Finding their own way

Darragh and Ruairi Canavan have helped shoot Errigal Ciaran into Sunday’s showdown with Carrickmore. Michael McMullan spoke to former coaches of the two brothers about their development…

PAUL Devlin instantly addressed the bloodlines of both Darragh and Ruairi Canavan when they arrived on the Tyrone underage conveyor belt.

Sons of former All-Ireland winning captain Peter Canavan and nephews of former Red Hand star Ronan McGarrity, sister of their mother Finola, always elevates their profile.

“I always told them they’ll be Darragh Canavan and Ruairi Canavan, that’s how I saw them,” Paul begins.

“The lads have all the skill in the world, but if you switch off from their games themselves, you can see their movement and they are continually working hard.”

The Tyrone All-Ireland winning u-20 manager explained how they’d never go looking for trouble in a game, but, despite their small stature they’d stand up for themselves and, more importantly, their team mates.

And when it came to being presented with their Tyrone gear, there was total gratitude.

“If it was a tracksuit, a top or whatever it was…you always got a ‘thanks very, very much’ from them,” said Paul Devlin.

Fionntán Devlin, a teacher in St Ciaran’s Ballygawley, where the Canavan family were all schooled, spoke of the difference in the lads both on and off the pitch.

His sentiments match Paul’s; their personalities are as different as their playing styles. He remembers seeing their father taking them to games at the age of nine or ten. Ruairi would have had a ball under his arm, away to find a patch of space.

“Darragh would sit with Peter and watch the games, offering this view on patterns of play and commenting on what was unfolding. I have never come across anybody that was as far ahead in a footballing sense,” Fionntán states.

The first term in St Ciaran’s Ballygawley brought interval blitzes to assess the footballing intake of the eager year eight pupils.

Darragh Canavan was up against one of the biggest players in his first game, who powered his way through for an early goal.

“The next ball from the kick-out bounced in front of Darragh,” Fionntán vividly remembers. “He flicked it over the cub’s head, went around him, soloed it with the left and hung it with the right…I remember us looking at each other and thinking this lad is a different animal.”

Playing on a successful team all the way through, Darragh finished his school career in the MacRory Cup. An All-Star eluded him, probably by the nature of his play. Trials are all about score hungry forwards, with his play-making ability for most of the chances on view not sticking in the selectors’ memory.

Paul Devlin remembers Darragh taking a year out of Tyrone u-20 action in 2018 to focus on his final year of minor action for the club where he captained the second of Errigal’s back to back minor winning teams.

When asked of a Darragh memory that sticks with him, Paul’s mind instantly races back to the first half of Tyrone’s u-20 final win over Derry in 2019.

Tiarnan Quinn won possession back in the Tyrone defence. His pass was picked Darragh Canavan rolling to take the ball ahead of current All-Star nominee Conor McCluskey.

“He knew Tiarnan was still coming,” Paul recalls, as four Derry players closed in around him. Rather than take on a pot shot, Canavan turned onto his left foot to pick out Quinn on the run, who threw a dummy to finish off a lovely point.

“It was the way he opened up the defence and it’s something special the way he can do that for the team,” Paul said.

“Another guy would’ve tried to beat two or three men, but Darragh knew there were men in around and that reverse pass was exceptional.”

MY BOY…Peter Canavan and his son Darragh after Tyrone’s 2021 All-Ireland success at Croke Park Picture: Jude Browne

When Ruairi Canavan came into St Ciaran’s, his team wasn’t fancied for success. It didn’t stop him kicking six points in a low scoring Arthurs Cup final over St Colm’s Draperstown. At Markey Cup level, his sensational 4-8 wasn’t enough to prevent Dean Maguirc from eking out a one-point win.

At minor level, injuries hindered Ruairi’s progress. He played bits of games and Tyrone’s u-20 management resisted the temptation to call him in from the minors, allowing him to finish out his own age group.

It was their All-Ireland winning run last season that elevated his status to one of the brightest lights in the land.

On the pitch he was a genius, while off the field Paul Devlin labelled him a “rascal” in the nicest sense of the word. His jokes lit up the room, but when it was time to get serious there was no better man to lead by example and pull the rest of his team along.

And, with the size five in his hand, he was always willing to learn. Tyrone stuttered their way past Cavan in Ulster u-20 final, a game where the rub of the green helped them back to their barnstorming run to All-Ireland glory.

“He (Ruairi) had the chance to take the man on, but he shot with the outside of his left foot,” Paul recalled of a wrong decision made in the heat of battle.

“Once you talk to him, he looks you in the eye and takes it on board and a lot of credit has to go to Owen Mulligan…like with all the forwards,” Paul said of their management style where everyone had an input.

“Owen did a bit of work with him and, after that, Ruairi was making the right decisions and was going to make that shot 100 per cent. He takes everything on board…everything.”

Fast forward to the All-Ireland final against Kildare and a goal from the training ground.

With just 15 seconds on the clock, Ciarán Bogue’s drilled ball was in the hands of Conor Cush. By that time, Ruairi’s trot from his left half forward position exploded onto Cush’s pop pass before powering through a sliver of daylight between three defenders to hammer home.

“There was a lot of work put in to try and get an early score,” Paul Devlin revealed. “Then, Ruairi was straight over to close down the nearest defender to stop the quick kick-out…he was always thinking.”

On Sunday, they’ll trot out of the Healy Park tunnel aiming to follow in their father and Errigal Ciaran’s footsteps and get their hands on the O’Neill Cup.


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