Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin changing the old Louth mindset
WITH back-to-back promotions under their belts and the confidence that comes with a five-goal Leinster Championship drubbing of Carlow, perennial minnows Louth have been causing more than a few ripples on the national stage over the past 12 months.
After announcing his exit from Tyrone in November 2020, Mickey Harte insisted he wasn’t ready to put on his bedroom slippers.
He was true to his word. A few weeks later he was unveiled as Louth’s new senior football manager.
Former Louth manager and popular county chairman Peter Fitzpatrick pursued and got his man.
As their inter-county peers stare into the Tailteann Cup abyss, Louth have earned the right to be part of the ‘A’ side of the All-Ireland series in 2022.
At the outset, sceptics probably regarded Harte's move to Louth as having 'short-term gig' written all over it. After all, nobody stays too long in the ‘Wee’ County.
Harte and his assistant Gavin Devlin would kick up a bit of dust, make some noise, press the flesh at a few talk nights, live off some well-worn stories of ’03, ’05 and ’08 before leaving for something better...
Bevan Duffy had every intention of retiring from the inter-county scene in 2020 but those plans were put on hold once he heard the three-times All-Ireland winning manager had agreed to take over.
“What impressed me from the get-go was he was talking long-term,” says Duffy (34). “We all quickly realised this wasn’t a short-term thing. Obviously when it was announced he was coming to Louth, people were saying that he’d be away when another job comes up at the end of the season. Not a chance of that happening, not a hope. He’s a pure football man.”
Since Harte’s successors - Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher – delivered the Sam Maguire in their first season in charge, some would say history has been slightly revised somewhat.
The emerging narrative was that Tyrone could never win that elusive fourth All-Ireland title with Harte and Devlin’s template, deemed to be too defensive to succeed, and that a fresh voice and new ideas were needed.
Given how 2021 turned out, it’s hard to argue the point. But, as with all these grand narratives and persuasive sound-bites, nuanced debate can sometimes become the first casualty.
Regardless, Louth had gained an exceptional management team.
In an interview with The Irish News last month, Louth's totemic forward Sam Mulroy described Devlin as the best coach he’d ever worked with.
Weighty praise when you consider Jim McGuinness helped Mulroy’s club Naomh Máirtin to their first-ever senior championship in 2020.
“I could spend all day on the training pitch with Gavin, he’s that good,” Mulroy said. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen coach.”
Duffy was equally effusive in his assessment of Devlin, a key player in Tyrone’s maiden All-Ireland victory in 2003.
“Gavin’s sessions and tactics are unbelievable,” says Duffy, a converted full-back under the Tyrone pair.
“It’s stuff that really has blown me away.”
Niall Sharkey of junior club Glyde Rangers is in his third year with the Louth seniors. Recognised as a corner-back or wing-back, Sharkey has become the defensive lynchpin at centre half-back.
“I’ve never seen a man with new drills every week – not drills where you’re standing behind a cone and you run,” says Sharkey. “Gavin would lay out how we’re going to attack a team: ‘These are the spaces we’re going to make. This is how they’re going to try and open us up and this is how we’ll train to stop them doing that.’
“Gavin’s mind is just unbelievable. Sometimes we might look ultra-defensive but once we turn you over we just go. Sometimes as a centre-back you’re looking around to see who’s there but if there is a point in the forward line that needs to be filled, I’m gone.”
On the defensive charge levelled at both men, Duffy adds: “They are miles away from it. I mean, our defence is built to attack. Obviously there are times in games you need to get back behind the ball, where you hunt the ball down. But when the ball is turned over, you go, you attack. We spend a high percentage of our sessions on attacking. I would never put Mickey or Gavin down as defensive coaches.”
If it’s hard evidence you’re searching for, Sharkey points to Dan Corcoran, a corner-back, finding himself in two goal-scoring positions against Carlow in Navan last Sunday, and full-back Duffy winning a penalty just as he was about to pull the trigger...
Unlucky to lose their opening NFL Division Four game to Antrim in Haggardstown last May, Louth recovered well and gained promotion alongside the Saffrons.
They lost their Leinster SFC opener to Offaly after extra-time, but 2022 was probably always going to be the year to judge Harte and Devlin’s body of work.
After a sluggish start in Division Three this year, which yielded a defeat (to Laois) and a draw (with Longford), Louth found their footing, blitzing the rest of the field to move up to Division Two as champions.
But it’s not just the walk-through training sessions or Harte’s inspiring words before, during and after matches.
Louth needed to line up all their ducks.
Darver, where the Louth team trains, was in dire need of an upgrade.
“One of the first meetings Mickey had with us was up in Darver and about creating an environment and making it a place where you looked forward to going to,” says Duffy. “And, in fairness, over the last 12 months he’s backed all that up. They’ve transformed Darver…
“The floodlights are on when you arrive, the dressing room is warm, we’ve got our hot and cold baths and the food is great – just small details.
“We’ve got Rocksalt of Dundalk coming in and the food is top notch. They have a menu after training of different food.
“We’ve a dietician. Now, we’ve had dieticians dipping in and out over the years but with Sharon Courtney there she’s a great point of contact to bounce ideas off.
“Darver would have been lacking in certain facilities in the past – bare dressing rooms, bare walls; now, the pitches were good and it was by no means bottom of the barrel stuff, but they just added the finer touches to it now which makes it all the easier to get up there and train."
Duffy adds: “What was just as important as Mickey Harte getting the job was Peter Fitzpatrick coming in as chairman. He is 100 per cent a players’ chairman. He wants what’s best for the players. If something needs to be got, he’ll get it. He’s such an energetic man. He always has a smile on his face, chatting to you, patting you on the back, high-fiving you...”
Harte and Devlin arrived in Louth in the midst of the pandemic, so like every county a lot of their preparation had to be microwaved.
Mulroy says: “We were in lockdown and they had to take a guess at it, but now they’ve had a better look at it to see who they could bring in and I think they’ve pieced together a really good team.”
Sharkey was playing for Glyde and noticed a player in the opposition. He was so impressed that he alerted Harte and Devlin.
“They said they’d already watched him," Sharkey says. "It doesn’t matter what level you’re playing in Louth, they watch everything.”
There have also been some successful positional conversions. Duffy, who has played most of his football in and around midfield, is now playing full-back and flourishing.
Harte and Devlin also persuaded midfielder James Califf to return – not to assume the number eight or nine jersey – but to keep goal. The gamble has paid huge dividends, while Sharkey never seen his move to centre half-back coming.
“Mickey and Gavin have a serious eye for footballing and technical ability,” Mulroy notes.
Louth football has bobbed between Division Three and Four for years, occasionally making brief appearances in Division Two before dropping down again.
Even with Harte and Devlin committed until 2025 nothing is guaranteed, but Sharkey feels the county can maintain the standards set by the two men while also acknowledging the can-do attitude from the county board.
The county’s underbelly is also being tended to. Foundations continue to be dug as the county’s tentacles reach into the schools.
Gerry Malone, a current panellist, is one of many high-profile Gaelic football figures preaching the gospel.
The county has made a conscious effort of recycling the knowledge of ex-players and getting them involved in preparing the next generation of Louth footballers.
Colm Nally, who played for the county between 1998 and 2002, spearheaded a project in 2016 to draft former players into the various underage set-ups - Brian Philips, Aaron Hoey and Shane Lennon among them.
“I know there is good work going on in the schools,” says former county ace Derek Crilly, now working as GAA Development Officer in the county.
“Recently we had two schools playing U16 north Leinster ‘B’ finals whereas Louth schools would normally be competing at ‘C’ and ‘D’ level.
“The idea is to have three or four schools competing in the Leinster ‘A’ Schools competitions. That process, we hope, has started, but it’ll take a little bit of time to pay off. And I know Mickey and Gavin just don’t see their role as the senior team - they see the whole picture.”
Crilly, who retired from county duty in 2017, adds: “Over the years, we probably suffered with some of the best players not wanting to play for Louth - but with Mickey and Gavin putting in a top class structure that’s enticed players to play for Louth again.
“When I played you probably thought there was a bit more in us; some of the boys retired at 30 or even younger than that. If they had the structures that are in place now they probably would have hung on a bit longer. But they gave everything to Louth and we had some good days too.”
For now, though, all eyes are on Sunday and Louth’s Championship showdown with Kildare in Tullamore.
It’s a huge ask of the Louth footballers to take another massive leap in their development.
“The two lads have definitely changed our mindset,” says Sharkey.
“In the winter it’s really cold over in Darver and you’re thinking: ‘Here we go again.’ But Mickey and Gavin want you coming over to Darver hopping, ready for training… Even last night, I wasn’t happy with my performance at training.
“You’re going home and you’re thinking about how you trained. That’s all part of that change in mindset.”
With the work ethic that’s been instilled in this group of Louth players, anything’s possible on any given Sunday.
“Mickey really touches on the personal level before games and what it means to you and your family,” Duffy says.
“We can all relate to that. His go-to is stuff that I value in a footballer: hard work, someone who is willing to do anything for the team. That’s paramount, that you’re willing to sacrifice yourself for the team, you’re willing to work your ass for the team, you’re willing to pick your team-mate off the ground. That’s what he’s built into people.”