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'At times during my career I felt I was the only one on the planet that felt like this'

Sean Cavanagh discusses the obsession that drove him to greatness.

KIERAN MCGEENEY IS a firm believer in the dark side. 

The former All-Ireland winning captain often says that all elite sportsmen need to have a darkness inside them to compete at the highest level. 

Sean Cavanagh can attest to that.

Sean Cavanagh Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The five-time All-Star found himself edging closer and closer to his dark side as his career went on. As he fought the dying of the light at the tail end of his career, Cavanagh became more willing to cross the line and do whatever it took to be successful. 

In his younger days, Cavanagh was often targeted due to the perception he was easy to throw off his game. By the finish, he had succumbed to the dark arts.

“I would stand on the field and encourage team-mates to pull opponents down if they breached our rear-guard at a crucial stage in the game,” he writes in his autobiography.

During one clash against Donegal, Cavanagh recalled screaming into the face of Michael Murphy after he missed a free: “Murphy you fat bollox.”

Then there was a tangle with Lee Keegan in the 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final: “(Keegan) started pulling and dragging out of me. I grabbed his thumb, jerked it back and told him that, next time, I would break it.”

Sean Cavanagh and Lee Keegan Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Some of the things I did, particularly in the latter stages of my career, when I became more desperate to try and win it was just born out of pure obsession of trying to win,” he told The42.

“Trying to get that one or two per cent that everyone talks about. I was in that bubble and nothing else really matter but trying to win. With that, I sacrificed an awful lot. I sacrificed friends, family, social occasions.”

It was Cavanagh’s visceral need to win that drove him to actions he would later regret.

‘The Obsession’ is a fitting title for his book, which paints the picture of a serial winner who was always looking ahead to the next challenge. That mentality helped him to become one of the finest footballers of his generation, but it also had its drawbacks.

The relationship between obsessive behaviour and greatness is a fascinating one. There’s a widely held belief in psychology that to reach an elite level in any field, some degree of obsession is necessary. 

Read the autobiography of any high-level athlete and the majority of them describe how they sacrificed other aspects of their lives to achieve their goals. Family, relationships and even their own health are set aside. Cavanagh was no different, particularly in the punishment his body took.

There are numerous examples in his book of the extreme lengths he went to in order to get the most out of himself on the field.

Sean Cavanagh injured Source: James Crombie

From the age of 18, he was heavily reliant on anti-inflammatories to alleviate pain. It got to the point where he knew which brand worked best for each part of his body.

He made the startling observation in his book of the number of times he sustained concussions during his Tyrone career, even more pertinent given the heavy blow he took during a club game last weekend which left him with a broken nose and “bad concussion”.

“Perhaps the biggest regret I have, medical-wise, is that I have been concussed between four to six times every year and played through games in many of those instances,” he wrote.

“Concussion protocols are thankfully in place now but more than once I was able to convince medics that I was good to go when I was actually all over the shop.”

He goes on to describe a Division 1 league game against Monaghan in 2015 where he took a knee to the side of the head. “I can honestly say that I had no clue where I was during that first-half…I can’t remember one bit of that second-half.”

In his later years, Cavanagh would ice his knee several times a day, first strapping ice packs to it before he purchased a machine he would sit in for 45 minutes at a time. He took “between three and five anti-inflammatory injections every year” of his life for the final decade of his career “to kill the pain in my body.”

He admits now he struggles to walk down the stairs most mornings due to his creaking ankles and knees. “I am worried about my long-term health as a result of what I did,” he says in the book.

“I went deeper into obsession mode. Nothing else mattered bar trying to get the body to maximum efficiency. It was lunacy. It began to impinge on my work as an accountant at Cavanagh Kelly. But worse again, I sacrificed more and more time with Fionnuala (his wife) and the kids.”

Sean Cavanagh down injured Source: Presseye/Russell Pritchard/INPHO

He was so driven to succeed that he often found his mind racing at night before and after games. The image of Cavanagh lying awake in his bed at the Citywest Hotel the night of the 2008 All-Ireland final is a telling one.

Having failed to score in the ’03 and ’05 deciders, he took Tom O’Sullivan for five points from play and was named man-of-the-match. But here he was, wide awake, tormenting himself over a goal opportunity he passed up during the game. 

“Jesus Christ, I could have scored a goal in an All-Ireland final!”

The pain of defeat was more acute than the short moments of elation that came with victory.

“After the All-Ireland wins, they were short-lived,” he explains. “That was probably the pinnacle of my career that All-Ireland final. I was lying there at 2am thinking to myself, ‘Why didn’t I go for goal?’

“I was coming in one time off the Cusack Stand side and I had a great opportunity to come in and ping a shot at goal but I decided to fist over the bar which I did an awful lot of times during my career.

“I’d just won man-of-the-match in an All-Ireland final, scored five points and yet I’m lying there thinking of that. And I’m thinking, ‘Is this rational?’

“My behaviour at times wasn’t rational. Whilst I was able to share my victories with my team-mates and say, ‘Yeah, it’s a team game and we all win together.’ Whenever we lost, I put that on myself and took it very personally.”

Sean Cavanagh celebrates at the final whistle Source: James Crombie/INPHO

His struggle to sleep the night before games was even worse. It was an affliction he dealt with throughout his entire career.

“Even as a minor I remember it happening me,” he said. “I’m sure there’s loads of club and county players out there that are similar to me. I’m sure I’ll get to meet some of them probably in the coming months.

“I’ve already had text messages flipped to me in the last few days of people saying, ‘That’s exactly how I feel.’ At times during my career, I felt I was the only one on the planet that felt like this – that couldn’t sleep before games, that took defeats harrowingly. 

“It was only then a couple of years ago I met AP McCoy and I was chatting him up in Armagh City Hotel. He started to say something very similar to me. I watched his documentary ‘Being AP’ and it was brilliant to watch.

“An awful lot of the feelings and emotions I had, I could relate to his. He was something similar where he was happy to sacrifice family, friends and at times his own body and probably his own physical health to try and achieve something. That’s what I felt throughout my career – that need to try and push myself hard and harder.”

The comparison with McCoy is an apt one. Back in 2014, McCoy was on track to reach his holy grail of 300 jump racing winners in a season when he was struck down by a series of devastating injuries. 

“That broke my heart, really,” McCoy said the following year. “It was the first time ever as a jockey that I felt broken. Yeah, I’ve broken every fucking bone in my body but bones heal. This was feeling broken inside. It absolutely broke my heart because, until then, I really thought it was on.

“I was riding out of my skin because I felt the hunger. I felt the need. I felt the obsession.”

Sean Cavanagh is shown a red card by Referee David Gough Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The toughest setback Cavanagh faced was undoubtedly Tyrone’s quarter-final loss to Mayo in 2016. It was, he says, the worst he’s ever been after a match. The one-point defeat in Croke Park sent the Moy native into a worrying tailspin.

A second yellow card for a high challenge on Aidan O’Shea ended his day in Croke Park prematurely. 

Fast forward three hours and Cavanagh was still in his Tyrone shorts and tracksuit top, wandering around the countryside outside the Moy. His phone, wallet and keys were left in Harry Loughran’s car when Cavanagh was dropped off at Moy Square. 

His mind was racing as he roamed further from home. He had a close call with a boy racer at one stage, jumping into a country lane ditch to avoid being hit by the car. In the darkness, the driver of the red Merc didn’t even know he was there.

Later, a car full of Tyrone supporters stopped to offer a lift, but Cavanagh was intent on continuing. Two more hours passed before he made it to Dungannon when a taxi driver recognised him and insisted on dropping him home.

Cavanagh arrived in the door at 1.40am and the search parties were called off. He hadn’t eaten in 15 hours. He’d gone AWOL before – after Tyrone lost the All-Ireland U21 final in 2003 – but this was far more extreme.

“I blamed myself as captain,” he said. “I blamed myself that I got sent-off. I got caught up in a personal battle with Lee Keegan which he won and I ended up being off the pitch for the last 20 minutes and the fact we lost by a point – no disrespect to Tipperary but we were playing them in the semi-final if we had have won, which probably would have led to a final.

“In my mind, in a perfect world that was the way I was going to sail off into the sunset in an All-Ireland final against the Dubs. 

“Whatever way we did, I was happy to go. Because it didn’t work out it hit me hard. I went into almost a state of shock and a numbness. Walking decided to be the way in which I thought I could clear my head.

“It turned out then a number of hours later I was picked up by a taxi man. I had no idea of time or anything. I was still in control and would never do anything to hurt me or anyone else – it was my way of trying to get away from everything. 

“Equally I’d say, as a county footballer I had to be very resilient. Within 15 hours of that I was probably back in the gym trying to work myself even harder.

“Yet again, that’s the obsession. It’s not rational behaviour but in your mind when you’rein that bubble everyone refers to, it made complete sense to me.

“It’s only now sitting back and after doing a book on it when you think, ‘I would love to share those memories with someone – if there’s a young lad coming through who’s going to have these similar feelings, thoughts and emotions.’ I would love for him to be able to deal with it better than I did.”

Source: The42.ie/YouTube

On the taxi driver who dropped him home that night, Cavanagh wrote: “I don’t know who he is, I never got his name and I haven’t met him since, but I have no doubt I’ll meet this guy along the line again somewhere.”

Sure enough, when he held his book launch last week in the Moy club, who appeared only the taxi driver.

“I’m the taxi man,” he declared.

“You’re the taxi man?” replied Cavanagh. “You’re the man?”

“You weren’t going to get into the car that night.”

“No, I wasn’t.”

Cavanagh was surprised that the story didn’t make its way into the public domain.

“I thought I might meet him at some stage but I wasn’t sure,” he said. “And fair play to him, he was amazingly discreet.

“It probably would have been easy for him in the past few years to tell that story out and he hadn’t. He hadn’t told anyone. He only lived a few miles down the road in Dungannon.

“I remember he pulled up alongside me. I was in a pair of shorts at 1.30am. And he said to me, ‘Jump in the car.’ I was like, ‘No, no, no I’m only out for walk here. I’m grand, thanks a million anyway.’ But he insisted, which I’m glad he did in all fairness. That was probably the low point of my career that night.” 

He wasn’t always built that way. As a youngster, Cavanagh was a carefree footballer that took a more cavalier approach to his diet.

He lived on a diet of beans on toast and boiled rice with curry sauce through 2004, believing it would control his weight and aid his performance. During his college days, he took the novel approach of mixing his protein shakes with WKD to improve the taste.

“It made complete sense as a 19-year-old who was just off the back of winning an All-Ireland minor. I remember ballooning up to about 16 stone as a fresher in Jordanstown in Belfast.

“I remember a moment when I was trying to run after a few average club players when we were up in Mary Peters Track just outside Belfast. Damian Barton, the ex-Derry manager, came up to me and said, ‘Sean, whatever you’re eating could you please half and whatever you’re training could you please double?’

“I just needed to flip the scales and get back in the groove. A few of the Tyrone players back then would have given me a bit of grief and Cormac McAnallen would have been one of those guys that always gave me a bit of a niggle. He was someone who lived his life so perfectly and through to his death so religiously. 

“Mars bars and Tayto cheese and onion sandwiches weren’t really part of the diet. I probably saw it all. I saw the pre-social media zone where there was plenty of craic in a team.

“Every single match you went out after for a night out and boys did things and got away with things and got away with a bit of craic. Obviously now we’re living in a social media world where anything you do is well documented and you’re living under a microscope.

“I’d some really good years at the start of my career and WKD was very welcome as a fresher.”

Sean Cavanagh DIGITAL Cavanagh during the 2001 All-Ireland minor final replay win over Dublin Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

He had plenty of high points in the Tyrone jersey and his biggest achievements arrived in the first half of his career. By the age of 25, he was a three-time All-Ireland champion and reigning Footballer of the Year. From there, the incline grew steeper.

“I think I was spoiled in the early part of my career. It was the way it was – we won All-Irelands. That’s what we did. I was part of that really special group that came from the ’98 minor team that had bonded through adversity at times but equally had some brilliant players and I was riding the crest of a wave.

“At that early stage it was about winning team awards, individual awards and the time was good. That flipped then and I almost had a first half and a second half.

“Because in the second half of my career I was chasing success and Donegal were sort of dominating in Ulster. Monaghan rose to prominence and we’d maybe dropped back a peg. Then the great Dublin team arrived. So I found myself trying to push myself harder and harder, whilst in the earlier parts of my career it just worked.”

“Naturally as you get older you have injuries. I was living on anti-inflammatories, to get to know your body. The boundaries in which you push – they become extremist at times.” 

Is he satisfied then, with a career that saw him win five All-Stars and lift the Sam Maguire on three occasions?

“I don’t think you’re ever content. It’s whenever you now realise that a decade has passed since Tyrone won an All-Ireland.

“There potentially could be a whole generation of players that never wins an All-Ireland. You look back and think, ‘There was 100 years before that when no-one from Tyrone won an All-Ireland.’

“At times I wonder whether it was all worth it. It’s only whenever you step out of it, you think whether it was, but obsession was the word anyway.”

Obsession was the word alright.

******

Source: The42.ie/YouTube

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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