Peter Harte focused for the ultimate challenge against champions Dublin
FOR many, the GAA is about family and being a fan.
That remains at least partly true for Peter Harte – and he admits to being awestruck even when he first stepped onto a pitch as a Tyrone senior footballer.
Entering that arena as a teenager, and as ‘the manager’s nephew’, alongside men who had won three All-Irelands, could have been nerve-wracking.
As is the way of the world, some ‘supporters’ literally suggested nepotism when Mickey Harte included young ‘Petey’, but the latter insists he didn’t find it a difficult situation to be in.
“Ah, I thought it was kind of easy because there was just so much quality around,'' he said.
“For me, I was like a fan basically coming in, because my first night training I was kicking the ball to Brian McGuigan and Stephen O’Neill and it was a dream, like.
“I think at the time Collie Cavanagh was getting a lot of flak from Tyrone supporters about, you know, ‘He shouldn’t have been, he was only on because [of his brother Sean]’ … and now he’s maybe the best player in Ireland.
“I don’t know, it’s one of those things I never let get too much in on me because you just have to have trust in yourself… and I'm happy if Mickey thinks I'm good enough.”
Memories of 2003
Coming from a family steeped in the GAA, he witnessed first hand plenty of success for his club Errigal Ciaran and his county – including those three All-Ireland triumphs:
“The first one, probably for any Tyrone fan, is the one that sticks out the most. Me and my best friend were up in the Cusack Stand, and then running down the steps and running out onto the field.
“For any Tyrone fan, you’ll never forget that. Probably just the happiness and emotions, and going back that night to meet the team and all the rest. Going to Aughnacloy and Omagh, they’re just things you’ll never forget.
“And then the last one, 2008, we were involved in the minor final so we were part of the day anyway but we had our game before it. Just Tyrone winning again – you were in dreamland. You got one, you thought that was it. But to get two and then three was just unbelievable.”
Joining the senior set-up
So he acknowledges that he was star-struck when he first went into the Tyrone senior set-up in 2010.
“Absolutely. [Brian] Dooher. Big ‘Packy’ [McConnell]. ‘JD’ [John Devine]. Jesus, you could go through the whole team nearly – ‘Mugsy’ [Owen Mulligan], all those boys,'' he added.
“I was nearly in as a fan at the start, because you’re just in absolute awe, these are the boys you’ve watched the last 10 years, basically win All-Irelands and do things - Mugsy’s goal against Dublin and stuff like that. These are just your heroes. So it was class to come in.
“In that first year we won Ulster and you kind of thought ‘This is just the way it’s going to be, just win games and whatever’.
“But very quickly that all changed and football moved on really quickly and the Dublins and Donegals brought the whole conditioning, they just brought football probably to a new level.
“And for the boys who had all won All-Irelands, at that stage they were all either thinking about retiring or maybe just didn’t have the motivation because they did it all before. That's probably what happened then, that Tyrone had that transitional period where we weren’t as successful as previous teams.”
The lean years
All-Ireland success stopped for Tyrone, at least on the senior scene, which was tough to take, especially for newcomers like Peter:
“Aye, especially the first year, you would have thought ‘We’ve won an Ulster title and this is just the way it was going to be…’
“2009 we [Tyrone] had been to an All-Ireland semi-final against Cork and probably were going in as favourites to that game, Cork probably ambushed them.
“I just thought that was the way of it. But you soon learn in life that things don’t go to plan, and the same in sport.
“You just learn at this stage to enjoy it when things are going well, and the fact we are in an All-Ireland final is great. But at the end of the day you still want to get over that line.”
Tyrone and Petey have already taken one big step forward this year, getting back to an All-Ireland Final after a decade away, having lost four semi-finals in the interim.
Peter played in three of those, although barely at all in the first one, against Mayo in 2013, when he was forced off injured after six minutes following a collision with Tom Cunniffe.
Asked which defeat was the most frustrating, he mused: “All, maybe, in different ways. Personally, in 2013, I think I lasted about six minutes – and got nailed!
“The ’15 one, we got back level with Kerry, with maybe a couple of minutes left on the clock, and they just hit four in a row to push us out.
“Then last year is one that annoys me as much as any of them, because you don’t show up and you get tanked and that’s it.”
As for what lesson he took from his 2013 experience, he laughed: “I don’t know - probably just learned to tighten up a bit! Those boys, at that level, hit you hard.
“No, sometimes those things happen in football; sometimes you get hit and come out better and sometimes you come out the worse.
“It was frustrating because we had been going well and that was my first All-Ireland semi-final, and to only see a couple of minutes of action was disappointing. But it’s all history now; I haven’t thought about it really since.”
Having had to suffer two more All-Ireland semi-final defeats, though, holding off Ulster rivals Monaghan earlier this month was a sweet feeling:
“It was just brilliant. It probably was that wee feeling of relief nearly as well, because for myself it was a fourth All-Ireland semi-final.
“To be knocking on the door and not get across it was frustrating. You think, will you ever get your chance? So of course it’s that bit of relief.
“For the younger boys, they just think this is the way it is. It's class to have that confidence, that they just believe this is what they should be doing every year. So that maybe gives the older boys a bit of confidence as well.”
There’s excitement too, at being involved on the biggest day in Gaelic football: “Aye, massive. I think Collie [Cavanagh] and [Cathal] McCarron are the only ones who have been involved in an All-Ireland senior football final before, so it’s all kind of new … even the amount of media here tells you that it’s something a bit bigger.
“For us, as much as you enjoy it, you try and switch off from it because at the end of the day it’s just what we’ve been doing all year, playing matches and playing against good teams.”
Peter 'the Great'
If he does need any advice about having to wait for an All-Ireland, he can always speak to his fiancée Aine’s father – who just happens to be one of the best players ever, Peter ‘The Great’ Canavan.
The first Tyrone man to collect the Sam Maguire Cup has been a club and county manager and is now a highly-regarded Sky Sports GAA pundit, and Harte has long been aware of his talent:
“As a child, he was just a hero to anyone who grew up close to here.
I don't think you had to be from Errigal [Ciaran] to be a massive Peter Canavan fan.
“I remember during an Ulster club run half of Tyrone was at Errigal games because Peter was such a big draw and people wanted to see him play.
“Now he'd have the odd bit of advice for you but he leaves most of it to Mickey and ‘Horse’ [Gavin Devlin] and how they want you to play.”
The family connections were there too at Errigal, of course: “Davy and Mark Harte and Eoin Gormley and people were playing too, so there was a lot of class footballers and cousins and relations who were playing and it was just a club thing for us.
“Maybe for people outside they were coming to see Peter but for us we wanted to see our club playing. They were an excellent team.”
So are Dublin, perhaps the best ever in Gaelic football, as Harte himself suggests?
The psychological blow the Dubs inflicted on Tyrone last year clearly affected his memory, making him think their opening goal was far earlier than it was:
“Con O'Callaghan hit the net after 10 seconds last year…Of course we would love to keep it really tight and keep within the minimum between ourselves and Dublin for as long as we can.
“Probably the one thing that was said before we went out was not to concede an early goal and then you're hit with one and they stretch the lead to five or six very quickly.
“They're the best team at keeping the ball and they can keep it and keep it and a quick one-step from somebody and they're away down the middle for a score.
“That's just the quality they possess and we have to come up with a plan where we can do better than last year…
“The game will take on a life of its own but the big challenge for us will be when it does, that we don't let it go the one way.
Now 27, and in his ninth senior season, he’s obviously older and wiser, and quickly put that Dublin defeat where it belongs, in the past.
Club commitments helped in that regard: “County seasons are funny because when they end, they end abruptly and we in Tyrone had club championship a week or two later and your full focus is on that.
“It's nearly as though you park it, if that makes sense, because you're not training together every week and there's a certain abruptness that everything just ends whenever you're beat. Throughout the year we've probably taken bits and pieces from it.”
Dublin in Omagh
Of course, Tyrone have suffered another Championship defeat to Dublin this year, in the All-Ireland quarter-final round robin meeting in Omagh, but that didn’t hurt anywhere near as much:
“I think the Super Eights were just a learning curve for everyone this year. After we beat Roscommon it was great but you hadn't really done anything - you'd won a game but you were no further on in the Championship.
“It was the same after Dublin, you were beat but you were in limbo, you weren't out, you weren't through, and it left a proper Championship game at the end and a winner-takes-all.
“There was a different atmosphere in the build-up to the Donegal game at training because you knew it could be your last week training so that knockout championship is just easier for everyone to compute, especially here in Tyrone, because our club championship is straight knockout so we are used to do-or-die games.”
That spirit showed, even though Tyrone trailed by four points away to Donegal, well into the second half – but ended up wining by seven: “You were in a position where the next couple of scores were vital.
“Thankfully our goal came after that and a few subs came on and kicked a couple of deadly scores to get us over the line. You saw in that game that we didn't panic. We kept at it and the subs brought that extra energy.”
Too many Tyrone players seemed to lie down against Dublin last year, though, after conceding the early goal, and Harte acknowledges what a let-down that was:
“That was the most disappointing thing last year, all our fans felt that, that the game went away from us and there was no chance of getting it back.
“That's the big challenge going into this final, that we don't let that happen, but I can't tell you how it's going to start.”
Or how it’s going to finish.
However, Peter Harte and Tyrone will strive to do their best for their family and the fans, whom they are part of themselves.