Brendan Crossan: Jim McGuinness and Mickey Harte still lighting up the Championship arena

April 20 showdown the pick of the Ulster SFC bunch

Mickey Harte
Jim McGuinness and Mickey Harte shake hands after Derry retained the McKenna Cup earlier this year Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

JUST like that the University of Ulster, Belfast on York Street was built, and a million students were moving around its pristine floors in 2024 like ants.

The complexion of this part of the town has changed forever.

At the back of the old Irish News offices on Donegall Street, work began to upgrade the old university site many moons ago.

Diggers, drills, scaffolding, mighty cranes that touched the sky and how Donegall Street became flooded with hard hats at break time and lunch time.

Paul’s Café bulged and struggled to keep up with the demand.

It was a building site for years, to the point where you always thought it would remain so.

But change comes suddenly.

It’s a dank Monday evening in March and the great and the good of Ulster football drift through its glass-fronted doors to attend the Ulster Senior Football Championship media launch.

Vinny Corey, the Monaghan manager, is the gathering media’s first ‘victim’ of the night.

Wearing a baseball cap and explaining how Monaghan will cope without Rory Beggan, there’s always been an everyman appeal about the Clontibret man.

Conor Laverty and Kieran McGeeney have managed to duck this gathering of managers and players, with Mickey Donnelly and Aidan Forker providing the articulacy and insight from the Down and Armagh camps as they face into respective League finals this weekend.

CJ McGourty, the former Antrim forward and All-Ireland winner with St Gall’s, is representing the Fermanagh ladies on the night and still seems dazed from Carlow’s last gasp goal the previous day that denied the Ernesiders promotion out of Division Four.

Andy McEntee has a spring in his step after guiding an Antrim squad ravaged by injuries to Division Three safety the day before.

Brian Dooher arrives slightly later and is immediately surrounded by reporters. What just happened in Croke?

Conor Glass is one of the most affable footballers currently on the inter-county circuit whose football IQ dwarfs most of us.

There’s not a chance the Glen man is getting near the spring rolls and potato wedges that have been wheeled out behind him.

Among the many faces, there are two men who have left their imprint on the landscape of Ulster football: Mickey Harte and Jim McGuinness.

When the Tyrone-Donegal rivalry began in earnest - a 2011 Ulster semi-final meeting in Clones where Dermot ‘Brick’ Molloy’s goal rumbled the province’s old order – Harte and McGuinness’s relationship was merely cordial.

In his engaging autobiography, Until Victory Always, released in 2015, McGuinness described Harte as “polite” and “distant” on the sideline.

Spool forward to Monday night’s Ulster media launch and there definitely seems a warmer rapport between the two men who will meet again at Celtic Park on Saturday April 20, Derry versus Donegal, in what is easily the tie of the round – in any provincial Championship.

When Harte gets up to leave the round table interview, he’s replaced by McGuinness and the positive energy flows between the two men.

Dermot Molloy wheels away in celebration after his famous goal against Tyrone in the 2011 Ulster semi-final. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Dermot Molloy wheels away in celebration after his famous goal against Tyrone in the 2011 Ulster semi-final. Picture by Seamus Loughran

In a way, McGuinness is where he was in 2011 – hunting down a Mickey Harte team.

In his memoir, Devotion, Harte still winces at Tyrone’s Ulster semi-final defeat in 2011.

“For various reasons, the Donegal defeat in 2011 is the one that bugs me,” Harte writes.

“Their rise happened on our watch and we had so many opportunities to stop it that day... If we held them back for a year, they might never have broken through.”

In the first half, Tyrone played Donegal off the park, but they couldn’t translate their dominance on the scoreboard, missing a hatful of chances.

Seemingly with every miss that day Tyrone’s legs sagged.

McGuinness writes: “If we stayed with them for 50 minutes, the match would become fractious. We had to be prepared for that. And I had noticed that they appeared to tire in recent games after 50 minutes.”

Harte seems genuinely happy that McGuinness has returned to his sporting roots after a decade away and is part of the Ulster Championship scene again.

The reason? Coaches like McGuinness make you think more - they make you better. Harte couldn’t rate the Glenties man any higher than he currently does.

“Back at that time,” Harte told reporters on Monday night, “he’d a team that had well matured. He organised them in a way that they would suffocate you.

“You had to be very sharp and very precise with your play because as sure as you would make half an error they would eat you up.

“And on the counterattack, they were serious operators too.

“They could break at pace and had assassins up front in [Michael] Murphy and [Patrick] McBrearty. And, unfortunately, we were an ageing team too.”

The intensity of those Tyrone-Donegal battles was awesome.

In subsequent years, Donegal had Tyrone’s number in the Championship – games that were always played in Ballybofey – but it wasn’t until 2016, when McGuinness had long since departed, that Tyrone finally conquered Donegal thanks to two outrageous points from Sean Cavanagh and Peter Harte.

While there are shades of 2011 about next month’s clash between Derry and Donegal, Harte’s Derry team isn’t exactly a fading force in the same way Tyrone were 13 years ago.

Donegal still have some road to travel. But, for a Jim McGuinness team, there is no such thing as an unwinnable game.

That’s part of the intrigue of Saturday April 20.

And while everything changes around us, we should savour Mickey Harte being still on the sidelines and that an old acquaintance in Jim McGuinness has decided to rejoin him.