Mickey did it his way…and deserved better

It would be hypocritical in the extreme of me to begin dispensing platitudes about Mickey Harte in the aftermath of his departure as Tyrone manager without an acknowledgement, also, that I haven’t always been in favour of some of the Ballygawley man’s utterances and his willingness to offer them on non-sporting matters in particular over the years. But, in sporting and many other terms, history will surely shine a positive light upon his deeds on the sideline and off it.

All of which leaves the unavoidable feeling that the erstwhile coach deserved better than the way he was defenestrated from his position by the Tyrone Co Board. Officially, of course, it will be said, as per his statement, that he stepped down of his own volition. Unless you live on the planet Zog though, it should be clear as day that the man who guided the O’Neill County to six All Ireland titles across different grades was left with no other option but to vacate the role after the Brains Trust up there scandalously declined his request for another year in the position.

He’s not the first long serving, highly successful Bainisteoir to fall victim to a similarly cloaked eviction. The other being in the exact same circumstances also. What’s most surprising and upsetting about both instances is the deafening silences which greeted the first one and has been very obvious since Mickey’s announcement on Friday. In terms of the way both abdications came about.

Regarding the most recent case, the timing of the power brokers in the land of the Red Hand withdrawing their backing is particularly puzzling given the ascending profile of the current Tyrone team. In Niall Morgan, Padraig Hampsey, Ronan McNamee, Frank Burns, Mattie Donnelly, Cathal McShane and Peter Harte they have some of the best established stars in the game. Now factor in that McShane should be back from injury in the new year and his infusion, aligned with the burgeoning talents of the returned Conor McKenna and the prodigious Darragh Canavan and it’s hard to imagine a more potent attacking force anywhere.

Conor McKenna will be a huge asset to Tyrone going forward

Surely, then, in such an instance, the obvious and logical thing to do would be to leave current structures in place. If it isn’t broke, and from an outside perspective, in Tyrone it most definitely isn’t, would be to leave well enough alone. More than that, akin to the other case alluded to earlier if nothing else, out of sheer and due respect to Mickey Harte for all that he has given to the county on and off the field, to not have his hand forced was the least he deserved.

The chorus of the Rebel song dedicated to the memory of Padraig Pearse contains the lyrics “A Gaelic scholar and a visionary” – that would amply describe Mickey Harte also. The first part due to the work he did in his locality at a time when Northern Ireland was at its most volatile and tempestuous. The second should take less explanation. He must be regarded as a visionary within Gaelic football.

The Mickey Harte era will never be forgotten.

That is not to say one agreed with his vision. Initially at least. Plenty of people decried it. Who could ever forget Pat Spillane’s “Puke Football” proclamation. On the occasion he employed the immortal phrase, he was actually right.

That being the day on which Tyrone stifled and ground into submission a Kerry team of superior skill levels, at the time. It was so painful on the eye that yours truly keyboarded a piece at the time titled If this is Gaelic Football I want me old job back – a play on words around a beloved Saw Doctors album from years back.

To be fair however, it was a case of the first incarnation of it being the worst. Besides that, it worked for them, so it would seem futile, in one sense, to crab them over it. Anyway, I would also have taken serious exception to Harte’s habit of interjecting in matters that had absolutely nothing to do with him, but from a purely football perspective, it would be churlish and disingenuous not to be admiring of his achievements.

Continuity was at the epicentre of everything Mickey Harte did in football. That accentuates why it is so shameful Tyrone chiefs didn’t afford him more of it. Consider that he first took charge of their county Minors in 1991 and stayed in situ with all subsequent groups until he eventually brought home the Tom Markham Cup in 1998.

With possibly the greatest group of U-18 footballers ever assembled. Just observe some of the names contained therein: McConnell, McMennamin, Jordan, McAnallen, Hughes, McGuigan, O’Neill, Mulligan – all of whom went on to be luminaries at the highest level.

It probably underlines the esteem in which Harte himself held those lads that he eventually relinquished the Minor reins in order to take them on to U-21 where they garnered two more All Ireland titles. Which in turn were central tenets of what brought the county its first winter with Sam Maguire in 2003.

Colossus: Cormac McAnallen

By the time they triumphed again in 2005, they had refined their defensive system – to the extent that teams all over the country at all levels began to at least attempt to immitate their methods. The irony was, the team that perfected the act of flattery best of all was actually the one that would go on to be their greatest rivals – Donegal.

Another outright triumph in 2008 cemented the places of those players – and that of their manager – in the annals of greatness. Yet, it is sadly inescapable that the story of Mickey Harte and Tyrone will eternally be tinged with tragedy and sadness. From the repeated grief and sorrow visited upon them – and Harte himself in particular – to the immense strength and dignity he has shown in reaching out to and supporting those touched by similar experiences.

The real heartbreak is, as magnificent as what the long serving boss and his charges did achieve, there will forever be a scent of might have been to the glorious and sorrowful tale. Both on and off the field. The utter disbelief at the tragic death of minor player Paul McGirr after a collision with a goalpost and, more poignantly, the manner in which the people of Tyrone went trhrough their grieving in the public eye but with such quiet dignity is numbing and uniquely inspirational in equal measure.

For such incalculable loss to strike a people once would be difficult enough to articlulate, never mind live through, so to even contemplate what the people of Tyrone – Harte himself in particular – went through repeatedly is almost beyond comprehension.

Then again, as his autobiography itself was titled, Presence Is The Only Thing. And he has always been there. Battling. Believing. Comforting and cajoling others to do likewise. When the rest of us wondered how the hell he was still there himself.

The image is as vivid today as it was that January evening in 2004 when it appeared on the 6.1 news. Cormac McAnallen not so much trotting as charging out onto the pitch on his first day as Tyrone Captain. Almost unimaginably, within weeks, that’s all any of us would have. Memories of the towering man from Eglish.

I can still recall staring at the television. At AERTEL page 400. The G. A. A. page. The headline story – “Tyrone Star McAnallen Dies”. Was I reading it right? Couldn’t be, could it? It says so much about the culture of the Association that somebody who so many of us had never met could have impacted upon us so very much. The same, of course, is applicable to Harte himself.

Back then, going for a few ‘liquid sleeping pills’ a few nights a week was a crucial part of what kept these wheels turning. Being an extremely superstitious individual, I had my set nights for going – Monday, Wednesday and Sunday nights. With the very odd exception, be it for good or bad reasons. As far as I can recall, it was in fact a Monday morning when news of Cormac’s passing broke, but such was the impact the young man had on me without even meeting him, so it wouldn’t have mattered if it was six o’clock on a Thursday morning, some form of jar would have to have been infused as a means of one negotiating such unexpected, devastating news.

The following Sunday, Meath played Armagh in an important league game in Pairc Tailteann. It was always going to be a momentous day for me personally as it was the first occasion for which the new wheelchair facilities – which I had played a part in designing – were in use. However, two occurrences surrounding that day overshadowed everything else.

Firstly, it was the first time that both Joe Sheridan and Brian Farrell announced themselves on the senior inter-county stage. Both had been stars on a very talented Meath Minor team two years previously but they really grasped the metal that day and went on from there to have stellar careers in green and gold. Something which hasn’t been as easy as it once was for a long time now.

However, even the star-studded efforts of the two relative newcomers played out under the cloud which had engulfed the entire G.A.A. and indeed the whole nation following Cormac’s death. As is customary for me now whenever somebody I know or even admire passes to the big stadium above, there was a compulsion to write something about the fallen idol.

What wasn’t expected, though, was Co Board P.R.O. of the day, Barry Gorman, asking me could he print the piece in the Meath programme for the Armagh game that following Sunday. Something I was very honoured by at the time and have been very proud of since. There were only a few copies of it photocopied from the match programme, two of which I personally gave to Sean Boylan. One for himself, and one which he promised to deliver to Mickey at the time.

Now, given the calibre of player at their disposal at the time, it wouldn’t have been any great shock that they did collect another consignment of Celtic crosses in 2005. Even without the unimaginably poignant motivation of triumphing to honour their fallen comrade. The superstition in me had them winning the All Ireland in 2005 before a ball was thrown in that summer because I’ve had personal experience of simila circumstances myself – sport is a great healer and grief is a great motivator.

Their outright successes of ’03, ’05 and ’08 naturally and rightly marked them out as the team of that particular decade and one of the greatest of all time. Which, at the time, paid a backhanded compliment to the Meath team that beat them in 2007 courtesy of a sumptuous Graham Geraghty goal. If there was one surprising element to the Tyrone story it lies in the fact that 2008 was to date the last time they captured Sam Maguire.

Michaela was so often by her dad’s side

Sadly, though, it’s probable that the explanation as to why they didn’t is all too easy to decipher. On the last day of 2010, Mickey walked his beautiful only daughter Michaela up the aisle. 15 days later, he walked up the same aisle after her coffin.

Just stop. Think about that. The two most polarised emotions anybody could experience in life. Against that backdrop, football doesn’t matter. Nothing does. You wonder how Mickey kept going at the football. Yet, in your heart you know that it was that same football and the people and bonds which come with it that him afloat in the face of unfathomable personal tragedy.

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness sympathises with Mickey Harte days after Michaela was laid to rest.

Everybody knew Michaela. Maybe not personally, but we almost felt like we knew her. She was forever by her dad’s side. Every bit as much a part of all the success her dad engineered for their county as any of the players. Furthermore, the sense always was that Mickey placed as much weight behind how Michaela thought things were going as he did the views of Tony Donnelly and Fr Gerard McAleer and Gavin Devlin. Though nobody ever said it, she was very much part of her dad’s backroom team.

There are many remarkable things about Mickey Harte. What he has achieved in football. How he kept going for so long after being beset by so much grief throughout his life – not least the heinous and tragic manner in which Michaela died. That, despite the view expressed a few paragraphs upward about how the football kept him going, he can hardly have been as emotionally invested in it as was the case at different times. How could he be? And who could blame him for not being?

Even more remarkable, for me at least, has been the manner in which he has used the harrowing experiences which has been through – and Michaela’s death in particular – as a vehicle by which to offer solace and hope to those who were or had been going through similar heartache and/or loss. There truly are some journeys which can only be understood by those who’ve made them.

Yet, through all that has gone on, he has continued to mould Tyrone teams and deliver with them success to a people for whom it has always meant much more than the actuality of what the scoreboard said.

The prosecution would always jump on the fact that twelve years had passed since they last went driving home for Christmas with Mr Maguire. Blissfully ignoring the glaringly mitigating fact that Harte’s teams had plundered another four provincials in the interim.

At a time when competition for the Anglo Celt Cup was at its most fervent in decades. Thanks to a re-vitalised Donegal and an emergent Monaghan. Remember, it’s only a couple of years ago since he built a team good enough to make it through to the September showpiece.

Basically his third incarnation of same. Given the forthcoming circumstances outlined earlier in this piece, he could and most likely would have done so again. If he was given the time he requested and deserved.

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