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Kevin Madden: Sean Cavanagh and Ciaran McKeever show it's never easy to turn back on game you love

Few players have had the impact on Ulster football for the first few decades of this millenium that Tyrone great Sean Cavanagh has. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

WHEN is the right time to call it quits? Timing is a massive factor when it comes to retiring as a player. Going out on your own terms is as much as any man can really wish for. But few ever get to do that.

My biggest regret is not being able to call time on my own career when I wanted. I was 28 when the decision was taken out of my own hands. It is difficult to describe just how big the void in your life can be when you are no longer able to play, especially when your involvement with club and county ceases at the same time.

When you start out as an intercounty footballer the world is your oyster, at least until you realise that very few players actually come out the other end with a bagful of meaningful medals. The best you can hope for is to leave the stage when the time is right for you, but not many get to make that decision.

My own inter-county career was cut short at a time when I felt I would have been coming into my prime. When starting out, you never envisage that one day it could all be taken away in a flash. Never for a second did I think I wouldn’t bow out when I decided enough was enough. Ciaran McKeever came on the Armagh senior scene in 2003, and shortly after that he became an All-Ireland winner at U21 level. When he joined the senior panel in the Orchard county, he became part of a successful set-up.

Armagh won three Ulster titles between 2002 and ’06, as well as lifting the Sam Maguire in ’02. McKeever would have been forgiven for thinking the rest of his career would be littered with big days out in Croke Park. In reality, however, he came on the scene at a time when the Orchardmen had already peaked and were starting to edge down the other side of the mountain. In the end, his medal tally didn’t do justice to the career the gifted and totally committed Cullyhanna man had.

But that shouldn’t take away from McKeever’s legacy. He might not walk away with the medals he would have hoped for, but as far as leaders go he was the up there with the best of them. Every defence needs an enforcer, a communicator and an organiser. He was all of those things and more. For well over a decade Kieran McGeeney owned the Armagh number six jersey before he handed it over to another great leader. As they look around for a natural successor to man the ‘D’, Armagh won’t find it at all easy to fill the boots of Ciaran McKeever.

On the other side of the Blackwater, Sean Cavanagh called time on his own inter-county career, having achieved pretty much everything any player could ever hope for.

Six Ulster Championships, three All-Ireland wins, five Allstars and a Player of the Year award were the highlights. In his prime there were few better than the Moy man in terms of taking a game by the scruff of the neck and turning it on its head.

Last year’s Ulster final was a prime example of just how influential ‘big Sean’ could be. Tyrone looked down and out as Donegal held the advantage entering the closing stages. Cavanagh’s equalising score that day was one of the best points I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. With at least three Donegal men hanging off him, he somehow managed to bore his way through before kicking an all-important score from about 40 yards under immense pressure.

In my opinion, 2008 was his best season in a Tyrone jersey. You could name players from any of the three All-Ireland-winning teams and say Tyrone couldn’t have got the job done without them. But, after losing to Down in the first round of the Ulster Championship in 2008, Cavanagh became the focal point of the Tyrone attack, torturing teams from the full-forward position.

The Red Hands would never have got close to winning Sam in 2008 without Cavanagh. In the last few weeks, those great rivals Tyrone and Armagh have lost two fine footballers. But more than that, they must now soldier on without their main leaders. The time was right for both men to bow out. Neither will be easy replaced given that they had a brand of leadership, talent and temperament that doesn’t come around too often.

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