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Tyrone back on track, says Cavanagh

By Donnchadh Boyle

Scars on either of Sean Cavanagh's shoulder serve as a constant reminder of the relative brevity of an inter-county career.


It's 18 months since the four-time All Star suffered injuries so rare that the surgeon who performed the operation wrote a case study on what he encountered.

After suffering the second such setback six months in May last year, Cavanagh toyed with the notion of packing it all in.

"A couple of weeks after I did the right shoulder, I said to my wife: 'I'm not going back because the shoulder is not strong enough to cope.' But, like anything, through time, you get that itch back.

"I said to myself: 'If I get myself fit again this year, I'll enjoy every game and take each one as a bonus.'

"Now that I'm past 30, you realise that maybe you don't have all that long left. The previous 10 years disappear in the blink of an eye and I know that the next few will disappear just as quickly. Then, I'll be like the rest of the players I played with in the noughties – retired and looking back at it all."

It's now 10 years since Tyrone reached a league final. Back in 2003, Cavanagh was the poster boy for a Tyrone underage system that was consistently rolling out quality players. That first wave have all but moved on now and Cavanagh finds himself as the elder statesman in a team looking to carve out its own niche.

Cavanagh agrees comparisons between that team and the current crop can be made, but only time will tell if the new breed can fill the shoes of the most celebrated footballers of the past decade and return Tyrone to the top table. However, the early indicators have been good, with signs of regeneration this spring.

Their return to the top flight has suited them. Mickey Harte's men are the only side to beat Dublin in the league this year and while Jim Gavin's outfit were without some frontline players that day, Tyrone still extracted value from the success.

"I know they weren't at full strength, but, psychologically, it probably was good even to get that one-point win – just for us to know that we can beat them.

"When I started my career we were probably beating (Dublin) more times than not, but they have handed us out a few tankings in the quarter-finals the last two or three times we have played them. So, just to get it into our heads that we were able to compete with them was a big thing.

"For the last two years, we would be lucky to be considered a top 10 team. So, this is a complete bonus. The first thing in our head in Division One was to get enough points to be safe. Then, it was hopefully to make the semi-finals. Now, in a final, we're just taking it as bonus territory."

Cavanagh's form has been central to the Tyrone revival, but Stephen O'Neill was at his mercurial best to help see off Kildare last weekend, prompting Cavanagh to rank him above even Peter Canavan in his ability to get scores.

"He obviously hit those points on Sunday, but any Tyrone player would tell you that he does that in training all the time. He's just got a gift of being able to score from outrageous angles," said Cavanagh.

"He's just got those sort of things in his locker. In terms of pure, raw talent and ability to score, I haven't seen a better player. I haven't played with a better player or against a better player.

"Canavan was unbelievable; Canavan was a completely different player, but he would be the first to admit that after some of the points Stevie put over from acute angles, there's no better man."

Keeping the injury-dogged O'Neill and Cavanagh fit ahead of their championship opener away to Donegal will be top of Harte's list. There were only two points (0-12 to 0-10) between the sides.

"I think we have the talent there, it's whether we can get it right on any given day. We have some fantastic players. The likes of Kyle Coney and Ronan O'Neill weren't able to get a good run at it last year and they still haven't been able to get a run at it this year, but, in terms of talent, they are up there with the best.

"If we can get those sort of guys out and mixed in with the Stevie O'Neill's of this world, then it could create a reasonably strong and dangerous forward line capable of competing with most teams.

It is all ifs and buts trying to get that balance and mix right, but there is no better man to do it than Mickey Harte."

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