McGinley. We had five, six really brilliant attacking players.

“It gave us that confidence then to go out and take teams on in shootouts.”

* Seán Cavanagh will feature in the fifth episode of the latest Laochra Gael series, on TG4 this Thursday at 9.30pm.

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