GAA Football

Justin McNulty recalls Sean Cavanagh's Tyrone debut in Clones clash in 2002

Justin McNulty picked up Sean Cavanagh during the Tyrone man’s Championship debut in 2002 Picture by Hugh Russell
Andy Watters

MAY 20, 2002 was an early summer scorcher and the emergence of a fresh-faced debutant called Sean Cavanagh turned up the heat on the Armagh defence.

The Moy clubman, who retired last Sunday after 15 years at elite level, went at the Armagh full-back line like the Karate Kid in that Clones cauldron.

Cavanagh scored two points and a 70th minute goal to earn the Red Hands a draw and was awarded a mark of nine in The Irish News player ratings.

“Big, strong with plenty of pace, he fielded some great ball, particularly for his vital goal and hauled Tyrone’s first title defence out of jail with it,” it read.

“Showed for the ball very well and looked their most dangerous forward.”

Cavanagh capped a bright start with a 19th minute point and Armagh manager Joe Kernan reacted by detailing Justin McNulty, his best man-marker, to track him.

The Mullagbawn clubman stuck to his task in typical style but Cavanagh displayed many of the characteristics that made him a marquee player until last Sunday when he bowed out after Tyrone’s loss to Dublin in a one-sided All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park.

“I remember it as being a hot, sticky, tough day,” says McNulty.

“I remember Sean being fast, strong and determined. I didn’t know anything about him but you take every player as it comes.

“I didn’t line-out on him, I was moved onto him because he was causing problems and I was struck by how fast and strong and determined he was for such a young fella.

“I didn’t anticipate that he would rise to be a great stalwart for so many years but you could recognise that he had huge talent and huge competitive ability.”

Those attributes – pace, strength and determination – propelled Cavanagh to three All-Ireland titles, six Ulster Championships, five Allstars, the Footballer of the Year award in 2008, the Ireland International Rules captaincy and many other accolades.

“Ultimately he was a competitor and that’s what stood by him for so many years,” said McNulty, now an SDLP MLA for Newry and Armagh

“I’ve got nothing but admiration for a guy who sticks at it for such a long time and who has been at the top of his game, one of the leading footballers in the country, for so many seasons. It’s an incredible achievement and also to have three gold ones (All-Ireland medals) in his backpocket is enormous.”

McNulty and Cavanagh renewed acquaintances in the replay the following weekend. Armagh won that day and went on to win their first All-Ireland title.

Tyrone matched that feat the following year and the neighbours met regularly throughout the noughties in a series of hammer-and-tongs showdowns.

“We had plenty of tussles with him down the years,” said McNulty, who added with a laugh: “We’ll never forget the ‘Cavanagh shuffle’, I was never personally caught out with it, but I know those who were.

“He was the last man standing from both of those teams. Him and Ciaran McKeever have retired in the same season a few weeks apart and they would have had huge tussles as well.

“It’s a credit to Sean that he was the sole survivor on that Tyrone team up until now.”

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