Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Tyrone are heading back to the summit

Raring to go: Colm Cavanagh can't wait to get up and  running against Monaghan tomorrow
Raring to go: Colm Cavanagh can't wait to get up and running against Monaghan tomorrow

Colm Cavanagh. Tall, more slender than you'd think, with a big smile and a warm welcome. He finds an interview room in the Dungannon office of accountancy practice Cavanagh Kelly, gets some coffee on the go and begins chatting.

He's 26 now. Another sunny day in Clones is looming and it's great to be alive. Can't remember much about his first Championship match there, a collision with a Fermanagh player knocking him out in the 2007 preliminary round.

Won his first senior title there a few weeks later, beating Monaghan in the final as he looked on.

A year later he turned an ankle in the first round against Down and was taken off. It didn't last him in the replay either. He got back in time for the qualifiers against Westmeath, coming on for brother Sean, but soon dislocated his shoulder.

Now, he can 'click' the shoulder on request, and keeps a hot water bottle resting on it all day at work to get some movement into the joint.

But that year he scored his first Championship point for Tyrone – as a substitute in the All-Ireland final. Payback.

Consider this. Since he graduated onto the squad, Tyrone have been involved in 40 Championship games. He has started in 25 of them, and been brought on in eight others, even considering the early injury problems.

Since July 2011 and a backdoor game against Longford he has started every game, a run of 17.

The other evening, Colm and his fiancée compiled an inventory of his injuries.

"In 2007 there was the concussion ...

"2008 I started the first game against Down, went over on my ankle in Omagh, it went to a replay in Pairc Esler, still wasn't right ...

"Came back then against Westmeath, came on for Sean. Five minutes later, I dislocated my shoulder and was off again ... "

The shoulder will need surgery at some point. So too, will the ankle. He broke a bone in his wrist, "a quirky name for it", that he can't recall at the time, but later courteously texts 'Scaphoid wrist fracture. Just came back to me', at the start of last year.

He has a couple of tasty looking scars on his jaw too.

He points to the left side, "Denis Bastick (Dublin midfielder) kicked me on the chin and the stud went right through my chin. The physio said it was scary. I have another one here (right side of moustache area) when the tooth came right through my lip."

And that's before all the knocks you pick up in training; the dead legs, the limps and pulls. Any other boss would be livid with the time taken off, but he and his brother are happily working for their uncle Sean, whose patience and foreboding he acknowledges.

Still, he wouldn't want it any other way. Last year with his final accountancy exams approaching he considered taking a year out of county football, and talked it over with some senior partners. In the end he used football as a release.

In the evenings, he would swap books for boots and Tyrone progressed to a National League final and an All-Ireland semi-final.

In between times, there was the pantomime over Sean's tackle on Conor McManus.

Surely the younger brother must have been affected by all the negative coverage raining down, even though the man himself seemed nonplussed?

"Me and Sean have always dealt with each other thinking, 'you are big enough and old enough to look after yourself'," he chuckles.

"We are always going to be there for each other and everything, but people blew it way out of proportion. Sean seen it for what it was and I think he handled it well because it didn't matter really. I didn't affect his thought process."

Sunday, and another sunny day in Clones, where they would bring their picnic as children. Four times he has met Monaghan in Championship football, and he has won every time, even helping himself to a long-range chipped goal in the 2010 Ulster final.

Supporters think they have their number. He knows that talk is crazy.

"Teams change and players change and everything is evolving all the time. It's a brand new game and there are new players there," he explains.

Monaghan find themselves in a similar situation to what Tyrone might feel if they were to play Donegal.

"Donegal have had success against us for the last few years," Cavanagh says. "But if we went to play Donegal next week would we be going out thinking we can't beat them? Absolutely not.

"Football doesn't work that way, players' mindsets don't work that way."

Tyrone's continued evolution has sometimes been painful, leading to heavy defeats and discipline meltdowns in the last few years.

There is a sense after the Killarney collapse, and how they fought back from early setbacks against Dublin during the league, that this team want to banish the really awful days.

"Whenever we come back into training after a defeat, even in the league, we get back in and guys would say, 'that's enough now. We are not going to be taking that again, that kind of beating'," he says.

He finds defeat difficult to process.

"Last year after Donegal in the Championship," he explains, "I was driving home that night, and then I could not sleep that night, I was so angry with how we had performed and let ourselves down.

"It's hard to pinpoint what went wrong on the day. When you look at Gaelic football, most of the boys are in peak physical condition.

"I think the mental side of it is something some guys don't really focus on."

Tomorrow, Clones will enjoy a bumper crowd while underneath, the dressing rooms will be cramped - "you might have 40 boys – and one toilet in the changing room."

Latrine concerns aside, this is what Colm Cavanagh grew up wanting to do. This is the Championship. He will embrace it as any veteran would.

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