Seán Cavanagh can feel the invisible countdown clock on his shoulder as it ticks away.
Ulster SFC final
Down v Tyrone
Sunday: Clones, 2pm
Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan)
TV: RTE Two
Having already indicated this will be his last Championship campaign for Tyrone, days ahead of the Ulster final he has confirmed he will stick to his word.
It means that, at most, the three-time All-Ireland winner has just two months left as a Tyrone player before he reverts to civilian life.
The hope is that he can do what Peter Canavan did in 2005 and retire on the back of an All-Ireland win, though that will require a monumental effort.
Tyrone are third favourites for the All-Ireland, though Dublin and Kerry are both installed on much lower odds, reflecting the apparent gap the big two have opened up.
Tyrone and Dublin will both compete in provincial finals this weekend and, should they continue to win games, they will collide in an All-Ireland semi-final.
They have never met in the Championship during Jim Gavin’s time in charge of Dublin and, with just a point separating them overall in league meetings during that period, it could be a clash for the ages.
It would be just the sort of win that would forever be remembered when Cavanagh’s name is recalled.
“A collision with them at any point would be nice, yeah,” said Cavanagh. “I didn’t believe a team could dominate the sport the way Dublin have in the last few years. I didn’t believe that was possible having won our All-Irelands in the 2000s. I knew how difficult it was coming back the following year and trying to do it all over again.
“So, looking at Dublin and seeing what they have done under Jim Gavin, winning three of the last four, it’s quite phenomenal.
“People can talk about resources and what not, but that doesn’t win games on match days. It helps in the preparation, for sure, but it’s how Jim Gavin has been able to keep his players motivated and hungry when times get difficult that’s most impressive.
“That’s where we struggled through the 2000s. When it was really put up to us, maybe we just weren’t as motivated and as hungry and energetic as we needed to be to drive it home in those games.
“You couldn’t say that about Dublin. It’s been scary the way they’ve done that. You are looking at that Westmeath game and wondering: ‘How is that even possible, to get one football team to beat another football team, that has been in the last two Leinster finals, by 31 points?’ It’s ridiculous, actually.”
Realistically, it could require a win over Dublin and another over Kerry in the final for Cavanagh to retire on that high which he craves.
“It certainly worked for us in ’08 and ’05,” said Cavanagh, smiling, as he referenced Tyrone’s second and third All-Ireland final wins. “I still think Dublin and Kerry and Mayo are the three that are ahead of the rest of us. Even if you look at the way Mayo have conducted themselves at the weekend, they are the three that the rest of us have to get up to. We’re in the next level down and we have to make that breakthrough at some point. Hopefully, it’s this year.”
Roscommon’s Connacht final win over Galway at the weekend has reminded Tyrone not to take Down for granted, though Cavanagh says he, personally, wouldn’t anyhow, as he is cherishing every last minute he can get in a Tyrone jersey.
“I’m on the countdown every day now,” said the Moy man. “It’s scary but I’m on the countdown for sure and I realise Sunday could be my second last time pulling on a Tyrone jersey. That’s where it is at, for me, at the moment. I’m still trying to ignore that and I’m just treating it as normal.
“I appreciate this Ulster final as much as the first one. I might actually appreciate this one even more, because I have spent the majority of this decade looking at Donegal and Monaghan dominating Ulster.
“Last year, we finally got the breakthrough and it was so sweet and we celebrated, and possibly over celebrated, but it really showed us, and showed me, the value of the provincial championship and there was a serious hunger to get that trophy back.”
That would be Cavanagh’s sixth Ulster medal and would neatly complete a circle that began with his first at Down’s expense back in 2003. He recalls, though, how difficult it was to pick up that win 14 years ago, with victory in a replay. Had they not fought back from a large deficit to draw that first game, the All-Ireland win of 2003 probably wouldn’t have happened, and perhaps 2005 and 2008.
“We were meant to win that game and had come off a couple of good wins over Antrim and Derry, and me, as a lad, I wasn’t sure what to expect, then all of a sudden you look up at the scoreboard and we’re nine points down.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved