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Dublin v Tyrone: Peter Canavan’s perfect finish

By Steven Beacom

Tyrione v Dublin. Croke Park. Packed house. Anticipation. Expectation. Desire. Heart and Harte. The Brogan brothers. Taking a giant step closer to All-Ireland glory. Talk about Saturday Night Fever. Even John Travolta would struggle to keep up with the moves in this one.

Not Peter Canavan though.

He was born for an occasion like this. It's a pity the iconic Ballygawley man isn't playing. Strutting his stuff. Knocking over an unlikely point from out wide. Supplying a precise pass for a team-mate. Annoying those on the Hill with his genius. Angering those in blue shirts with the fire in his belly. Gaining admiration from all connected with Tyrone.

Canavan was something special alright — the finest gaelic footballer Ulster ever produced.

Now 40, and retired from playing, Peter the Great as he's known, is earning a growing reputation as a shrewd pundit of the game he graced with such class for a couple of decades.

The fair hair may be a little thinner, but the brain is still ticking when providing astute analysis.

Canavan works for TV3 and BBC NI, and will be alongside Mark Sidebottom in the commentary box for the latter's coverage tomorrow of the most anticipated match of the All-Ireland championship so far.

Canavan enjoys calling the shots, though not as much as when he inspired Tyrone to All-Ireland titles in 2003 and 2005.

“I'd love to be playing on Saturday. It's the biggest match of the year so far and there is a real edge to it,” says Canavan.

“The thing about playing Dublin at Croke Park in an All-Ireland quarter-final or semi-final there is always a big crowd and the atmosphere is unique. In terms of noise there is nothing that beats playing Dublin at Croke Park.

“It's a test for the less experienced boys, who up until now have been doing pretty well. If you take the recent Armagh game in Omagh it was played at championship fervour, it was hard hitting and there was an electric atmosphere that night, as good as there has been in Omagh for a long time, and the likes of Mark Donnelly, Sean O'Neill and Peter Harte all performed very well in that sort of climate. It's going to be more of the same on Saturday and I'd like to think they are capable of pulling through.”

While Mickey Harte's young guns will have key roles to play, one suspects it will be the big hitters who will determine whether they reach a semi-final meeting with Donegal.

“Tyrone have big game players,” says Canavan.

“You look at the likes of Enda McGinley, Brian Dooher and Owen Mulligan — those men have all delivered on the big stage before and hopefully that will be the case on Saturday.

“They won't just have an array of experienced players starting, there will also be several on the bench. In terms of experience and strength in depth, they are ahead of everyone, and I’d include Kerry in that.

“Against Armagh for instance I think the players that Mickey Harte used from the bench had a total of 12 All-Ireland medals. That speaks for itself.”

It has, of course, been the toughest period in manager Harte's life, as he still comes to terms with the tragic death of his beautiful daughter Michaela, cruelly murdered on honeymoon in Mauritius in January.

Given the feeling for Mickey and his family, and the positive impact Michaela had on the team itself in years gone by, I ask Peter if there is a sense of destiny about Tyrone going all the way this year.

The Errigal Ciaran coach and one time star turn for Harte replies: “It has been a very difficult year and there is a feeling that the players are going to do everything they can do win the All-Ireland and that's all Mickey expects from them. They may not be good enough to win it, but if they prepare and apply themselves the best way they can, then the county will be happy with that.

“The players have really put the effort in to get this far. There is a genuine honesty about the team, but in terms of destiny, that’s not being talked about in Tyrone, far from it.

“A few games ago the Tyrone public were very reluctant to be tipping Tyrone as All-Ireland contenders — a lot of people thought they were a long away off the pace. It's only in this last game or two that people have started to take notice and believe this team is heading in the right direction.”

As for the outcome tomorrow night, Canavan's heart is obviously with Tyrone, but what does his head say?

“Four or five months ago I would have said Dublin were a few steps ahead. Having seen Dublin this year and seen how Tyrone have progressed, Tyrone are now very close to them,” says Canavan.

“Tyrone have that wee bit more pace in attack that they didn't have last year when Dublin beat them and they also possess a very strong bench, so Mickey has a plan B and a plan C and I'm not sure Dublin can say that. It’ll be close, but Tyrone are capable of securing a point or two point win.”

Final defeat in 1995 to Dubs is still painful

The last time Dublin won the All-Ireland championship was in 1995.

The Dubs recall that day with relish. For Peter Canavan and the people of Tyrone though the recollections of 16 years ago are still painful.

Canavan, then 24, had been instrumental in helping the Red Hand county reach the final and in the decider he maintained his sensational form scoring 11 out of Tyrone's 12 points.

But it's the point that got away that remains fresh in his memory.

With the game entering its final stages and Dublin a point ahead, Sean McLaughlin hit the ball between the posts to equalise only for the referee to disallow the score for a supposed infringement by Canavan.

Tyrone were furious believing McLaughlin's effort should have stood with TV replays suggesting they had a point — in more ways than one.

To this day, even though Tyrone went on to dominate the All-Ireland series in the next decade, Canavan says it is a decision that continues to rankle.

“It's still raw with a lot of Tyrone people, especially the players who played that day and never got a chance to play in another All-Ireland final. That was their only chance of winning an All-Ireland medal and it was taken away from them,” he stated emphatically.

“Looking back we probably didn't play well enough to win it on the day, but we felt we deserved a draw. The two teams played below par and a draw would have been a fair result.

“It's not something I've forgotten about. Others in Tyrone feel the same way. Just because we went on to achieve success later, it doesn't mean to say there isn't still a lot of rawness about what happened that day.

“We believed that we got an equalising point but the referee deemed I made a foul and disallowed the point. In my opinion the score should have stood.

“For that group of players and that management, a serious amount of work went in to reaching that final and to be deprived in that manner was hard to take.”

More recent history has seen both sides trade victories in the knockout stages of the All-Ireland.

Canavan adds: “With the current panels, 1995 probably won't be mentioned whereas I would think last year's game will be brought up when Dublin won despite Tyrone having ample possession and kicking something like 17 wides. That game will definitely be talked about by the Tyrone camp. I would think the one in 2008 when Tyrone gave Dublin a hiding may also be the subject of some discussion.”

Peter Canavan on...

Best player in modern era: Colm 'Gooch' Cooper.

When you think of the timespan that he has played, he has produced the goods on the biggest of stages for Kerry, be it in Munster finals, All-Ireland semi-finals or finals. In an era now of the blanket defence, he has always been able to make a valuable contribution. For someone who is sleight in build, it's pure skill he relies on to outwit and outfox his opponents and is an example to any youngster that if you have an awareness of things around you, good skills and an ability to kick with both feet, there is a chance to make it to the top. Bernard Brogan is getting close to that, and has performed consistently over the last few years, but Gooch has done it consistently over the last 10 years.

Best player you played against: In terms of man to man markers, Kieran McKeever (Derry) was the tightest defender. In terms of versatility, toughness, skill and being a good leader it would be Kerry's Seamus Moynihan.

Heroes: Two Tyrone men stood out as I got a chance to see them at club and county level. I was at Clones when Frank McGuigan scored his 11 points from play in a brilliant performance. That day has lived long in my memory. He was an exceptional talent and someone you wanted to emulate. The other player I looked up to when I was growing up was Eugene McKenna, who went on to manage Tyrone. He was a fantastic leader and captain of the Tyrone team in 1986 that nearly won an All-Ireland title. Also in the late 70s and early 80s I admired the great Kerry team, who played with such style. Players like Mikey Sheehy, Bomber Liston, Jack O'Shea were first class and you could throw Pat Spillane in there too – for his football, not his commentary.

Other sporting heroes: I grew up when Wimbledon finals were between Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. McEnroe was my favourite. He was the ultimate performer, and the fighter in him and the competitor in him often got results for him and led him to win major titles. That struck a chord with me. I also liked Barry McGuigan, who didn't live too far away in Clones and was someone you could relate to coming from a humble beginnings to become champion of the world. The manner in which he fought and brought people together was inspirational at that time.

Being a TV pundit: It's a privilege to be commentating on the games. I'm thoroughly enjoying it and while it's not the same as playing, I still get a good buzz out of it. Between TV3 and BBC I'm kept busy. When I was playing I wasn't playing to be popular – I was playing to win and likewise when you are commentating I try and call things as they are as opposed to saying things because it is the right thing to be saying. There's a big difference in commentating on gaelic and a lot of other professional sports because a lot of those sportsmen are being very well paid and it's much easier for them to accept criticism. Having gone through it myself, I know what the players go through. I don't think it's fair when criticism levelled at players and managers is personal. It's important to remember a lot of these players do this purely on a voluntary basis.

Favourite commentators: I recall Michael O'Hehir when I was a youngster. Like the better commentators, such as Micheal O Muircheartaigh, he had the quality of making a poor game still sound interesting. In GAA those two would come into the reckoning as great commentators. In terms of present day pundits or commentators my favourite would be Ted Walsh who works for RTE on horse racing. No matter what horse race was on, if Ted was working on it I'd tune in. He's easy to listen to, very knowledgeable and has a good wit about him.

Coaching Errigal Ciaran: We've been struggling in recent years and haven't won a county final since 2006. We have a young team now, so it's a case of regrouping and starting again. It is a challenge there is no doubt about that and it can be frustrating but that's sport in general. There's plenty of ups and downs and I've found that out in the few years I have been managing.

Worst moment in GAA: The 1996 defeat by Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final was bad, as was our club, Errigal Ciaran, losing the All-Ireland semi-final in Newbridge in 1994 to Nemo Rangers after extra time. We came within minutes of reaching our first All-Ireland club final and we never got back to that stage. That was devastating at the time.

Best moment in GAA: It would have to be climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand knowing that I was about to be the first Tyrone man to lift the Sam Maguire, remembering how many good teams and good men had tried to do it for so many decades before that. Those seconds before lifting the trophy were something else.

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