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The quiet arrival of Peter Canavan’s Tyrone

During Ulster football’s renaissance period of the early 1990s, in which Down, Donegal and Derry won successive All-Ireland titles, the Tyrone senior football team impatiently sat in the shadows. The Red Hands had made some promising noises in the second half of the 1980s, but by the time the 90’s rolled around, they had fallen off a cliff.

Tyrone lost four consecutive Ulster SFC first round games between 1990-93 as their long-suffering fans looked on enviously at the success visiting their neighbours.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

While players like Mickey Linden, Martin McHugh and Anthony Tohill grabbed the national spotlight, Tyrone had developed a superstar of their own. Success at senior level may have been non-existent in that period, but a feisty forward who went by the name of Peter Canavan, still managed to make his mark.

Following an infamously brief stint with the Killyclogher hurling club in 1988 (let’s just say Seanie Johnston wasn’t the first footballer to feign talent with the sliotar and ash in order to make eligibility for an intercounty team), Canavan burst onto the consciousness of football fans during a three-year spell from 1990-92 when the Red Hands reached three successive under-21 All-Ireland finals.

Victory in the first of those deciders would elude Tyrone, as a Maurice Fitzgerald-inspired Kerry won the title, but revenge would follow for the Ulstermen over the Kingdom a year later, in what quite frankly, reads as a ridiculous scoreline for any game in which Kerry suffered defeat: 4-16 to 1-5. (That’s a Wikipedia entry that looks like its suffered from some Russian interference!)

In 1992, a second under-21 title was won at the expense of Galway. These were Tyrone’s first-ever titles at the under-21 age group, but Canavan was the real story. Not only did he captain those two victories but he managed to amass a combined personal tally of 5-15 in the three finals, playing across the forward division.

Not just a flat-track bully, here was a player for the big occasion.

Despite making his senior debut in a national league game versus Mayo at the tail-end of 1989, the man those deferential Tyrone folk refer to simply as “Peter” (and more commonly – without the merest hint of irony – as “God”), had yet to imprint his name at the highest level. Because – thanks to those early championship exits – by the time time Henry Downey had hoisted Sam Maguire on the steps of the Hogan in 1993, Canavan’s exposure to the intercounty scene had been fleeting.

It all changed the following year.

With Art McRory and Eugene McKenna now in charge, Canavan enjoyed his first ever Ulster championship victory during a six point win against Armagh, in which he scored 1-4. But that year’s Ulster semi-final was when the real fun began.

Breffni Park, Cavan, on a horribly wet Sunday in June, provided the backdrop for what might have been the upset of the summer had Leitrim not somehow managed to win Connacht that year and OJ Simpson not somehow managed to evade the LAPD in a Ford Bronco for over two hours. (What. A. Summer.)

With its grassy banks and claustrophobic stand, Breffni was still a few years away from becoming the concrete haven we’re used to seeing nowadays, but it was the scene for a dogged Tyrone performance against Brian McEniff’s Donegal – spearheaded by a typically tenacious showing from Peter Canavan, who tallied 0-6. That was a Tyrone team that contained players of the calibre of Fay Devlin, Adrian Cush and the Lawn brothers, but Canavan’s display was the catalyst for their victory against a Tír Chonaill team, who just one year earlier held the All Ireland crown.

Perhaps it was due to the GAA media’s obsession with Derry and Down’s duel at Celtic Park a few weeks earlier, or a preoccupation with Ireland’s progress in that year’s FIFA World Cup in the USA, that game at Breffni was only ever a footnote in the story of the 1994 football championship.

25 years on, it now feels much more significant.

The 1-15 to 0-10 defeat for Donegal proved to be Martin McHugh’s final game in a county shirt; likewise for their All-Ireland winning captain, Anthony Molloy. McEniff himself resigned in the dressing-room after the game. That great Donegal team had met their end. Although in reality, they had probably checked-out following defeat in the Clones quagmire in 1993.

With Derry about to cannibalise themselves with the egregious sacking of Eamonn Coleman, Tyrone’s emergence represented the beginning of the changing of the guard in Ulster football.

And Peter Canavan was central to it.

In 1994 he finished top scorer in Ulster with 1-17 and won his first All Star award, despite tasting defeat to eventual All-Ireland champions Down in the Ulster Final. Twelve months later, he properly announced himself on the national stage, leading his team to an unlikely All-Ireland Final where he single-handedly took them to the brink of their first Sam Maguire.

It didn’t quite work out for him against Dublin that day – when Ulster football was snapped out of its golden era by the sharp shrill of Paddy Russell’s whistle – but Canavan’s legend had already been made.

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