Kenny Archer: Mickey Harte crossing the Rubicon from Tyrone to Derry
‘The Iris Robinson Rule’: ever since 2010, I’ve applied that when told some outrageous-sounding rumour or speculation: in other words, I believe it, no matter how incredible it seems.
Recently, though, when Mickey Harte’s name was linked to the Derry job – I really can’t remember where I heard or read that – my reaction was still ‘Ha! Ha! Good one!’ (delivered in a sarcastic tone).
As if Mickey would take any other job in Ulster, never mind with that lot?!
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I still cringe and blush at the memory of checking out a tip-off about who was to become the new Armagh manager in 2009. I was told this person was crossing a major county rivalry.
The former Tyrone footballer I called up based on a bum steer - no, I can’t name him and shame myself - laughed off the suggestion, utterly incredulous at the idea.
Of course, it was former Down captain Paddy O’Rourke who took up that role, prompting some outcry in both counties.
Relatively speaking, though, that was nothing compared to this switch: the Burren man had only been in charge of his own county’s seniors for four seasons, from 2003 to 2006.
Mickey Harte was synonymous with Tyrone. Senior boss for 18 seasons, from 2003 to 2020 inclusive. Before that he’d been Minor manager and then in charge of the U21s, for more than a decade combined.
He owes Tyrone absolutely nothing, having provided three decades of sterling service, winning three All-Irelands and six Ulster titles.
Many will say, publicly at least, that it’s just sport and that they have no problem with Harte crossing the county border to hook up with Derry.
Yet the GAA isn’t ‘just sport’, and its allegiances run far deeper than those of most soccer managers.
Of course, there have been a host of ‘outside’ managers over the decades.
However, few have bridged such a rivalry.
Harte isn’t merely going over the Ballinderry river, he’s crossing the Rubicon.
It really is the equivalent of Alex Ferguson becoming Liverpool manager, or Arsene Wenger taking up the Tottenham job.
In GAA terms, it’s Mick O’Dwyer becoming Cork boss, or Brian Cody taking charge of Tipperary.
The news broke almost 30 years to the day of Derry’s only All-Ireland senior success.
Much has changed since then and this feels like another erosion of that sense and pride of place on which the Association is based.
Perhaps it’s not so hard for Harte as he’s not from east Tyrone. His assistant Gavin ‘Horse’ Devlin is from Ardboe, but with a surname like that I have my doubts about his parentage…(That’s a joke, folks).
There’ll be hardcore Derry supporters hoping that Twitter’s transformation into ‘X’ has deleted their previous timelines of scathing Tweets about Harte and how he gets his teams to play.
Derry are targeting their first ever three-in-a-row of Ulster triumphs next year, having already achieved two other firsts, with a win in extra time (2021), then a victory on penalties (2022).
Surely fate will set them up to meet – and beat? – Tyrone in the Ulster Final for the first time ever (having only met once before at that stage, way back in 1957).
Completing that hat-trick would be special, but the Anglo-Celt Cup is not the trophy Derry really want.
The Oak Leafers could, perhaps should, have reached the All-Ireland Final this year, edged out by Kerry in the semi-finals.
With all the young talent they have coming through, and the age profile of their senior squad, they are well placed to challenge Dublin as top dogs.
No matter what is likely to be said, revenge will be a motivating factor for Mickey. He felt hard done by at not being retained after 2020, with some justification; that Covid-affected season was tough for everyone.
The Red Hands surprisingly lifting the Sam Maguire Cup the next year would have rubbed salt into his raw wounds.
Beating Tyrone might be enough for Harte, and the counties will meet in Division One next year, but it won’t do for Derry; they’ve already thrashed the Red Hands in both their recent Championship meetings.
If Harte leads Derry to ‘Sam’ then he’ll feel it was worth it to make this move.
The consolation for those with O’Neill County allegiances is that Derry’s hopes of winning a second senior All-Ireland now rest with two Tyrone men.
Incidentally, Iris Robinson was kicked out of the DUP. Just saying… Just joking. Partly…
In another anniversary, exactly six years ago, to the day/night, the two Irish international women’s football teams met at Mourneview Park in Lurgan.
I was on my way back up to Belfast from some GAA work in Dublin so I called into the match. It was a World Cup qualifier but I don’t think I had to show my NUJ pass to get in; as far as I can recall there was no admission cost at all.
The sparse crowd was clearly mostly made up of friends and family of the players.
The transformation since then has been tremendous, on and off the pitch.
Northern Ireland have been to the Euros, in England last summer, while their counterparts from the Republic aren’t long back from the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the first Irish female team to participate in the global tournament finals.
This Saturday lunchtime the sides will meet again, but at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, with a huge crowd expected; ticket sales are now well over the 30,000 mark.
Both sides now have female bosses, albeit that Eileen Gleeson is only in temporary charge of the hosts after the controversial departure of Vera Pauw.
Australian Tanya Oxtoby will also be in charge of the North for the first time, having recently succeeded Kenny Shiels, who did so much to elevate standards.
Some Republic players have been outspokenly critical of what they perceived as poor preparation and coaching by Pauw, but in general the women’s game is on a fast upward trajectory.
The Republic of Ireland comfortably won 2-0 back in 2017 and will be expected to achieve a similar outcome on Saturday. Whatever the result, it’s another milestone occasion in the growth of female football on this island.