Brendan Crossan: Derry have given their All-Ireland dream every chance
SOME Derry, Tyrone and plenty of Louth people were up in arms this week following the news that Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin were leaving Louth to take over in Derry.
Some people will continue to be up in arms for a while on the general basis that how could Mickey Harte do it? Go and take the managerial reins of Tyrone’s age-old rivals Derry.
In between times of this faux outrage and despair, life will inevitably take a firm grip of our senses while we fret over the 15th consecutive jump in the Bank of England interest rates and how northern society has been absolutely ravaged by Brexit and Tory economic policies that have left our public services crumbling.
Or maybe the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of us are dutifully consumed with the harsh realities of life anyway and we don't really spend too much time on worrying about what Mickey Harte does next or which team he decides to manage?
Sport is entertainment, after all. It's escapism - often a joyous space where we allow ourselves the luxury of losing perspective for a while and getting wrapped up in dramatic pieces of sports news of the day that occasionally appear on our mobile phones during another mindless, meandering scroll.
And yet, that all said, we'll probably remember where we were when we read or heard about Harte and Devlin's 'defection' to the Oak Leaf County and leaving poor Louth in the lurch.
For what it's worth, I was sitting quietly among the Crusaders fans at Seaview on Monday evening watching their north Belfast rivals Cliftonville hand out a ruthless lesson in finishing.
The initial surprise that appeared on my phone left me quite quickly because you can never under-estimate Mickey Harte's capacity to surprise.
No sooner had he posted a WhatsApp message into the Tyrone players group after being let go by the county executive than he was down in Darver telling the Louth players that they now had the best coach in the country at their disposal - Gavin 'Horse' Devlin.
I’ve interviewed Harte many times over the last 20 years. Upon his Tyrone departure in November 2020, he told me at his home in Glencull: “Being Tyrone manager just happened to be something I was; it’s not my identity, actually. It’s not my identity at all.
“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.”
Approaching three-score and 10, Harte is of an age and a mindset where he’ll choose things that he wants to do.
He won’t have given a great deal of thought to the ramifications of his switch to Derry – or what people might say. He doesn’t care about those conversations.
What makes Harte's Derry move less surprising is the trajectory of Gavin Devlin’s coaching career.
After spells with Newbridge, Bellaghy and Slaughtneil, and how highly thought of he was in each of those clubs, it’s clear to see - at least now it is - how Harte and Devlin have ended up where they are.
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The pair have been close since the latter’s minor days. Fast-forward to the present and Devlin has as much influence over Harte as Harte has over Devlin.
In that 2020 interview, Harte said of his former defender: “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.”
In an interview with The Irish News in 2016, Devlin was equally effusive of their relationship.
“Even when I was playing, Mickey and I would’ve had conversations about the game,” Devlin said.
“I always found him easy to talk to. Not everyone did…
“Our vision of football is very, very similar. I’ve no bother talking to Mickey – I’d talk to Mickey as well as I’d talk to my own father.”
The GAA people of Louth – the players and chairman Peter Fitzpatrick – are rightly annoyed at the swiftness of Harte and Devlin’s departure. But life will go on.
Louth football has never aimed higher – and that is down to the impact of the Tyrone duo over the last three years.
Had the Derry job not become available, Harte and Devlin would have kept pushing on with Louth – but maybe they’d already reached the ceiling with them and that 2024 might have been death by a thousand cuts.
Louth is still in a great head space and as captain Sam Mulroy mentioned in these pages during the week, that 2024 remains a very exciting season for this group of footballers that need to seize the opportunities that lie in front of them.
They don’t disappear just because Harte and Devlin have left.
While Louth hit a couple of brick walls in the All-Ireland series last season, Derry should have at least been in an All-Ireland final.
Derry are undoubtedly on the cusp of Gaelic football’s greatest prize – but that window of opportunity is already narrowing after back-to-back All-Ireland semi-final defeats.
Harte and Devlin have been signed up by Derry to deliver the Sam Maguire.
If life is about challenges.
The news on Monday evening means that the Oak Leaf County have given themselves every opportunity in 2024.
Imagine what the neighbours might say and parish boundaries hindering you from pursuing a dream.
Madness, when you think about it…