Colm Cavanagh: Retiring Red Hands can hold their heads up high

Ronan O'Neill - a born entertainer 

TIMING is everything, and I must admit even I am surprised at the timing of some of the retirement announcements coming from the Tyrone camp over the past few weeks.

Guys at the top of their game stepping away, it’s hard to believe, but when you have given it your all and have achieved the highest honours possible as a Gaelic footballer, it is very difficult to summon up the motivation and the drive to do it all again, all while keeping life outside of football as enjoyable as possible.

Five men who have contributed to the squad and worn their jersey with pride have their Celtic Cross in their back pocket and now it's time to move on and enjoy their lives without the intensity and pressure that comes from the county set-up 'bubble' as Ronan O’Neill so aptly put it last week.

For those lads, they have hit their end goal and target. All those winter training sessions with frozen fingers and toes, all the early morning gym sessions, the dietary restrictions, the lack of holidays and social outings, they have all been worth it so they feel now that they can move on and happily do other things.

I can completely understand that, it gives the younger generation coming through more time to try and build themselves into a consistent place on the team.

I always had on my mind to give it 100 per cent and be a leader for as long as I could while I was able, but there is a time when you have to step aside and let the younger lads take the onus and leadership. It is all about timing and when you know you know, your gut just says that you can’t keep it up and you have to listen to it.

I have alluded to this before and when you speak to fellow retirees, looking back into the bubble, the majority will say that football was everything and when you are on the inside it is very hard to see outside that very tight knit circle, I know I couldn’t.

Your focus is 100 per cent on the team, the county, the fans each year. We are always conscious that football brings joy to so many people, the GAA is a big community and is unrivalled in the sense of joy and excitement it can bring.

With that joy comes pressure not just on the 15 men on the starting team but on the whole panel, the management, and the coaches, to be the best they can be. To represent that huge community with the highest of standards and expectations is an immense responsibility.

It is a much easier choice to be part of a group when you are being handed a jersey numbered 1 to 15 week in and week out, but not getting a run out on the pitch to prove your contribution is mentally challenging and that can have an impact on any decision you make.

You still go through the same training and sacrifices to get to the end goal and ultimately you end up supporting your team-mates from the stands. I could never be comfortable with that and always said if and when it happened me, I would be gone. We are just wired to be team players so having a bit-part role just wasn’t for me.

That may seem arrogant and so be it, even being injured and on the sidelines was a mental torture for me so being fit and able to play but only getting a part-time role just was never going to work for me.

The squad play a vital role in any set-up and everyone has to be ready to be called up when required but when that call doesn’t come, often it can get demoralising.

I read Ronan O’Neill’s article in which he talks about trying to be positive within the group, for the group, and that is very important, but the internal disappointment is always strong.

That is the nature of team sport and management are in an impossible position, but that is sport and those decisions have to be made.

Trying to remain focused on the team goal is what it is all about but when the big days roll around, I am certain that the lads who didn’t make the cut put on a brave face, full of encouragement for the rest but deep down they would be hurting badly.

That is what sets the GAA apart from soccer or other sports, everyone buys in and takes it on the chin for the good of the team, there’s no Ronaldo-esque throwing the arms in the air, or ranting at the manager, you bury the disappointment and address it later. You never want to take energy from the team.

As a supporter I can understand the frustration looking at those players and knowing they have so much more to give, as a club player I can understand their club-mates being delighted to have them back but most of all, as a person, I completely support their decisions.

If 2020 and '21 has taught us anything at all it is to prioritise what is truly important; ourselves, our families and our friends. Those lads have given their all and with many of them getting married this year, I honestly don’t think this will be the last of the retirements. As I was advised in 2008, as great as football is and for all it gives us, it doesn’t pay the mortgage.

We all have commitments off the football field that will be there long after the boots are packed away for storage. Speaking from experience, those guys will be in the stands for the big days cheering on their friends and club-mates, proud of all they have achieved, and they will miss the game badly but if you are content with your decision and it has been worth it for everything outside the bubble, then there is no shame in that, as Hugh-Pat put it - Head Held High.

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