Where did it all go wrong for Mickey Harte in Derry?

Between the League triumph and Ulster opener something had gone awry in the Derry camp

Mickey Harte
Derry manager Mickey Harte and trainer Gavin Devlin on the line against Donegal during the Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter final match played at Celtic Park Picture Margaret McLaughlin (MARGARET MCLAUGHLIN PHOTOGRAPHY )

IT was never by design - but Mickey Harte has been the subject of some of the biggest breaking sports stories in Ireland over the past four years.

It all started with his exit from Tyrone in November 2020 after 18 years at the helm.

Harte didn’t want to leave.

If the Glencull man had his way he would be still managing his native county.

In full: Mickey Harte releases statement as he steps down as Derry manager

But approaching two decades as senior manager, there was sufficient appetite for change and Harte was let go.

Tyrone would go on to win their fourth All-Ireland under new managers Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan in 2021.

In his memoir, entitled ‘Devotion’, Harte recalled waiting in his car at Garvaghey alongside team captain Mattie Donnelly fully expecting to be invited into the county board meeting to address delegates who were about to decide his fate.

“Finally, just after 11pm, some movement,” Harte told ghost-writer Brendan Coffey

“Lights went low inside the building as officers started filing out. One by one, they slipped away, headlamps leading them to the gate. I headed off. Destinations never defined me; it was always about the journey.”

In an interview with The Irish News after he knew he was leaving Tyrone, Harte intimated he’d no plans to retire from football management.

“The only thing I do know is, I’m not buying bedroom slippers,” smiled Harte. “I’m at a stage in life now where I’m very flexible, I’m very peaceful actually.”

Mickey Harte
Mickey Harte has left the Derry job Picture Margaret McLaughlin (MARGARET MCLAUGHLIN PHOTOGRAPHY )

Less than two weeks later, he was unveiled as Louth’s new senior football manager alongside his trusted assistant Gavin Devlin.

The pair spent three successful years in the ‘Wee’ County, winning back-to-back promotions and qualifying for a Leinster SFC final for the first time in 13 years.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Harte and Devlin had raised the footballing esteem of an entire county.

“I absolutely love Mickey and Gavin,” said Louth captain Sam Mulroy in March 2022.

“I’d say Gavin is my dream coach/manager. His attitude is absolutely infectious. He always talks about ‘what’s your why’.

“Their desire to win after coming from winning All-Irelands with Tyrone and for them to bring their ‘why’ to us is infectious. I could spend all day on the training pitch with Gavin, he’s that good. He’s the best I’ve ever seen coach.”

With three seasons completed and preparing for a fourth year in charge, another bombshell involving Mickey Harte landed on social media.

In September 2023, it was announced he was leaving Louth. For Derry.

Mulroy said the Louth panel felt “let down” and were left “high and dry” by Harte’s shock departure.

Rory Gallagher had vacated the Oak Leaf post in a blaze of controversy, prompted by an accusatory social media post by his ex-wife on the eve of the 2023 Ulster final with Armagh.

And even though Ciaran Meenagh, assistant to Gallagher, performed brilliantly in an interim role, the Tyrone man didn’t want the Derry job on a permanent basis and left.

Louth chairman Peter Fitzpatrick didn’t disguise his anger at Harte and Devlin for deciding to leave – but the allure of working with a county team believed to be on the cusp of an All-Ireland win was too tempting to resist.

Given the historical rivalry between Tyrone and Derry – and Harte’s life-long association with Tyrone football – his appointment in Derry wasn’t universally embraced.

But an NFL Division One title – beating Dublin in a thrilling penalty shoot-out in the final – seemed to quell the dissent in the county.

Derry were still on the move.

Drawn to face Jim McGuinness’s Donegal in their Ulster opener, Derry were raging hot favourites to progress.

At an Ulster SFC launch in Belfast’s University Ulster, Harte described Devlin as the “best coach” he’d ever seen.

“He’s the most creative coach that you could imagine. On every aspect of the game, he’s on top of it.”

But McGuinness blew a massive hole in Derry’s tactical gameplan at Celtic Park with goalkeeper Odhran Lynch caught in no-man’s-land on several occasions that saw Harte’s side bow meekly out of the provincial series.

Between March 31 (Division One final) and April 20 (Ulster SFC tie with Donegal) something went awry in the Derry camp.

Derry ended up losing three Championship games on the trot – Donegal, Galway and Armagh – which prompted Irish News columnist and former assistant of Harte’s, Kevin Madden to shine an unforgiving light on the players.

“The second [Armagh] goal was the moment that really stood out,” wrote Madden.

“When Brendan Rogers fisted the ball away only four outfield players made any sort of an attempt to get back. At the conclusion of the move, some 100 yards later, 10 Derry players could be seen walking and still in their offensive half of the pitch.

“To see an attack breaking down and then watch so many players just down tools and not even attempt to get back raises serious question marks around the unity of purpose within the Derry team right now.

“It’s hard to believe that just little over six weeks ago Derry had beaten the Dubs in the National League final and many were tipping them as genuine All-Ireland contenders.”

Derry’s scruffy group game win over Westmeath in Newry was really only a stay of execution for Harte and Devlin.

By the time they reached Croke Park and Kerry, the Derry players were running on sand – and Harte was running out of time.