The long and winding road of Tyrone's Gavin Devlin
Mickey Harte had always thought of Gavin Devlin as management material but, as the Ardboe man tells Brendan Crossan, winning over the doubters as a player was a challenge he relished....
GAVIN Devlin was sure of one thing. Mickey Harte’s timing was lousy. Devlin’s fledgling managerial career was going well.
He’d spent a couple of fruitful years with Newbridge in Derry. He’d guided Kildress to an Intermediate title and was enjoying life with Bellaghy.
“I remember Mickey rang me and we had a Championship match that night,” Devlin says.
“His timing wasn’t good!
“Mickey was going to call down and see me, and then he said: ‘While I have you on the phone, how would you feel about coming into the backroom team?’
“I said: ‘Mickey, you don’t even have to ask me that…’
“I don’t think I would have gone in with anyone else because I was really enjoying managing Bellaghy. I certainly wouldn’t have left Bellaghy for anyone other than Mickey.”
It was August 2012.
A few weeks earlier, Tyrone had bowed meekly out of the All-Ireland series to Kerry in Killarney.
Changes were afoot in the county.
Harte believed the time was right to refresh his backroom team.
After retiring from football at just 26, Devlin had taken to management like a duck to water. He improved every club side he became associated with.
Affectionately known as ‘Horse’, he guided his own club Ardboe to their first minor title in 10 years in 2008.
“The cubs loved him,” says his club-mate and Tyrone great Brian McGuigan.
“He wrapped the players around his wee finger. Mickey would have had a lot of time for him and he would have seen him as a leader. ‘Horse’ would have struck a chord with Mickey.”
For Harte, the recruitment of his former centre half-back was a straightforward decision.
“It wasn't a matter of ‘if’, it was a matter of ‘when’ I would ask him to get involved,” reveals Harte.
“He’d stepped into management and all the reports where he’d been were very good. I wasn’t surprised at that because I knew what he was like as a footballer.”
Devlin adds: “Even when I was playing, Mickey and I would’ve had conversations about the game. I always found him easy to talk to. Not everyone did…
“You know people ask me all the time: ‘Do you and Mickey ever disagree?’
“I can’t tell lies, we rarely disagree.
“Our vision of football is very, very similar. Of course there are times when I think things should be done differently and we’d talk about it and discuss it.
“At times he’d take it on board and other times he doesn’t but he’s the manager of the team. But I’ve no bother talking to Mickey – I’d talk to Mickey as well as I’d talk to my own father.”
In the late 90s and early ‘Noughties’, Devlin was one of Harte’s loyal foot soldiers.
He attended St Puis X College, Magherafelt before finishing his school days in Holy Trinity, Cookstown where he won numerous All-Ireland titles.
“There’s a pitch behind Brian McGuigan’s house and we played there seven days a week,” Devlin explains. “Once we’d done our homework a bunch of us were over there and it was relentless, so it didn’t happen by chance.
“There was me, Brian, his brother Frank, Gavin Wylie, Aidan Quinn, Michael Quinn…”
Although he started out as a forward, he ended up in the half-back line.
“I mind coming down to play a minor league game in Ardboe and the manager Phelim Hugh Forbes said to me: ‘I’m playing you centre half-back today’, and I never looked back. I was able to read the game well and it was a great place to play.”
He played centre half-back on the Holy Trinity team and right half-back for the Vocational Schools side.
“It was a good shop window,” Devlin says, “and I got spotted in ’98.”
Terry McCann, one of Devlin’s mentors at the time, let him know that Tyrone minor manager Mickey Harte was keeping tabs on him...
It’s a bright and breezy Friday afternoon. We meet in the Tilley Lamp in Ardboe before the lunchtime rush.
Everyone is on first-name terms in the bar/restaurant. The hospitality and food are faultless.
It was in ’98 his football career began to bloom. The baby-faced teenager was in demand too. He was playing for numerous underage teams, but Ardboe wasn’t one of them.
“In ’98 we won three All-Irelands,” he recalls.
“At that time it was just so demanding. I actually came in here one night [The Tilley Lamp] and I hadn’t been to Ardboe training.
“I mind the manager was sitting up at the bar and he called me over. It was quite busy. I was only a young buck at the time and he said something about ‘there’s a team in Ardboe’ sort of thing, and I remember saying something smart back to him. I said I wouldn’t be playing for Ardboe.
“I regret not playing for my club that year, absolutely,” Devlin says.
“Even when Ardboe won the county championship that year it didn’t bother me because I thought we’d win another one as we were winning blitzes, right through from U12s, U14s, U16s, minors and U21s…
“Of course we were going to win another senior title and of course we didn’t.
“We’d plenty of good chances to win another one but we never did. It was a big mistake [not playing].”
It was during a trial game Harte noticed this youngster from Ardboe directing traffic and organising those around him. Harte liked what he saw.
“When he first played for us he was a corner-back,” Harte recalls.
“I suppose it was in the days when the corner-forward came out and became the proverbial third midfielder – whatever that meant – so Gavin came out the field and it became his position.
“We actually made him the extra defender. If his man was going to roam, let him go because Gavin was a great organiser, a good reader of the game, and he would cover the ‘D’ which he became very proficient at.
“There wasn’t much point sending one of our defenders after the [withdrawn] corner-forward and leaving us more vulnerable at the back with two on two when we didn’t need to be doing that. Gavin was made for that particular role.
“And then he became the number six in the days when the number six would man the centre and hold it. He was very good at that.”
Devlin was instrumental in Tyrone’s All-Ireland minor success in ’98 and their back-to-back All-Ireland U21 triumphs.
When Harte was confirmed senior team manager at the tail end of 2002, Devlin knew the future was bright for him and the minor class of ’98.
“I knew the minute Mickey got the job I would be playing for Tyrone,” he says. “I just knew it. Whether I would have played for Tyrone under Art McRory and Eugene McKenna, I’m not so sure.
“Under Mickey, we knew nothing else only winning. In 1998, we won the All-Ireland. In 2000, we won the U21 All-Ireland. In 2001, we won it again.
“In 2003, we won the All-Ireland. In 2005, we won the All-Ireland… It was just the norm to go and win All-Irelands.
“Now, we didn’t win every day but the mindset always was: ‘We’re winning here today.’
“No matter what place we were in at half-time we never felt we were beaten – and Cormac McAnallen was a big part of that.”
For those who played with Devlin at inter-county level, he was an acquired taste. His skills set weren’t always universally appreciated.
But inside the changing room, where opinions mattered, his value to the Tyrone effort was immeasurable.
McGuigan says: “The way we played right up through minors and U21s and Mickey’s first couple of years in the seniors you would have had people questioning Gavin Devlin playing at centre half-back – he’d no pace but it was upstairs where he had it. At that time the game suited him.
“For those couple of years and the way we played, ‘Horse’ was so important to Tyrone.”
It was around that time the vague notion of a sweeper began to form
“Gavin had the feet of a dancer,” Harte says, “because it wasn’t just about mopping things up or getting rid of the ball; he could evade forwards and work his way out of difficult situations, stay in control and pass the ball out of defence.
"He’d a lot of composure. He was a man you liked to see on the ball because you knew he would handle things and make this a good outcome.”
On the way to their first All-Ireland at senior level in 2003, the Red Hands were criticised in media circles for corrupting the traditional practices of Gaelic football.
New terminology such as sweeper systems and ‘blanket’ defences became part of the GAA vernacular.
Initially, Devlin liked the sweeper’s role. But as time passed he felt increasingly de-skilled by it.
“When you’re labelled a sweeper and you play a certain role, it’s a mindset, you almost feel that’s what I do, and you neglect other parts of your game,” Devlin reflects now.
“I played in the 2003 All-Ireland final and I think I kick-passed the ball once. I was a really good kick passer.
“But you didn’t need to kick pass the ball when you had Philip Jordan flying off your shoulder, or Ryan McMenamin, or Cormac McAnallen.
“The wise thing to do was throw it to them and get the transition going from back to front. We were so good at it.
“I’d got into this mindset that I was a sweeper and I was there to delete the space, and you were happy to do that for the team.”
Still, the more he played the role, the less fulfilled he felt.
“Whenever you don’t practice other parts of the game, you stop doing it… I enjoyed the role for a while and then I stopped enjoying it.”
Devlin made his senior Championship debut against Derry in '03, but was retrospectively banned for 12 weeks for stamping on Colm Parkinson of Laois during the National League final.
“There was actually a clip that they showed on TV going into the ground that day after Laois had just beaten Armagh. Colm Parkinson said something like: ‘We’re in the final now and we’re going to win it.’
“So I let him know 10 minutes into the game.”
Devlin was yellow-carded for the indiscretion but the GAA’s disciplinary body subsequently upgraded it to a red and banned him for 12 weeks.
As if being sidelined in the height of summer wasn’t hard enough to take, he was annoyed a comment the-then GAA President and Kerry native Sean Kelly made to him after the hearing.
“I mind getting the suspension in Croke Park and the President saying to me: ‘Sure we’ll see you in the Fall.’
“I knew he would be seeing me in the Fall but I knew he was saying it to me in a way that he thought he wouldn’t be seeing Tyrone in the Fall.
“We hadn’t been there since 1995, so to many people our chances of still being in the Championship then were slim.
“When he said it, I thought to myself: ‘That’s pretty rich’.
“I knew more about us than he obviously did – and I let him know it too. At a dinner dance in Kelly’s Inn that year, when we’d won the All-Ireland, he was there.
“I’d a few beer in me. It wasn’t nasty or anything but I reminded him that I didn’t disappoint him.”
Ironically, Devlin’s suspension lapsed in time for Tyrone’s All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry.
Standing on the pitch in Omagh after their final training session before facing Kerry, Harte named his starting XV.
The Ardboe man had “no inkling” Harte would parachute him right back into the heart of the Red Hand defence.
“I was hoping he’d give me a heads up before training but he never did,” recalls Devlin.
“He called out the team and I thought: ‘Did he just say my name there?’”
“I didn’t have to think twice about that decision,” Harte says now. “If Gavin was available he was playing number six.”
In tomorrow's Irish News: Part Two
Gavin Devlin reflects on the loss of Cormac McAnallen, being dropped from the Tyrone team in 2005, retiring from football and what the future holds for the Ardboe man...