After 18 years as Tyrone senior football manager, Mickey Harte bids a fond farewell to life on the sidelines with the Red Hands. He spoke to Brendan Crossan about a journey that has given him so much and delievered so much to the people of the O'Neill County...
The narrow road to Mickey Harte's house swoops and weaves. It's Friday morning, just tipping towards noon. The skies above Glencull have been cleared by a good hard rain and the sun bursts with all its might.
For over 30 years, he has faced into a scorching wind. Head first. Always head first.
To be still standing after all this time is probably the purest kind of glory there is in this life.
Remembering ‘The Lost Years’. The indefatigable Gaels of Glencull.
The pain, the crushing pain of 1997. Young Paul McGirr, lost and still present in the mind's eye.
Paul and Helen Hughes.
Arthur Mallon. Frank Campbell. The smiling face of Jim Curran. Young Johnny Curran too. Gone. But not forgotten.
The joy that back-to-back All-Ireland U21 titles brought in 2000 and 2001 - and feeling invincible every time the Tyrone boys laced up their boots.
Watching 'Hub' break Kerry's will in Croke.
And the sweet music Canavan, big Sean and McGuigan composed.
Mugsy's swagger and staring into the Hill.
Horse's dancing feet.
Gormley: impassive as ever. Ricey and 'big Thunder' McGinley.
"Persistence, boys. Persistence."
Tony Donnelly was the coolest man in town, the gun-slinger who never needed to reach for his holster.
Chris Lawn grabbing Dooher and not letting go beneath the Hogan Stand away from the chaotic din outside.
Michaela’s perpetual smile.
And not knowing what to do when the news broke about Cormac.
The perfect summer of '05.
The driving rain in O'Moore Park in '06.
Being upstaged by Meath the following summer.
The fairytale comeback of '08.
The summers tripped by faster than our heads could fathom.
Grappling with Donegal and beating Donegal.
Petey Harte's wondrous score in sunny Clones and big Sean's magical encore.
Meanwhile, the fresh-faced class of 2015 were cutting a dash.
They know how to time their run. Big days tumbled one after another. This is how it was under Mickey Harte.
Covid19 and an eerily quiet afternoon as the rain beats off the corrugated roof of the main stand in Ballybofey. After 18 years, it proved his last game in charge of his beloved Tyrone.
On high ground, Mickey emerges from a small outhouse. Beaming smile and looking relaxed as he's ever been.
Is this really the end of the road?
Brendan Crossan: How are you going to cope without managing Tyrone?
Mickey Harte: For our children, it’s their way of life. My son Mark was only 10 when I started managing the Tyrone minors and my grandson Liam will be nine in January. So Mark was only a year older than him when I started managing Tyrone teams.
It’s more of a shock to their system than mine. I never expected to be at it this length of time. The Tom Markham Cup was my goal when I took over the minors [in 1991]. I thought, if I achieved that, I’d be so happy. It would keep me happy forever more as far as football was concerned.
I moved on to the U21s and we’d a great bunch of players who had ambition to be more successful. In some of those games I could have been gone as well. After the ’97 final that we lost we still had eight or nine of those players available – not eight or nine panelists, but starters. In 98, we played Down in the first round in Omagh and we were two points down with a couple of minutes to go; Aidan Lynch scored a point and Enda McGinley scored the second one that hit the bar and went over which saved our bacon.
And we went back to Newry on Sunday for a standalone game with 5,000 people there and we beat them 0-12 to 0-6, a comprehensive win. Had we lost, it probably would have been the end of my managerial career and I probably wouldn’t have been heard of again. But because we won that, we went on to win the All-Ireland in ‘98. And that was the basis for becoming U21 champions. It’s such fine margins.
I’ve just so much to be thankful for to have all those opportunities for as long as I’ve had them. And for people to be patient with me in the 90s. We lost important games… In ’96 we lost to Fermanagh in Omagh among them.
But the county board knew that we were developing good young men and we were teaching them quality behaviour. We were giving them standards that would carry them not only in football but in life and I think the people around the county board at that time should be credited for spotting that.
There was no pressure for me to leave and then ’97 came along and Paul [McGirr], God rest him, it gave the players character and bonded them. With all the setbacks it seemed we were destined to win and that we could bring joy to people who were very sad. But it didn’t happen in ’97 [losing to Laois in the All-Ireland final].
I actually decided to quit at the dinner that night in the hotel and then Stevie [O’Neill] and Brian McGuigan came to me and said: ‘Stay on one more year, we’ll do this…’ We did stay on and, lo and behold, it was the right thing to do.
BC: When you think Tyrone could have Cathal McShane, Conor McKenna, and young Darragh Canavan in the same forward line in 2021, I’m sure you would have liked a chance to mould them?
MH: I know there is a good team there, a very good team and they were building nicely to be even better. But it’s not there anymore [for me]. It’s more about reflecting on the past 30 years and the journey I’ve been on and how interesting an adventure it has been. I felt so privileged to be the minor manager alone. And then the 21s and seniors after that.
I think my record would tell that I gave my best for the county and I was blessed with the time that I’ve been here because we have been to places that we’ve never been before and I’m grateful for that. It was the joy we gave to so many people. And I feel we gave joy to people even when we didn’t win trophies.
I know how much that meant to our quality supporters that we have because we met them every day we played. Win, lose or draw, there were always people there to share the moment. They shared in the joy when we won and they shared in the disappointment when we lost – but we shared it.
BC: What were the days like after losing to Donegal in Ballybofey and the prospect of it being your last-ever game in charge?
MH: I’ve lived enough of a life now - and this is the truth of the matter - I know how important football is to people and how important it was and is to me – but it’s not life and death. I knew what I would’ve liked to happen and I requested whether that was possible or not, and I also knew that if it wasn’t possible I knew what the option was [to resign], and that’s why I’m here now talking to you.
BC: In time, people might look back on 2017, ’18 and ’19 and reflect that actually Tyrone reached their potential in those years rather than seeing them as near-misses…
MH: I am not somebody who measures success only by trophies. I measure success by bringing people from one place to a better place and I think every year that I’ve been with Tyrone we’ve done that to some degree. Even the years when we were relegated, we did everything we could to get back up to Division One as quickly as possible. We never spent more than one year in that division because we knew we were good enough for Division One. And I am so happy about that.
We have left Tyrone in a good place. They have a really good team, they are in Division One football next year, they were a bit unfortunate to lose a game that they could have won [against Donegal]. I’d be happy that every year I, and the people who were with me, did our best to bring Tyrone to the best possible level.
BC: You used to cite the famous mantra to your players: ‘Persistence is awesome - it is absolutely awesome…’ (George Zalucki). Did you feel persistence and sheer force of will would land Tyrone a fourth All-Ireland title?
MH: I always believed it and I knew we were very close. We let it slip big-time last year against Kerry. We were in control at half-time. Honest to God, it was probably the hardest result we had because I think if we’d got through to the All-Ireland final and the way Dublin performed the first day out [against Kerry] we could have won that game. But that’s mere speculation.
BC: Will there be a night you will grab your car keys, get up to leave the house for training and realise that it’s over. Surely it will leave a massive void…
MH: Being Tyrone manager just happened to be something I was; it’s not my identity, actually. It’s not my identity at all. I try my best to be the same person all the time. I can be argumentative, I can be challenging, but I think I’m pretty level.
I’m not an extremist. Maybe people will say I’m extreme in my faith, but I’ll be happy to be called that. I feel blessed that I have a disposition where I adjust quickly. I don’t fret about anything. The only thing I do know is, I’m not buying bedroom slippers! I’m very spontaneous. Marian [my wife] would tell you that.
I got up today and I don’t know what the day might hold but I know that I’ll enjoy it. I’m at a stage in life now where I’m very flexible, I’m very peaceful actually. There is a spiritual peace that comes from God and I feel grand. I’ll find something that I’ll enjoy – and I don’t know what it is yet.
BC: Will you manage again?
MH: I don’t know. It’s hard to see me walking away from football altogether. I’ll probably be attracted to it. There is nothing like it than bringing people from one place to a better place. That doesn’t always need trophies.
BC: What was it like being on the end of our tape-recorders for all those years, especially when you’d lost a big game?
MH: I always liked the challenge of them. I always knew I’d not be too reactive or so blaming of somebody else. I actually like questions because I like having to formulate an answer on the hoof. And I think I can do that rightly.
BC: In the early days you were an absolute joy to deal with before and after games. But in more recent years your relationship with the media became fractious at times…
MH: People in the media profession don’t understand that it’s not as simple any more where boys were tearing down the door to do interviews. Back in the day, people didn’t really give it much thought. Anyone would have done an interview, there was no need to monitor it in any shape or form. Now, you have to go and ask players: ‘Would you do it today?’ There’s nobody jumping out of their chairs to do it...
The world has changed. You have all these podcasts and social media. I know it’s not as easy to access interviews. Sometimes, too, there maybe was that degree of trust between people and you thought they’re good to talk to, they’re on your side.
That’s not to say they’ll not say something if they disagree with you, but some just took a dig maybe too often in places and that breaks that sense of trust and therefore you become suspicious of people and it’s hard to get through that. That has happened and some of the people in the journalistic world have contributed to the difficulties that exist today.
BC: What will you miss most of all?
MH: When the Championship ball is thrown in in 2021 and you’re not on the sideline, or you mightn’t even be at the game at all because of Covid, I’ll certainly miss that. Driving in on the bus when the crowds are outside, there is nothing like it, and people are out with their flags, cheering and blowing horns and your own supporters are giving you the thumbs up and the opposition supporters are giving you the odd rude sign (laughing). It’s just amazing.
BC: Was the 2008 All-Ireland title your greatest achievement?
MH: I do believe it was because there were lots of players who came in to take over the mantle of big-game players and they did. Definitely.”
BC: Gavin ‘Horse’ Devlin has been with you as a player and eight years as your trusted assistant. Can you sum him up?
MH: Honestly, he’s like another son to me. From the first day I seen him at a minor trial I thought there is something about this man. At the minor trial he was playing wing-back and he was directing operations, telling people where to go and playing the game himself.
He was playing corner-back for us and during the time of the third midfielder, we’d say: ‘Don’t go out with him.’ He manned the ‘D’ and the opposition would kick the ball in where he was. He had the feet of a dancer. He would always come out with the ball. He was so measured.
He seldom kicked the ball and hand-passed it to Brian McGuigan every time. He just has a passion and a football brain like nobody else.
BC: What was the biggest thrill for you on match day?
MH: There are many different things, but one is to see something that you worked on the training field come off and it had a real serious impact on a game.
After that, it is seeing the joy on people’s faces when you win something.
There is a fella Gerard McGlynn from Aghyaran who is always there before our bus arrives at any venue and in fact in the latter days we’d arranged that when the bus would pull in at the Cusack Stand we’d let Gerry on.
He’s an honest-to-God true blue supporter. When we leave a venue, no matter how long we are in the dressing room, he’s outside. He just loves Tyrone football, and I tell people that there is a Gerard McGlynn in every parish. I tell the players, that’s who you’re playing for. That’s the joy you’re bringing, to people like him. He is just the epitome of what a real GAA supporter is about.
BC: Young players have changed quite a bit over the last 30 years. How did you relate to the younger generation each year?
MH: A man of my vintage needs to adjust. I can’t be thinking that these guys are the same as the players of the 90’s or the 2000’s because they’re not. This is a new generation and you have to adapt and adjust. Simple things like music. We used to have players pick songs and you could listen to them. Now, you’re thinking: ‘Get me out of here’.
Thank God for somebody like Cathal McShane who picked ‘Hold onto your hat’ – and he was laughed out of the place – but it was good. The battering and the banging – the so-called music nowadays would just blow my head away. I fail to see how it’s entertaining for anybody but it must be, so I have to let it be.
People think it’s just about the sport and trophies and what did you win and what you should’ve won - but it’s all encompassed in a journey of life that has taught us many things.
BC: What have you learned?
MH: I’ve learned that life is fragile. I’ve learned that life goes very fast. I’ve learned to live more in the moment because that’s the only place to live. The past is gone and you can’t change it.
The future is not ours to behold, unless God gives us that. It’s really about living in the now. It’s about being peaceful within yourself, and I’ve found that within my faith. It’s a gift that I’d love to give to everybody. I’d love everybody to experience the gift that it is to be peaceful and to know that God has given you that peace.
BC: Do you feel those who are agnostic, secular in their views or otherwise are missing out?
MH: We’re all searching for something and I’ve come to know, no matter what you’re searching for, if you get it in terms of the material things, then you’re looking for something else. You’re always reaching for something that’s beyond you. If you’re looking for God, you’ll find him inside you. There is no peace like it.
BC: Tyrone GAA has lost many good people through the years. It’s approaching your daughter Michaela’s 10th anniversary? In the days after that tragedy, I often thought how were you still standing?
MH: In many ways, I don’t know myself. But, looking back, I do know. I got through by the grace of God. And the prayers and good wishes from a multitude of people. I’m telling you, outside that door the postman was leaving boxes of cards and letters – 200 one day, 250 the next day... And I read them. They were therapy for me, especially in the first week because Michaela wasn’t home.
One night I didn’t sleep and that was the night I heard the news. I just got the strength from somewhere after that. I slept and wakened at about seven o’clock one morning and got up and I opened these cards on my own. I read them and I cried many times.
It wasn’t even just crying in grief, it was crying in therapy… that people had taken the time to send cards and letters and about the passing influence that Michaela had on them when they met her - and I’m reading all these mass cards and letters. For people to take the time to do that, this was just making me fill with emotion. I’m getting emotional just talking to you about it now. That’s what brought me through.
BC: But that was good for you…
MH: Absolutely. That’s what brought me through. I got a lot of my crying done before Michaela came home. Not all of it obviously because there were many days I cried.
Maybe that was Michaela’s influence; she was going to be there for me because she was always there for me, always close at hand. She was very special. I know everyone’s daughter is very special but we had something really special because she was the only girl we had.
BC: Can you believe it is 10 years in January...
MH: It’s a process. The first year was very acute. Those dates still hit us – the date that Michaela got married, the date of her birthday, the date that she was killed, the date that she was buried.
All those dates are significant, but less emotional as the years go on.
They are something you have to deal with and all those key dates are packed into a small space of time. So, I can identify with people in the early days of trauma, it’s just in your presence all the time You just can’t get out of the dark cloud.
BC: But do the clouds clear?
MH: The hope is – and I always give people hope – not only does the cloud lift, but it moves to the side. So this cloud never goes away. It’s always a cloud in your life, but I can choose when to look at it now. It’s not in my face. So, it’s moved from dominating me to something I can choose to live or encounter for a little while in my head.
BC: You suffered ill-health a few years back. Did that period give you a sense of your own mortality?
MH: Absolutely. It’s what we don’t notice. When you get up and you’re well, we take it for granted. You don’t think about how well you are; you become consumed about how unwell you are. It’s a crazy thing. You don’t think: ‘I feel well today, I can get up and do anything I want to do.' I’ve got all my faculties. We need to be grateful and thankful to God for every day we have.
BC: Some people might have thought you would be frustrated or annoyed about leaving Tyrone but I’m not getting that feeling from you at all…
MH: That's right. I have to pay tribute to the county chairman, Mickey Kerr, he has been more than supportive of me, 100 per cent. He helped us to be the best that we could be and he would have been longing for us to be still in this All-Ireland as much as we would ourselves.
But he’s only one person and there is a management committee that has 14 or 15 people on it who all have different opinions and he has to go by what people decide there too. And they feel there is another way, a better way, and that’s fine by me.
BC: It’s probably for others to judge but how would you like to be remembered?
MH: I never went one day not desiring to win for Tyrone. Many days we did and others we didn’t. But we never stopped trying.