Cavanagh: Tyrone face a difficult path to Ulster joy
The notion that Tyrone are a side preoccupied with a defensive strategy has already been forcibly kicked into touch even before the Ulster Championship has moved into top gear.
When manager Mickey Harte took what many believed at the time was a wayward decision to bring Colm Cavanagh back from midfield and station him in front of his own posts, it was thought that the Red Hands were taking their safety-first policy to extremes.
But in the aftermath of Sunday’s Ulster quarter-final win over Derry, it has become clear that Cavanagh is not only the mainstay of the defence but a potent attacking influence to boot.
The Moy clubman fulfilled his new role during Tyrone’s surge into Division One in the league but it was in front of a packed Celtic Park and the full glare of television cameras that one of the chief reasons why the Red Hands are firmly installed as favourites to lift their first provincial honour since 2010 became abundantly clear.
Cavanagh’s aerial ability, his intelligent reading of the game and the voracious appetite he displayed in supporting his attack underpinned Tyrone’s well-oiled mechanism to such an extent that the years he spent labouring at the midfield coal face have almost been forgotten.
But the player himself accepts his new role as a condition of membership of Harte’s ebullient squad just as he does the obligation to ensure that his feet do not leave the ground.
“We have not travelled well in the Ulster Championship in recent years and that is a fact,” stated Cavanagh.
“Nor, indeed, have we scored too many goals in the competition. On those two fronts, Sunday’s victory was very important to us. We knew that we had to rectify our deficiencies in the Championship of late but we have just won one match. There is a hard road ahead of us.”
When Tyrone put Derry to the sword in the first-half — Ronan O’Neill had posted 2-2 with scarcely 20 minutes gone — Cavanagh had galloped the length of the field on at least three occasions to be in a position to take a pass if required to do so within range of the opposition posts.
And on one of those occasions his upfield foray came immediately after he had nipped a Derry attack in the bud and off-loaded the ball to mount a sharp counter-thrust.
His smart distribution out of defence, indeed, is currently a key element in Tyrone’s counter-attacking policy, a fact —among others, of course — that will already have been digested by Terry Hyland and Kieran McGeeney in particular.
Cavan boss Hyland will send his team in against McGeeney’s Armagh on Sunday for the right to meet Tyrone in the semi-final knowing that they were forced to absorb lessons from their defeat to the Red Hands in the Division Two final.
And McGeeney, ever the realist, is aware that as things stand his team would not entice many people to part with their money on wagering on them to repeat their 0-13 to 0-10 All-Ireland qualifier victory over Harte’s men of two years ago.
Perhaps even more worryingly for both Hyland and McGeeney is Cavanagh’s declaration that Tyrone will be more committed to sustaining their effort for the full 70-plus minutes when the semi-final comes round.
“I thought we slipped into comfort mode in the second-half on Sunday and that allowed Derry to come back on us,” reflected Cavanagh.
“We were poor in the second-half and we missed scoring chances. We made a lot of mistakes and this is something that we have to take on board. It’s going to get no easier from here on in, we know that.”
With competition for starting places having been further intensified and no major injury worries emanating from Sunday’s game, Cavanagh believes that Harte will be looking for an even bigger input from his players.
“Sometimes when you build up a good lead and get a cushion in games you are going to ease off. The crowd was quiet in the second-half but maybe if Derry had got closer to us there would have been more noise,” added Cavanagh.
“This win was just the first step in what we hope will be a good Championship campaign and it’s important that we view it as being nothing more than that at this point in time.”