SEÁN CAVANAGH described it as “the million dollar question” — and he wasn’t talking about Tyrone’s prospects of retaining their All-Ireland football title in September.
He was responding to a query about the fitness of Stephen O’Neill, out with a knee injury since a mesmerising performance in the floodlit opening league game in Croke Park against Dublin.
But Cavanagh hinted the former Footballer of the Year is a doubt for their Ulster SFC opener against Armagh.
“Everyone knows how fantastic a footballer he is and what it’s like to play alongside someone of that talent. Fair enough, he scores his five or six points a game but he brings others into the game — the rest of our forwards can feed off him, including myself. It would be great to get him back but he has had his injury problems and he’s still not over them. Fingers crossed he will get the rub of the green and get a run at training before the Armagh game (May 31).”
O’Neill’s problem is linked to his knee-cap — a different injury to the one which almost finished his career last year. It has limited his ability to train and restricted him to cycling and swimming.
Cavanagh continued: “He has a few weeks on his side and he’s the sort of player who’d be naturally fit anyway. We know he’s trying his best to get fit. It would be great if he was involved against Armagh but if not, hopefully before the end of the summer we’ll see Stevie back to his brilliant best.”
“Even the All-Ireland final last year mightn’t have been his greatest day but just that pass he popped into Hub (Kevin Hughes) after half-time probably won us the game. It was one of those defining moments.”
There’s better news about Brian Dooher, again exceptional in 2008 and remembered in particular for scoring a textbook point in the final against Kerry. Described by Cavanagh as “the miracle man”, he has been back in training with the squad for the last few weeks.
“I don’t know where he’s come out of. It’s the same thing every year — you think he’s never going to come back but he always does. He has played a couple of in-house games and looking his usual — very fit and strong. He does an incredible amount of work and he’s still as hungry as ever. Brian Dooher is Brian Dooher. He has no airs or graces about himself. He just tries to be the best he can be and has a fantastic attitude.”
Tyrone, he says, were “happy enough” with their mid-table league finish and their springtime training regime. Their experience last year when they peaked in June or July taught them that lesson. The result of training really hard during the league was leaving them “a bit tired” during games.
“This year, we weren’t going to win the league, but fingers crossed that the approach will pay off further down the line. We’re coming along nicely and the main thing is to keep everyone injury-free.”
Now the focus is on their Championship opener against Armagh. Cavanagh admits it will be a little strange facing the Orchard County without having the recently-retired Francie Bellew breathing down his neck.
“I think I experienced that once before when I ran into him in an All-Ireland semi-final (in 2005) and my ribs are still sore from it. Francie is a cult hero. He could be reckless on the field but whenever you actually got the chance to know him off the field, which I had, he’s a quiet and reserved individual. You have to admire guys like that because they are real heroes.”
Cavanagh feels that the forced retirement of former captain Paul McGrane represents the most serious loss to Armagh, remarking: “To me, he’s up there with the Tohills and guys like that. I really looked up to him as a player. I admired him because he’s a fantastic guy on and off the field. You’d imagine he’s even a big loss to them on the training ground as well but they still have some fantastic footballers coming through from the U-21 team which won the All-Ireland a few years ago. They’ve still got that belief and no-one is ever going to beat them by seven or eight points. It’s always going to be a tight game. Times move on, players change, new guys are coming to the fore now and they’re not going to make it easy for us.”
Looking further ahead — and like Mickey Harte he would prefer the game to be played in Croke Park — Cavanagh has no doubts about Kerry being the leading contender for the Sam Maguire.
“If you look at the quality Kerry have, they are the number one team in the country at the minute but you don’t win All-Irelands at this time of year. Kerry know that. Kerry are going to be there in August and September and hopefully if we can keep our key men fit and strong then we will be there as well.”
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