May 10, 1991
The former All-Star who sensationally quit the game two years ago has returned to the Tyrone squad and is ready to face Derry in what has been billed as an Ulster Championship cracker in Omagh.
McCabe's two years in the wilderness have evidently not left their mark, for he surprised everyone with a sparkling McKenna Cup performance just six days after announcing his comeback.
He came in as a substitute in the first round replay against Derry and struck four splendid points to show that none of the old skill, dash and nair had deserted him.
It was barely minutes after watching his side crumble in a tension-packed National League quarter-final against Roscommon that Tyrone manager John Donnelly decided he must turn to the old warrior.
Donnelly looked on in dismay as his inspired attack meekly shot 19 wides in a game they should have won handsomely, and before he left Cavan town on that balm April evening he had managed to persuade one of the all-time greats of Tyrone football that he still has a role to play.
In a glittering career Kevin McCabe made his mark as a fleet-footed, attacking half-back with a penchant for knocking over vital points.
But in his last two seasons with Tyrone he switched to attack with remarkable success, topping his side's scoring chart in one National League season, and coming a close second to place-kicker Stephen Conway in the next.
And it's McCabe's natural attacking instinct that manager Donnelly wants to harness.
The deficiencies in attack which led to the Breffni Park debacle must be addressed and the assets the Clonoe clubman an bring to that department are obvious.
The power and poise of the old master will give the younger players an opportunity to shed some of the huge responsibility they have somewhat unfairly been required to shoulder this season.
And with the return of Damien O'Hagan after breaking a jaw in a league game in February, the Tyrone attack does appear to have that balanced look about it.
McCabe comes back into the side with a hunger to relive past glories, and one ambition he would dearly love to fulfil is to play in another All-Ireland final.
The emotional wounds of 1986 have been slow to heal. The heartbreak of losing to Kerry in the All-Ireland final after taking a clear lead in the second half of a gripping contest was a heavy cross to bear.
But the memory of that epic final has set Kevin McCabe on a course of inevitability - that one day he would return to the Tyrone colours.
"I would love to play in another All-lreland final, not so much for the wonderful experience that it is, but mainly to put right what we did wrong in 1986," he said.
"Eugene McGee made a very valid comment after our defeat by Kerry. He said Tyrone had prepared for every possible eventuality except one - being seven points ahead.
"I couldn't agree more. If the same situation had arisen again we would never have lost. We just couldn't cope with the shock of being seven points ahead of the great Kerry team in an All-Ireland final.
"We came back two years later against Mayo, and that was another disappointment. Again we lost a game we should have won. We should have been in another All-Ireland Final.
"We went three points up, then we missed a lot of easy chances and suddenly Mayo realised they hadn't lost the game yet, and they came back."
The two year break has given the 33-year old company director a chance to recharge his batteries, to step aside from the rigours of a demanding inter-county season, and to return with the enthusiasm of a teenager.
It was as a fresh-faced teenager that McCabe made his debut 15 years ago, when he was thrown into the cauldron of an Ulster semi-final against Derry. Tyrone lost, but McCabe never looked back.
He went on to win three Ulster Championship medals, two Railway Cup medals, and Tyrones first All-Star award in 1980, when he was selected at right half back.
It was in the same year that he captained Tyrone in the Ulster final against Annagh.
It was a great experience to captain a team in an Ulster final at the age of 22. It was hard to take in at the time. It would have been nice if we had won that one. I remember it well, it was in the days of the handpass, and there were eight goals in the game four to each side."
But today's side, he feels, is capable of taking the Ulster title.
"It's a young side with a lot of potential and plenty of natural talent. This team has great fire-power, although it didn't play to its potential in the National League Quarter Final. I just don't know what went wrong that day."
McCabe had a somewhat passive role as a television commentator for that game, and little did he know that two hours later he would be part of the squad again.
"I was able to come into the panel at no great disadvantage, for I had kept myself fit with my club. And I was very pleased with my return performance against Derry. I felt in good shape and it was nice to get a few scores. The first one that went over the bar gave me confidence and I enjoyed myself after that."
He described the mood at training in the run-up to this season's Ulster Championship clash with Derry as positive and confident, but not over-confident.
"We know the extent of the job we have to do, and we feel we have the ability to go out and do it. It's a home game, and with home support we will obviously start with a considerable advantage.
"Every team in Ulster respects Tyrone as a footballing side, and especially as a championship side. They have earned that respect by appearing in five Ulster finals in the 1980's."
But he predicted a tough game against Derry.
"They will not be easily beaten. They are always a tough proposition in the championship, and they have been strengthened by the return of Dermot McNicholl. Brian McGilligan is another player who is potentially a matchwinner. He always seems to play well at midfield, and that's where games are won or lost.
"How our defence copes with their attack will have a great bearing on the outcome, but I think we can do it."
O'Hagan and McCabe, the elder statesmen of the side, have a vital role to play in settling the nerves of the younger players.
"A lot of the younger members have only played one championship game. They went out last year in the first round. It was a big occasion for them, they were nervous, and it showed.
"Perhaps Damien and myself can have a steadying influence on the younger players. We have been through it all several times over. I always found when I was playing in the early days with the Tyrone team, if Eugene McKenna and Frank McGuigan were there, their presence took a lot of the responsibility off my shoulders. There were the experienced heads, and they had a wealth of experience behind them. They were the leaders, and they were great players. The opposition always paid a lot of attention to them.
"It left the others on the he team with a little more freedom and scope. We didn't feel that the pressure was on us to win the game, and I think that allowed us to express ourselves more freely."
But at 33, can the ageing Kevin McCabe still turn on the old magic?
"My age is no problem as far as speed and fitness are concerned. I feel I will be in as good a shape on Ulster Championship day as I was ten years ago.
"But it's the knocks and injuries that are so hard to get over at this stage of my career. If I can manage to steer clear of injuries I plan to keep playing with my club for another three or four years. I'll know myself when it's time to give up.
"It's important to get a good injury-free run in order to get into peak condition."
One not-so-well known feature of Kevin McCabe's sporting career is his spell as a Semi-professional soccer player with Portadown, the current Irish League champions.
"I played at centre forward at Shamrock Park for a season and a half, and I was the club's top scorer with 20 goals in the 1982 - '83 season," he recalled.
"I took a break from Gaelic football while I was playing soccer, and when I returned to the Tyrone squad in 1984 I won my first Ulster Championship medal."
Could history repeat itself in l991?
Taken from Hogan Stand magazine
10th May 1991
Vol 1 No 8
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