Sean Cavanagh is feeling the heat as he walks among friends and neighbours close to the fast-flowing boundary that divides Tyrone and Armagh, the River Blackwater.
The twin villages of Moy and Charlemont have been at the frontline of a bitter sporting rivalry for years.
The temperature is rising again this week, as these neighbouring Ulster counties, bound by a shared passion for Gaelic football, prepare to wage Croke Park battle for the first time since 2005.
In Moy, 13km from the Armagh border, loyalties are divided at the Tir na nÓg clubwhose members are drawn from both faiths, unflinchingly loyal to their own and unwilling to give an inch.
“The Moy club membership is split probably 75-25 Tyrone-Armagh,” Cavanagh reckons. “I went to school in Armagh, I’ve had so many different connections with Armagh, I’ve seen both sides of it. You do realise there’s that deep-down respect between supporters, and some very good supporters that would always be of the mindset of supporting Armagh if they went further than Tyrone, and vice versa.
“I do believe deep down there is that respect amongst the supporters. Saturday will be a huge day in the Moy, it’ll be a huge day for Tyrone and Armagh supporters heading to Croke Park. There’ll be some craic had.”
Cavanagh’s new accountancy business is located in the heart of Moy, a place where Gaelic football is always at the heart of daily conversation.
This week, he’ll politely excuse himself from the discourse, but there’s no solace to be had at the family home a short distance away. The Tyrone captain is married to a fervent Armagh fan, who just happens to be the sister of Armagh full-back Charlie Vernon. Cavanagh lines out at full-forward on Saturday, and he could well be man-marked by his brother-in-law.
“There will be nothing said on the pitch. Off the pitch, we obviously know each other very well and we will probably not be chatting to one another this week,” he said.
“It will be a few quiet days next week no matter what happens, but we are both professional people and we know what will happen on the field on Saturday will end on the field.
“Typically, both of us are not the dirtiest of players, so I don’t think that we will be leaving too much on each other.”
As Cavanagh prepares to renew a famous rivalry against a fierce opponent, memories of huge derby games during the noughties come flooding back.
“It’s a little big nostalgic for me. The younger members of the team have no issues or rivalries with Armagh, whatsoever, but for me there is,” he said. “I know there was all the chat about the big rivalry through the noughties, but when it came to it, we had a ridiculous amount of respect for each other. I think deep down, Armagh and Tyrone have always respected one another and will continue to do that.”
The Armagh management is made up of players who were opponents of Cavanagh in his early playing years with Tyrone, with manager Kieran McGeeney flanked by Paul McGrane, Paddy McKeever, and John Toal.
“The younger members of our team probably don’t remember all those battles, and it’s a bit strange to look on at the Armagh games at the moment, and you’re watching John Toal, McGeeney, McKeever, and McGrane, guys like that standing on the sideline and those are the guys that I had the direct battles with in the early- and mid-2000s. They have that bit of focus and that bit of drive that obviously those guys from that successful team are driving the backbone of this new Armagh team and, having played against those guys, you do realise how driven they were, and how strong as individuals they were and you can see their stamp on this new team. You can see their eagerness to win their own ball, their long diagonal kicking. They’re kicking the ball much more out of defence.
“The trademarks of that ’02 to ’05 team, in particular, are starting to show again, and probably the way football has evolved, it’s starting to work again, in that teams are now trying to play a little bit more expansive and Armagh have been brave, in that they played it in a couple of games in the league and things went against them.
“They have stuck to it, and it’s starting to come to fruition, now, and you’ve got to give them credit.”
Sligo chiefs last night confirmed that Niall Carew is staying on as manager for the coming season.
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