Gavin Devlin on Tyrone, loyalty and the winding road to Louth
IT'S a Friday afternoon sometime in March 2016. We’re sitting in a quiet corner of the Tilley Lamp restaurant.
Gavin ‘Horse’ Devlin is lamenting Tyrone’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry seven months earlier, but full of optimism for the year ahead.
A few of the U21 class of 2015 got to sample senior football for the first time. McShane. Bradley. Hampsey. Meyler. Burns. McGeary. Cassidy. Brennan.
A raw energy was restored to the team.
Despite losing to the Kingdom in Croke Park, the Red Hands are on the rise again.
A few months after the interview, Tyrone finally pulled themselves out of Donegal’s vice-like grip to reclaim Ulster for the first time in six years.
The road ahead looked bright again.
After feasting on the Tilley Lamp's fine cuisine that Friday afternoon, Devlin had to rush to meet Mickey Harte to go and watch a game.
Spool forward five years, and it’s the last Friday in April in sunny Ardboe.
It's the same drill. He’s due to meet Mickey later to run through Louth’s training sessions.
Two men joined at the hip. You'll never see one without the other for a few years yet.
Like every other eating house, the Tilley Lamp is closed because of the pandemic.
So we settle for Devlin’s kitchen table.
Ailish, his wife, has made breakfast.
Scrambled eggs, beans, bacon, potato bread, mug of tea, fresh baked scones and buns.
Baby Niall is approaching nursery school age and is rambling around the kitchen. He spies the buns on the table.
By the looks of this young fella’s gait, he runs this house.
The Devlins made the best of the first lockdown last year.
“You did adjust and life became normal within lockdown,” Devlin says.
“We’ve lads there 18, 17 and 16 and for a large majority of their lives I was coming in from work and we were just passing each other at the door.
“For eight or nine months we were locked together. We did a daily run out the road, we built a new gym and I really enjoyed it. It’s an experience that I never had.”
He restored the rotting wooden goalposts out the back to their former glory, sanded and painted them and got new nets.
“All of a sudden less became more for me. It really did. But I’m absolutely delighted to get back, to jump in the car the last week-and-a-half, the sun shining and heading to Darver...
“We’re only back and it’s almost gone back to the way it was – in one door, out the other, meeting Mickey to prepare for training the following night. It’s relentless…”
Tyrone is in Devlin's rear view these days. It takes a bit of getting used to.
But all good things come to an end at some point.
Everything about 2020 was just weird.
A couple of weeks after losing to Donegal in the mud and rain in Ballybofey, Mickey Harte announced he was stepping down from the Tyrone senior post he’d held since late 2002.
Even though it was half expected it was still seismic news.
“After the Donegal game, Mickey was content to stay in Tyrone for another year,” says Devlin, “and with the way COVID panned out, you felt he deserved another year to replace the year that was in it.
“It was only when that didn’t materialise and the Louth opportunity came up. Mickey came down to meet me at the house; I thought he was coming down for a visit and a chat, but it quickly turned to football and Louth.
“He was thinking seriously about it. He had his reasons too. He’d no intentions of playing against Tyrone any time soon and I would certainly concur with that.
“I wouldn’t have any interest in taking a bunch of boys and trying to beat Mattie Donnelly or Petey Harte any time soon.”
Despite what the rumour-mill was churning out at the time, Garvaghey’s gates remained padlocked throughout lockdown.
And when they were finally removed, Harte and Devlin knew on their first night back that the team was behind the black ball.
The players had looked in good enough shape during the club championships but their energy levels “were in their boots” when they returned to Garvaghey.
“The very first night I went back I couldn’t believe it. I knew it was a big ask then,” Devlin recalls.
“I heard stories: ‘Ah sure, Tyrone are out training two nights a week.’ We genuinely went back the first night we were allowed back.
“The players knew I was agitated… I left the pitch at one stage to go and talk to the chairman because I was so gunked by how far the boys were off the pace.
“I was aware other teams were training away and rightly or wrongly our committee was sticking by the rules. It was a big ask to go back and beat Donegal with the window that we were given.
"When you put them all back on the pitch at the one time and you were asking them to do drills and exercises…their energy levels were in their boots.”
As with every narrative involving Donegal, you have to take your chances. Tyrone had enough of them to put their hosts to the sword but didn't.
Rather than talk about high-profile absentees and missed opportunities on the day, you get the feeling Devlin wants to short-circuit the debate.
“We lost it because on the day we didn’t have the solutions for what was in front of us,” he says.
“The best teams are able to answer them. I suppose that’s the challenge the boys now face. I’ve no doubt they’ll get back to the place where we found ourselves in but when you hit that defining moment with 10 or 15 minutes to go, can you find the solutions?
“That’s where we failed. We couldn’t find them. Maybe with this breath of fresh air and new ideas they can give the boys that extra bit that they need.”
That breath of fresh air comes in the form of Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher – two-thirds of the U21 All-Ireland winning managerial team of 2015, with Peter Canavan, the missing third, passing up on the chance to be part of this Tyrone team’s future.
Although there was clear merit in completely scrubbing the events of 2020, ‘Horse’ admits now that there were possibly other times when his mentor and close friend might have bid adieu to Tyrone.
There was an exit road available to the pair after Tyrone inexplicably collapsed in the second half of their 2019 All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry.
“I felt that was the time we could have walked away - possibly even before that,” Devlin says matter-of-factly.
And yet, because of the strange set of circumstances, 2020 never remotely felt like a natural end to an incredible managerial reign.
“We should have been out the gate against Kerry that day… but I just felt that we got our opportunity and I knew there were people in the wings wanting to get a go at it.
“You don’t own it - you only get a lend of it. I didn’t want to get to a place where the players were thinking: ‘If only we could have got something new and something fresh, we could have won the All-Ireland.’
“I didn’t want to become the problem but that was back then after the Kerry game. But, funny enough, the way things worked out with COVID and the addition of a few extra aces in the pack we previously hadn’t had, I do genuinely believe we were getting really close to finding those solutions.
“And I think with the injection of wee Darragh [Canavan], Conor McKenna and [Cathal] McShane getting over the injury, we were getting things up the field I don’t think we ever had before.
“We had silky players at club level but they were very much of a muchness. But there now seems to be a fantastic balance within the forward unit. That said, you’ve got to find that balance between defence and attack and I’ve heard murmurings about how much they’re going to attack, but you’ve got to be able to defend too, and that would be the key, how they balance that.”
On Friday November 13 2020, Harte announced the news of his departure to two journalists at his home Glencull.
There was a huge outpouring of thanks and praise for the veteran manager who’d led Tyrone to three All-Ireland titles.
A couple of days later, he was a guest pundit on BBCNI's Ulster Championship coverage.
A few days after that he was unveiled as the new manager of Louth. Harte had wrong-footed everybody.
Managing his exit from Tyrone was important to Devlin who’s been at Harte’s side for the last eight years.
“His legacy was so important. What he did for the people of Tyrone, I didn’t want anything to damage that in any way,” Devlin says.
“As long as Mickey came out of it in the right way I was happy enough, and I feel he did come out of it well enough.
“Mickey has a lot of support within the county and the people of Tyrone know what he’s done for Tyrone football.
“He came in on the back of Tyrone getting beaten by Sligo in Croke Park in 2002 and 17 years later we are the envy of everyone in Ulster and we seem to be the measuring stick for most counties.
“Although we didn’t accomplish another All-Ireland in my time involved with Mickey, I feel that we were still very consistent, probably the most consistent we’ve ever been.”
He adds: “I’d always thought Mickey might have his last game in Healy Park in front of a packed house. I think he possibly would have deserved that for what he’s given the people of Tyrone and maybe people would have been able to give him the send-off he truly deserved.
“Look, maybe he’ll get a send-off somewhere else.
“They’ve a fantastic team in there now with Brian [Dooher], Feargal [Logan] and the boys - great Tyrone men who served Tyrone with great distinction.”
For the best part of a decade, the car journeys can be light or serious.
The past few trips to Darver, Fergal McCann has never been far from either man's thoughts – Tyrone’s double All-Ireland winning trainer who passed away in March after a battle with cancer, aged just 47.
“The last time I saw Fergal was at work in Garvaghey before lockdown, we were taking a schools’ team and we came in and had a cup of tea and a few buns in the kitchen afterwards. To think that would be the last time I’d see him...”
Devlin is a Liverpool supporter, Harte a Manchester United diehard.
Devlin laughs that Harte didn’t talk too much about soccer last season “but seems to be talking a lot more about it this year”.
Sometimes Devlin drives up to the Ballygawley roundabout to pick Harte up and forgets himself: “Oh, I’m going to Darver tonight, not Garvaghey.”
Devlin says that maybe he’ll drive back up the road to Garvaghey one day.
“I feel there is unfinished business there,” he says.
“I’ve been involved with Tyrone since I was 17/18 years-of-age and any time I ever went to achieve something as a minor, U21 or senior player, I was always fortunate to be involved in great teams and we were able to accomplish that.
“I was with Mickey for eight years trying to win an All-Ireland and I feel we got really, really close but we didn’t accomplish it.
“There wasn’t one January setting out that I didn’t feel we could do it. I felt we could win it every single year. There is no doubt if we had been involved this year I feel, with the additions of a few new players – Conor McKenna, wee Darragh Canavan, McShane back in and Paudie Hamspey with a clean bill of health - we’d be a match for anyone. I still talk about ‘we’ because until the day I pass away I’ll be a Tyrone man.
“I’m 40 years of age and I feel the only thing I do is look after my family and concentrate and focus on the game and trying to evolve and trying to make teams better and individuals better. I don’t think there’s anybody out there who thinks about the game more than I do, and I pride myself on that.”
Beyond this interview, the only thing on Devlin’s mind is Louth and trying to make them better.
It’s an entirely different project to the one in Tyrone.
At each training session in Darver, he poses the question to the Louth players: “What’s your ‘why’?”
“When we landed in the car-park for the first session we were ready to rock. I suppose it doesn’t matter what sport you’re involved in - tennis, American football, soccer or rugby – there is no magic formula.
“It’s very basic and I think it’s down to how you put that message across to the players and get them to buy into your philosophy.
“There is plenty of talent in Louth and when they’re on the ball they look as if they can do things. But it’s also out of possession, how you react, how you get up and down the pitch. That’s a mentality, that’s a culture.
“It’s hard work, commitment, dedication. Do you really want this? What’s your ‘why’? Why do you want this?
“Is it a recreational sport you want? If it is you’ve picked a really bad one because I could pick any number of recreational sports before inter-county football. It can be so unforgiven if you’re not prepared.
“I’m down there with Mickey to try and make them better and I’ll be there for as long as they’re willing to do that.”
On the same day that Tyrone will be trying to take down Donegal in their NFL opener next weekend, Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin will be at Geraldine’s GFC trying to get their Division Four campaign off to a winning start against Antrim.
Devlin has noticed a spring in Harte’s step since he first arrived in Darver to work with the footballers of Louth.
“I’d follow him to the ends of the earth,” Devlin says of Harte. “I’ve been with him since ’98 with the Tyrone minors and he’s been a big part of my football life and I suppose I’m realistic to know he’s not going to be around forever.
“I feel blessed every day we go out onto the field.
“I don’t take it for granted because some day it will end and when it goes we’ll never be able to get it back.
“We’ve a lot on our plate in trying to make these boys better but I know some day I’ll look back and think what a privilege it was to work with him for so long. Right now, we don’t have too much time to think.”