Source: James Crombie/INPHO
CATHAL MCCARRON’S ABIDING memory from Tyrone’s last All-Ireland winning campaign was a scene in the Croke Park dressing room after they beat Wexford in the semi-final.
McCarron, who was 19 at the time and in his first year on the senior panel, had just returned to the changing rooms under the Hogan Stand when combative midfielder Kevin ‘Hub’ Hughes burst through the doors.
With the euphoria of victory pulsing through his veins and the prospect of a third All-Ireland final in six years on the horizon, Hughes sat next to McCarron and gave him some advice.
“Fuck Cathal, these next few weeks will be the best weeks of your life,” Hughes stated.
Hughes was a grizzled veteran by that stage and fully understood what the build up to another decider would entail.
“I remember that as the stand-out moment,” McCarron tells The42.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is the way life is here. Getting to All-Ireland finals is the way it’s going to be.’”
A decade on and Tyrone are back in their first final since, with McCarron and Colm Cavanagh the only players still around from the 2008 squad.
“Funnily enough this is the first All-Ireland final we’re back in since then. It’s hard to believe, we were beaten in semi-finals and quarter-finals. It’s really, really hard to believe that it’s been 10 years. It’s mental. I actually seen a picture of myself running out onto the pitch that year and there were no grey hairs there, it was just pure black!”
Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO
The serious knee injury he suffered against Roscommon in the Super 8s has denied him the chance to experience the thrill of marching behind the band, meeting the president and more importantly lining out in tomorrow’s final.
While contesting a high ball with Diarmuid Murtagh in their July encounter, he landed awkwardly on his left knee. On hitting the turf, he felt the knee dislocating and popping back into place.
Subsequent scans revealed strains to his cruciate and medial ligaments, while surgery was required to stabilise the knee after the dislocation.
“I knew straight away it was dislocated because I felt it come out and it kind of went back in again,” he says.
“I knew straight up there was something seriously wrong. When you really hurt yourself badly, you have a fear that, ‘Fucking hell, I’m out here.’ I had a fear straight away that my season was over.
“I kind of wrapped my head around it in the last three or four weeks that I’m not going to be playing. In a way I dealt with it but at the same time it is tough. Living down in Kildare I’m away from all the hype so it hasn’t affected me too much.
“But at the same time you’re not getting to play in the biggest day of the year and you’re trying to get here for the last 10 years. It is a tough one to take. After the second or third week when I realised what the damage was, I did have a few tough days.”
Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
He underwent surgery in Belfast and recuperated back home in Athy, taking some time out before he resumed the gruelling trips to Garvaghey to be around his team-mates.
The time off was as beneficial for the mind as it was for the body.
“It’s a long enough journey to training as it is. It’s two hours 40 minutes each way to go training every night. It’s a fair spin. There was no point in me going down there when I was hardly able to walk. I took a week off and just gathered my thoughts and stuff.
“Mickey knows me a long time and he knows it would annoy me quite a bit. He did give me space and let me do my own thing.
“It’s happened now at a really bad time but the positive I’m taking out of it is that the timing of it will leave me back hopefully in fine fettle for pre-season in the New Year.
“All you can do is try to look at it positives now, be there with the team and try come back better than you were. Use the time now to do stuff that I haven’t been doing this last number of years, extra stuff.
“I’d be a positive person anyway. I think you have to have a grieving process of some sort. There would be something seriously wrong if you weren’t down. You have to look at the positives and look at what you can do for the team or around the camp. If you can talk in the dressing room or give someone some advice.
“That’s what I’ve been doing. I’d never really had a serious injury before. I’ve been away really well. It’s an awful tough place to be because you’re kind of sitting on the outskirts and you’re on your own. It’s a difficult place to be.
Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
“You do see boys appreciate coming back and they talk about the tough times. It is a hard enough place to be in when you’re missing the biggest sporting day of the year. It’s funny how, I started my career off. I was 19 in 08 and were in the All-Ireland final in my first year.
“I’m 30 now and coming towards the end more so than the start of my career and we’re in an All-Ireland final again and I’m probably missing it as well. It’s just the way it is I suppose, sport can be cruel. All I can do is do my part and look to get back better.”
If McCarron sounds like a man who is handling the injury well, then it shouldn’t be a major surprise. The pain of missing out probably pales in comparison to the tough times he’s endured in his life – much of it self-inflicted.
McCarron’s life spiralled out of control with his gambling addiction and he teetered close to the brink on several occasions but has ultimately managed to restore a sense of normality to his life.
Mickey Harte played a big role in that. It was Harte who visited him in the Cuan Mhuire rehab centre in Athenry in 2009 with his Celtic Cross from the previous September and told him the door was still open for a return to the Tyrone jersey.
After McCarron completed his second rehab stint in Athy in 2014, a phone call arrived out of the blue from Harte extending an invitation to rejoin the Red Hand squad. Within 12 months, McCarron was nominated for an All-Star.
Naturally, McCarron holds his manager in extremely high regard.
“Where I think he’s an advantage over everybody else is he’s come through so many tragedies with the team outside of sport. It’s made him to be the person that he is today. He’s almost like a sports psychologist, it’s like he actually trained in psychology.
“Even for me talking to him, I’m studying psychotherapy, you can see the way he thinks outside the box. He doesn’t think like most people. He would think really deep. When you talk to him you’re like, ‘There’s something different about this man.’
Source: James Crombie/INPHO
“For a man that never studied any of that stuff, he’s just a special person. You see times through the year it’s no coincidence or luck that’s got him winning All-Ireland titles, it’s just the work he puts in. I couldn’t speak highly enough of him.”
McCarron says the Tyrone players were more than happy to row in behind Harte’s decision not to engage with RTÉ, following an ill-judged radio segment shortly after the 2011 murder of his daughter Micheala.
“This is the thing with this RTÉ thing,” he says. “What nearly annoys me about this thing is that people are very quick to judge Mickey, some media outlets and that. What I would say to them to do is, do the research first before they jump on the bandwagon and see why he’s boycotting RTÉ. Find out why.
“Put yourself in his shoes if your daughter had been murdered and that’s the way someone in RTÉ behaved. A lot of people are very, very quick to judge and jump on the bandwagon and say he should be talking to RTÉ but yet people don’t know why Tyrone are doing this stance.”
Following Tyrone’s semi-final win over Monaghan, McCarron posted a video on Twitter that gave a rare look into the Red Hand’s inner sanctum.
McCarron captured the euphoric scenes in the dressing rooms as the players gleefully clapped along to DJ Makar’s track ‘Opa Opa Opapa’.
It may have took us 10 years, but we are back ⚪️🔴❤️💪🏻 pic.twitter.com/8VNYTnqn3d
— Cathal McCarron (@mc_carron1) August 12, 2018
“It was all emotion after that game,” he says. “Let me tell you, if you go into any dressing room after a big win like that there’s a lot of partying.
“You probably put so much work into this thing and you train so hard and dedicated your life, so if you win something special and big you have to celebrate it. Why else would you put your life on hold and sacrifice yourself all year?
“You have to remember special times and I believe that you have to also celebrate them with your team. Because they are the guys you’ve been soldiering with on the pitch, in the gym. It’s important to create special memories that way as well.”
Perhaps his mind drifted back to the advice Hub Hughes gave him in those same dressing rooms a decade earlier. Whatever it was, he was keen to soak up everything about their long-awaited return to another All-Ireland final.
“I’d never take the phone out because I’d usually be playing. It was just one of them situations where I had the phone in my pocket and I thought, ‘This will be a special moment to capture.’
“It was nice to capture it.”
Might there be another moment like that to capture in the Tyrone dressing rooms tomorrow evening?
“Hopefully, aye. If we win keep an eye on the phone you never know what might come up,” he laughs.
“Ah no, we’ll not worry about that yet. We’ll focus on trying to beat them first.
“I believe you’ll see the real Tyrone on Sunday in Croke Park.”
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