Extracts from Sean Cavanagh’s new book, The Obsession
In August 2013, we beat Monaghan by two points, 0-14 to 0-12, (in an All-Ireland quarter-final) having played the entire second half with 14 men after Martin Penrose was red-carded.
Near the end of that game, Conor McManus broke through on goal and there was no doubt in my mind where the ball would end up, so I dived on him and pulled him down, conceding the free instead of a goal. It was both calculated and cynical.
We hung on for an edgy win and at the finish I half-apologised to Conor for the rough injustice. Fair dues to him, he admitted he would have done the same thing had the roles been reversed – that was the jungle we lived in. We shook hands and went our separate ways.
In the tunnel Colm Parkinson stopped me for an interview and told me Joe Brolly had gone on a rant about me in the RTÉ studio and would I care to defend myself.
I admitted that while it didn’t look good I had taken one for the team. The laws of the game dictated I would get a yellow card so, after weighing everything up, I took Conor down knowing I wouldn’t get sent off but I would stop him from scoring a goal.
I also told Parkinson I would be the first person to advocate bringing in the black card, because I had probably been pulled down more than any player.
But I conceded at the end that while most players would do the same thing in my position, the whole incident didn’t look good. I thought no more of it until we got home and the whole village seemed to be talking about the criticism.
I wondered what he could have said, so I looked it up, watched it just the once and part of his analysis was: “Seán Cavanagh, who is a brilliant footballer, but I tell you what, you can forget about Seán Cavanagh as far as he’s a man. What he did there tonight was a total and absolute obscenity.”
At first, I kind of laughed it off; I didn’t really see a massive deal in it myself. I just felt that, whatever way the wind was blowing, that lad would have his own say. And he would most likely be over the top.
I had no complaints about accusations of cynicism. But as the days passed after the game I began to see how rubbishing my character hurt Fionnuala and my parents; they were more sensitive than me to such talk.
To be honest, after I took Conor down, my main fear was of facing Fionnuala, because she had read me the riot act over previous incidents.
We played Monaghan on a Saturday, but the scrutiny only intensified on the Monday when Joe went on ‘Ireland AM’ to talk about his charity work with the Irish Kidney Association and again mentioned the incident. The whole thing blew up online and clips were all over Facebook and Twitter that evening.
I was in work that morning when a client phoned on a business matter.
Being from a Protestant background, he admitted to having no interest in Gaelic football, but he was curious about something he had seen or heard.
“What have you done, Seán?”
“Do you mean the football?” I replied. “Yeah, we scraped the win. Happy days! We’re in the semi-final.”
“But were you caught taking drugs or something?”
“I’m seeing headlines with your picture. ‘Cavanagh cheat’ and stuff like that.”
“Oh, right,” I laughed, half nervously. “God, no, it’s not as bad as it sounds. I pulled a lad down. That’s just sensational headlines.”
I played it down, but my client needed a bit of convincing and I was mortified. Right there and then I knew the backlash had consequences bigger than I had imagined. People were less laid-back about it than I was. I was living in that bubble. I had enjoyed a few weeks of fine form; Tyrone were back in an All-Ireland semi-final, somewhat unexpectedly; and I was aiming for another All-Ireland. But this ‘cheat’ stuff was becoming a nuisance.
I would have hoped I had a decent reputation, that whatever faults I had, people saw me as a solid lad. But now, when my name was mentioned, the words ‘cheat’ and ‘cynical’ and ‘dark arts’ often followed. That was strong.
On the Wednesday, Brolly phoned me in work, somewhat apologetic; it seemed the whole thing had come out more forcefully than he had intended. He was mumbling away and seemed to be backtracking.
“Ach, look, whatever,” I said. “It didn’t bother me.”
And it mostly didn’t. But the fallout hurt my family and that’s different. Being called out for a bad tackle is fine. Being dismissed as a decent human being is not.