Brendan Crossan: Bumper to bumper in Louth with Mickey Harte at the wheel

Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin are getting a tune out of the Louth footballers
Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin are getting a tune out of the Louth footballers

SWINGING left off the first roundabout into Ardee last Sunday afternoon, the traffic snaked all the way up the other side of town and beyond before reaching Páirc Mhuire.

Bumper to bumper. Just the way people like Peter Fitzpatrick imagined the place when he persuaded Mickey Harte to take the Louth job on.

Division Three. Louth versus Antrim. Who would take a step closer to Division Two?

It was hardly Rock ‘n Roll compared to the days of Kerry or Mayo rolling into Omagh and Healy Park jam-packed. But nothing ever stays the same, even though on some inarticulate level you could never imagine Tyrone without Mickey Harte and Mickey Harte without Tyrone – just like Alex Ferguson with Manchester United.

The only difference was United nose-dived into Premier League oblivion when Fergie exited Old Trafford and the Red Hands went on to clinch their fourth All-Ireland title the season after Harte left.

And that’s how history is written.

With spring scenting the nostrils and a determined sun battling the haze, Louth looked to have the measure of Antrim from the early stages.

It was the hosts who looked like they’d travelled more terrain than their visitors from the last time they met in Haggardstown last May.

Like all Mickey Harte teams, Louth did a brilliant job in crowding out the scoring zone and nullified Antrim’s scoring threats. And like all Mickey Harte teams, they sprung out of defence with fantastic pace.

Of course, Louth have been yo-yoing between the lower divisions for a reason: they lack composure in the final third. It’s the case with most teams that frequent Divisions Three and Four. They work as hard as the top flight teams but when that ball needs planted between the posts, the trouble starts.

They haven’t managed to clone Sam Mulroy down in the ‘Wee’ County yet. If they could they would be All-Ireland champions. Prior to last Sunday’s showdown it was refreshing to hear Mulroy talk about how he just absolutely loves the expectations placed on his shoulders.

“Some people see that as arrogance – I just see it as confidence in my own ability. I’d back myself to the hilt. So I don’t see it as a pressure. I see it as a privilege,” he said.

Mulroy, as he always seems to do, hit a game-winning 1-9 in Ardee to put Louth in Division Two next season, barring a crazy set of results this Sunday.

Interestingly, Mulroy stayed high up the field for most of the game, and usually had two other forwards for company. Several targets for the Louth counter-attack to hit.

Antrim looked flat and devoid of ideas in a performance that wasn’t in keeping with the upward trajectory of Enda McGinley’s side. Division Two is not out of the question for Antrim – but it’s a bit of a reach now.

The unmistakable, slightly hunched figure of Mickey Harte stood in virtually the one patch of grass on the stand side of Páirc Mhuire for the duration of last week's game, with his trusted assistant Gavin ‘Horse’ Devlin always within ear-shot.

Outside of the county, there has been little fanfare about Louth’s ascension under the two Tyrone men.

A penny for the Glencull man’s thoughts now from that November day in 2020 when he announced he was stepping away from the Tyrone post after 18 years because he was denied a ‘replacement’ season due to Covid.

But back to how history is written: it was the right thing for Harte to say goodbye to Tyrone given how everything unfolded.

He published his third book last year, entitled ‘Devotion – a memoir’, ghost-written expertly by Brendan Coffey.

Harte didn’t disguise the hopeful notion that it might've been published around the same time as him leading the Red Hands to a fourth All-Ireland.

“I met Brendan [Coffey] three or four years ago. We got chatting and he said about meeting up and doing a few more of these and I enjoyed meeting him anyway. I was probably hoping that it would coincide with another All-Ireland victory.”

The day before the news of his departure was made public, I spoke to Harte at his home where he insisted that being Tyrone manager had never defined him or who he was. I don't know if I believed him.

“Being Tyrone manager just happened to be something I was,” he said. “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 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.”

He was right too.

In the same interview, he also said: “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.”

Within a matter of weeks, Louth unveiled Harte as their new manager.

He’s already brought Louth to a better place. After being manager of one of the elite counties for so long, managing Louth might have had its motivational challenges.

Who knows, maybe moving to the ‘Wee’ County had a reinvigorating effect on Harte himself and working away on fields far from the national media’s gaze might've been almost medicinal.

Earlier this week, he agreed to extend his stay in the 'Wee' County until 2025.

George Zalucki’s great line still on the virtues of persistence appears to be still guiding the veteran football manager after all these years.

“Persistence is awesome. It is absolutely awesome. It is this that turns an average performer of average ability and moulds them into a champion.”

Ardee on a beautiful spring Sunday afternoon, swinging off the first roundabout and the traffic bumper to bumper, snaking its way out to Páirc Mhuire on the far side of town.

Success comes in different guises...