Sean Cavanagh: Life after Tyrone scares me to death
BY SHANE STAPLETON
Listening back to our interview with Sean Cavanagh, parallels with France legend Zinedine Zidane come to mind.
No doubt the former Real Madrid player had a perfect ending in mind when he came out of international retirement to lead his country into the World Cup of 2006. Then aged 33, the playmaker captained his team at the Olympiastadion in Berlin for a final time, in the decider against Italy, with the famous gold trophy on the line.
The fairytale began with Zidane scoring a penalty inside seven minutes; it ended in impotent pain, watching his team endure penalty shoot-out pain. He was an obvious shooter, but had been decommissioned. Ten years on, Cavanagh, now aged 33, had told his wife and brother than he was finishing at the end of the 2016 season. The Tyrone captain hoped to sign off on the biggest stage, on the third Sunday of September. Mayo stood in the way at the quarter-final stage, and wouldn’t move.
Red cards ended the dreams of both Zidane — for headbutting Marco Materazzi — and Cavanagh. There was a beautiful pain to how the Frenchman walked off the stage past the World Cup trophy, his last moment of competitive football. That’s where the similarities end, because Cavanagh couldn’t finish on a one-point defeat and being sent off. Croke Park, the big day, the biggest stage, the All-Ireland on the line — that’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s the plan.
“The last few years, that’s always been the dream,” says Cavanagh. “I had myself convinced last year saying ‘you know what, if we get to the final, I’d love to walk away. No matter what even happens in that final, I’d love to walk away in an All-Ireland final day’.
“I had told my wife last year, I had told my brother Colm. I told everyone: if we make it to a final, that’s it. I’d love to walk away no matter what happens, an All-Ireland final day as a Tyrone player.
“It didn’t work out and through the winter, the urge was there and the circumstances of me getting sent off and losing by a point. Just the way it finished off just didn’t sit properly with me.
“I said to Mickey (Harte), ‘Look I want to give this one shot here, I think we’ve got a team to compete at the top level, and I want to give it a rattle’.
“Here we are seven months later, I know the end is very very close now, but I’m still loving it, loving every night, every second as an inter-county Tyrone player. It’s just been an amazing journey.”
This coming Sunday it’s the Ulster final and Cavanagh is hoping to captain his side to back-to-back titles for the first time since 2009-10. No matter what happens against underdogs Down, Harte’s men are eyeing a bigger prize: the Sam Maguire. Cavanagh will retire whenever the season ends, even though his GPS data from training continues to “pleasantly surprise” him. With a panel of such promise, as seen in their comprehensive win over Donegal, it’s easier to keep going for a 16th season at this level.
Giving up the inter-county drug is going to be tough. “It scares the life out of me, that’s the reality,” Cavanagh says through a resigned smile.
“I’ve been an inter-county footballer for a huge amount of my lifetime. I joined the panel as an 18-year-old, I’m now 34. I’ve just been in that cycle loving every night of training, probably the happiest man on a training field up in Garvaghy (after beating Donegal) and I’ve always been the same.
“I’ve been in a very fortunate position to have a serious energy and zest for playing Gaelic football, for sport, and I’ve no doubt in the winter or moreso whenever the games start up in 2018 that I’ll struggle to deal with it.
“My wife tells me I’ll not, because she’ll give me plenty of stuff to do around the house or with the kids. The other flipside of it is I’ll maybe be able to have a more normal lifestyle. For 16 years now I have been able to book a holiday, I haven’t been able to go to a wedding, there’s so many other things you sacrifice.
“I would never complain about it but, at the same time, life will change. I know it will be incredibly difficult for me because even years when we’ve been beaten, being beaten by Mayo in August last year, within three or four days your mind zones in… you’ll be playing club for sure but you’re almost in pre-season mode again, you’re trying to get yourself stronger, get fitter, improve various elements of the game, you’re doing winter runs, whatever it may be, rehab to get yourself ready for the next season.
“The last eight or nine years since the game has become really really focused on conditioning etc, there is no downtime. The downtime is maybe a night here and there but it really has been just a year-long cycle.
“You’re continuously are either in rehab, or in conditioning mode, or in speed mode or whatever it is. I know I’m going to really struggle and will probably need a little support to keep my mind fresh and healthy this time next year.”
Having changed his mind ahead of this season, there’s always a chance he’ll feel the same again this winter. The pull, the need for speed, the thrill of competitive action.
“The reality is, and I've said this to the guys in the club: I’m going to play club football as long as I possibly can. As long as my knees hold out, as long as my body holds out.
“I watched my father play football until he was 40 so in my mind, I’m probably in that cycle where I’m thinking I’ll play club football and have a bit of that hit until I’m maybe 40.
“The reality is that I could break up next year. I’ve looked at the likes of Philip Jordan and Ryan Mallon retire from inter-county football four or five years ago, and they only really had one season with the club and injuries caught up with them.
“They had to retire, and that scares me, that really really freaks me out. That's what you let yourself in for. I’ve been addicted to Gaelic football and sport for so long now, there’s naturally going to be some sort of a comedown and I’ll have to deal with it.”
Cavanagh made his debut in 2002. He’s one of the more open GAA players out there with a microphone under his nose and there’s a sense that we know the Moy man as well as we know any inter-county player. Still, he must feel he has changed a lot in that time. The young man he was then versus the married man with kids he is now.
“I probably haven’t changed personality-wise, very much. Life has changed. But being honest, back then it was about going out and enjoying yourselves after games. Nowadays, I was talking to Kieran Hughes (of Monaghan) down there, and we mentioned that it’s just a different culture now.
“In 2003, the whole squad went out after a championship game and we celebrated as a team, we commiserated as a team. Going out and having a few drinks was part of the culture.
“Nowadays, it’s the opposite. If you go out, you’re probably the exception because everyone is staying in. We won the Ulster semi-final and I’d say you could count on one hand the amount of guys that went out to celebrate that we had our best win over Donegal in so many years.
“It’s just a different mindset now, the game has gone to that uber-serious level where it’s all about staying in, recovery, stretching, getting your body right for the next challenge, gym work, whatever is may be.
“It probably suits me in my stage of life. The fact that I’ve got the kids, the girls. I think I’ve always had a naturally leading personality, I remember even in 2003, I was quite vocal in the changing room — that hasn’t changed much.
“I think everyone realises the seriousness of the game and the physicality of it and the skill level which has gone through the roof at this stage. Everyone is well aware that the game is virtually at a professional level now.”
In that light, the question must be posed: why do you do it? In all walks of life, be it work or studies or anything in between, reaching a landmark is usually followed up with a blow-out. So where is the pleasure in inter-county football if you can’t celebrate a huge win?
“That’s probably the scary part for me. That’s the part where you maybe pinch yourself at the end of the year. It normally is only at the end of the year that you realise that because you just get caught up with weekly schedules.
"We played the game on the Sunday, and on Sunday night we had a whatsapp telling us that Monday was to be used for recovery and we were to be back out on the field for a pitch session for a fairly physical session on the Wednesday.
“Going out and celebrating, knowing it will take a few days to get that out of the system, it’s probably not really an option for people. GAA players are in that cycle, on that hamster wheel. It suits me because I probably wouldn’t be socialising that much anyway with family and work etc.
“Particularly with counties that don’t have as much success… in Tyrone, because we now in the back-to-back Ulster finals and have ambitions to hit Croke Park, I think there always is a good reward potentially at the end of it.
“For some of the counties that don’t have the same strength of depth as ourselves, I’m not so sure where the pleasure comes from it and I’m not so sure if I could enjoy the game as much if I didn’t have that potential to go on and win trophies.
“That’s where I see it, and I know guys in those other counties that don’t win as much put every bit if not more effort in to achieve that. There probably has to be a few guys out there that have just realised that the potential reward doesn’t warrant the amount of effort being put in.
“That’s everyone’s preference and I certainly enjoyed every minute of being an inter-county footballer.”
At best, Cavanagh has just two months or so left as an inter-county footballer. From here on out, it’s all about necklacing together some final pieces of silverware. Three All-Irelands, Young and Senior Footballer of the Year, five All Stars, and five Ulster titles. He has two more to fight for, firstly against Down, and then beginning with anyone still standing when and if they head for Croke Park.
“It’s six or seven years since we did a back-to-back Ulster, with Donegal and Monaghan dominating Ulster from 2011 to 2015, it left a sour taste in our mouth in Tyrone.
“I was probably spoiled through the 2000s with all the titles we won. I think now, in the past couple of years, we really have built a squad that is hopefully capable of challenging at the top end of the game.
“Last year, we were really disappointed to the beaten in the quarters but hopefully this year we can learn the lessons from that.”