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'Being Tyrone boss wouldn't replace thrill of playing. Nothing has come close'


On ball: Peter Canavan is now a highly respected Sky Sports pundit
On ball: Peter Canavan is now a highly respected Sky Sports pundit
Happy family: Peter Canavan and his eldest children after the 2003 All-Ireland final
Peter Canavan in Tyrone colours
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Red Hands legend Peter Canavan on his long wait to win the All-Ireland and why he is in no rush to take on the top role.

Peter Canavan's first year out of playing Gaelic football was 2008. Like many others before and after, he was struggling to find something to replace the adrenaline buzz.

Just over five years since he captained Tyrone to their first All-Ireland title, and 15 years on from when he fulfilled the same role in Errigal Ciaran's maiden Tyrone Club Championship, he and a few others entered the Dublin Marathon as a fundraiser for the Spirit of Paul McGirr charity.

Along with his brother Pascal and some teachers, they had banked the miles in the legs and got up to 18 and 19 miles in the training runs.

The marathon was on a Bank Holiday Monday and they checked into the Skylon Hotel on a Saturday evening.

Then, as he explains, in a moment that would have made him wince in his former life as an ultra-dedicated county footballer: "One of the runners suggested that in order to build up protein, a pint of Guinness would help us.

"So, five pints of Guinness later we went to the sack. We started away on the Monday not worried about times or anything, we worked together but when we got to 13 miles we stopped for some of the lads, blistering and so on. And once we got stopped we found it very hard to get going. Once we got to 20 miles, we literally seized up."

He completed it, but not before a couple of elderly ladies in their 70's ran past, urging him to "keep the head up son, keep going..."

That was the beginning and end of a marathon career. Gaelic football would always be his first love and after a career when he established himself as one of the greatest ever players, he went into management with his own Errigal Ciaran. He's never been out of jobs - sometimes multiple - since.

After starting his senior career with Tyrone in 1989, he had to wait 14 years for his first taste of All-Ireland success, adding to it two years later, but he is not satisfied it took so long to reach the promised land.

"I'm certainly not happy I had to wait because a lot of other very dedicated and committed friends along the way didn't get the opportunity of winning an All-Ireland," he states.

"Look at the difference winning in 2003 made. We won another two within the space of five years. If we had won one in 1995, I would like to think we would have featured more prominently in the intervening years.

"But I am realistic enough to know that there are hard luck stories in Gaelic football and a lot of men - who still talk about 1995 - never got the opportunity that myself and the likes of Chris Lawn were fortunate enough to get, the chance to address it, and things worked out alright."

When he eventually did, one man was not far from his thoughts as he went up to accept the Sam Maguire. His father Sean was honorary president of Errigal Ciaran before he passed away in early July of that year.

"It was still raw," Canavan admits.

"The fourth of July, 2003 when he passed away. It was roughly three months later that we won it.

"I would have known how much it would have meant to him and I would have known how proud he would have been to see Tyrone winning an All-Ireland first of all, and to see one of his sons being involved in it, not necessarily being captain or anything like that, but just to be involved, it would have meant an awful lot to him because he watched a lot of football and had never seen a Tyrone team, like a lot of Gaels before him, win it.

"You try not to dwell too much on that. There are other family members that were struggling just as much as me."

One other family member who missed out on the big day was his brother Pascal. A fellow teacher, he had decided after Errigal won the 2002 Ulster club - in which he sustained a broken jaw in the final - that he was finished with football at county level, therefore missing out on something he had strived for over so many years.

"I have no doubt that he would have made a big contribution to it as well, but how could you tell anybody who had made that commitment that it was the wrong thing to do? His decision was respected, a number of other players likewise," Peter reflects now.

"Some of the best games I played in, we certainly wouldn't have won if it hadn't been for him. For Errigal Ciaran, he was the main leader in our team and one of the most consistent players we have ever had.

"Likewise with Tyrone, in the mid-90s he was central to their success and was punching above his weight a lot of the time in midfield, for a man who is not over six foot."

Life moves on. Canavan dipped his toe in intercounty management with neighbouring Fermanagh after his spell in charge of Errigal. He was a key figure in the Tyrone backroom team that helped capture the 2015 All-Ireland Under-21 Championship.

Many see him as a future Tyrone senior manager. At present, he is over one of the development squads and it comes as a surprise to hear his thoughts on one day taking over the reins of the county seniors.

"It's not a burning desire, and that's something that would worry me. That I am absolutely not pushed. Maybe that's not a good thing," he reveals.

"I can accept that, again I am fully aware of the time commitment of being manager of your county team and I would be in awe of Mickey Harte to have the hunger, to retain the hunger and the passion that he has. Because if you haven't got that, you shouldn't be doing it.

"And Mickey certainly has it in buckets. You have to admire his powers of persistence. It was something he talked about a lot as a coach and he exemplifies that better than anybody else.

"But it's not a burning ambition that I have. I don't know if it could ever replace playing. Nothing has to date come close to that. So while it is an honour and a privilege to manage your own county, there's serious responsibility comes with it as well."

Right now, he is on the Errigal Ciaran youth committee, along with his work with the county development squads, has managed Cavan Gaels to a county championship and had a novel spell in charge of Fulham Irish in London, along with his work as a brand ambassador for various businesses and his media work with the Belfast Telegraph, Irish Independent and Sky TV.

His latest huge project is co-ordinating an upcoming fundraising drive for Holy Trinity school in Cookstown, where he has been teaching for over 25 years.

The aim is to have a new school built on the existing site to open in September 2021, or to have the build start in 2019, to cater for an astonishing 1,300 pupils.

When he started there, he was the only teacher taking teams. Nowadays, they have a fleet of renowned coaches such as John McKeever and Adrian O'Donnell, along with current county players Kevin O'Boyle, Stefan Forker, Michael Stevenson and others all feeding into the central well of knowledge.

In the past, they have won All-Ireland titles at Vocational Schools level, but the aim is to make their mark in the MacRory Cup.

However as he is keen to point out: "That's one aspect. The teachers in science, technology will have their own aspirations in terms of what can be done moving forward and we would like to think that with the new school we would have what is needed for the children. And to do that, a serious bit of fundraising will be required to get us where we want to go."

At home, his life is focused around sport. Wife Finola is a keen runner. His daughter Aine is a doctor who plays football for Errigal and the county and is engaged to Tyrone footballer Peter Harte, while younger sister Claire is an up and coming player.

His son Darragh is remarkably similar on the playing fields, as witnessed in his starring role and goal in last year's Under-17 All-Ireland final against Roscommon in Croke Park, and another son Ruairi is coming up through the underage ranks.

Life continues in the same vein it always has, and is one that he is entirely satisfied with.

"We are creatures of habit and if you look at my life it's no different," he says. "From when I was playing from 16, 17 on, for 20 years it was school, club and county, college and so on.

"I am still going to school, still involved with teams, coaching and overseeing football in Holy Trinity."

A busy, and content life.

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