Tyrone were victorious in last weekend’s Ulster final. Sean Cavanagh was captain, leader and Man of the Match. We gave the Ulster final negative press, but let’s put some positivity back in Ulster by remembering Tyrone’s greatest ever captain and leader, Peter Canavan.
It might be the second week in a row that we are paying tribute to a Tyrone footballer. The reason for choosing Canavan this week is predominantly being used as a reminder to those who are singing the praises of Sean Cavanagh. Cavanagh is an incredible footballer, one of Tyrone’s greatest, but none will be greater than the man they called ‘Peter The Great’.
Peter Canavan is quite possibly the greatest forward of his generation, if not the greatest footballer. He was an incredible talent who had so many moments of brilliance in a Tyrone shirt. He began his intercounty career back in the early 1990’s when Tyrone were a relative minnow, but under Canavan’s class, that was soon about to change.
The main thing that stands out about Peter Canavan is that he is a man not blessed with blistering pace nor was he the biggest player in terms of stature. So he did not have any real physical attributes that allowed him to dominate opponents, he did so with out and out class; classy movement, classy skill and classy finishing.
His first big year was in 1994 when Canavan received the first of his six all-stars. It was a year when Tyrone failed to make it out of the Ulster championship but Canavan still made a lasting impression. 1995 was the year he made his real impression on the game, as he led Tyrone to an All-Ireland final against Dublin. 0-11 on final day from Canavan was not enough to lift Sam Maguire for Tyrone, but Canavan would be named Footballer of the Year for his efforts.
Another all-star followed in 1996 but from then on Tyrone struggled to make any inroads on the championship. This meant that Canavan was starved on playing on the biggest days in Croke Park but his class was still being showcased all over the country.
Mickey Harte was building something with Tyrone’s underage teams and he finally took charge of the senior team in 2003. Tyrone were an improving team and had a young crop of players coming through to join the likes of Canavan. For a while people thought Peter The Great was going to go down as the best player not to win an All-Ireland medal, that was soon to change.
2003 was the year. The championship started with Canavan leading Tyrone to Ulster success. They motored on to an All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry. The game will go down in history as the day Tyrone massacred Kerry and the images of five-on-one tackling will always be remembered for the ‘puke football’ comments that followed after.
But there was almost a more significant moment in that game. During the first half, Canavan went for a ball and fell awkwardly on his ankle. He stayed down for a while and was eventually forced off the field through injury. At the time, people wondered could Tyrone win without Canavan. They did on that day but then attentions turned to the All-Ireland final where his participation was in doubt.
Most of the lead up to the 2003 All-Ireland Final between Tyrone and Armagh was littered with talks about Canavan’s fitness. Right up to throw-in it was thought that he wouldn’t play. But Mickey Harte pulled a masterstroke. He used his five subs very carefully and decided to start Canavan but withdrew him before bringing him back on again in the second-half.
It was top class management. Tyrone’s young team could have suffered psychologically without their talisman on the field from the start. Tyrone won their first ever All-Ireland crown with their greatest ever footballer as captain. It was only right that he was the man to lift Sam Maguire for the first time for his county.
Canavan wasn’t finished there. He was getting older and forwards like Owen Mulligan and Stephen O’Neill were becoming the main men in attack. But Canavan was being used very well as an impact sub. He would have more big moments in 2005.
The first was the All-Ireland semi-final with Armagh. It was possibly the greatest rivalry at the time and this saw both teams play out a cracking encounter. The game was level in stoppage time and Tyrone received a free. Owen Mulligan had been the free taker, but he turned and gave the ball to Canavan who split the posts and put Tyrone into the final.
Tyrone faced Kerry in that All-Ireland and this time Canavan was picked to start. He scored a goal in the opening half with an exquisite finish. Mickey Harte used the same tactic again in taking off Canavan and bringing him back on.
He returned to field to score an absolutely cracking point from an acute angle close to the left hand touchline. The final whistle blew and Tyrone had a second All-Ireland. While the first would have meant a lot to him, it was great to see Canavan have more of an influence on the field of play in comparison to 2003.
It was his last game for Tyrone and it was such a fitting way to end. He truly was Peter The Great. The greatest forward of his generation, if not the greatest footballer. There are few like him playing football today.