Thursday 8 December 2016

Guarding against certain change

The best managers should know when to step aside for the good of the county, writes John O'Brien

Published 05/06/2011 | 05:00

After training on Thursday evening, Mickey Harte took himself to a familiar place. Kelly's Inn, a few miles south of Omagh, is a sort of unofficial headquarters of Tyrone football. Every year, on the same day, Harte mingles among Tyrone football people here, shares a laugh and his thoughts for the forthcoming summer. He announces the 15 that will take the field for their opening championship salvo, answers a few questions and sends them away feeling warm and hopeful about the months ahead.

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This ritual has been taking place for some years now. Not quite the nine years Harte has been in charge of the Tyrone senior football team, but it probably feels so all the same. Each year, from one to 15, he goes through his team and the names have a comforting feel, but they have changed less than you might have anticipated. McGuigan, O'Neill, Penrose, Cavanagh, Jordan, Dooher. Dooher? Can the great man really be back for another turn?

It isn't a fundamental flaw that the old hands should be back for another tilt at glory. When Harte delivered his first national title with the 1998 Tyrone minors, three of today's starting 15 -- Pascal McConnell, Brian McGuigan and Stephen O'Neill -- were on board. Owen Mulligan and Kevin Hughes were around the margins. That so many soldier on 13 years later is a testament to the strength of character of that group and the extraordinary emotional bond they nurtured.

Yet you don't have to scratch too deeply to detect a slight impatience within the county at the rate of evolution of the team. Peter Harte, centre-back on the 2008 All-Ireland winning minor team, is a welcome addition at left half-forward while Mark Donnelly will invigorate a full-forward line still heavily reliant on Stephen O'Neill for scores. For some, though, it's too easy to look at the present Tyrone senior team and forget that the county has won three All-Ireland minor titles within the last decade.

In an interview last summer, Liam Donnelly, coach of the 2001 and 2004 winning minor teams, articulated his surprise that more of those players hadn't made the senior breakthrough. For one reason or another it hadn't happened. "Obviously Mickey had the minor team in 1998 and he brought a lot of those players through and they went on and won the All-Ireland in 2003 and went on from there," Donnelly said. "So it was probably quite difficult for some of the younger players to make an impression."

Donnelly's assessment was in no way intended as a criticism of Harte's methods. How could you quibble with a record that showed five All-Ireland titles won for your county? Yet the idea of legacy is so enshrined in the visionary ethos of Tyrone's strategic planning that it would be remiss of them if they didn't ask questions of where this current Tyrone team was headed and Harte's role in that journey.

This summer is Harte's ninth as Tyrone manager. His contract takes him to the end of next year's championship. He is the second-longest serving manager in the country, three years behind his friend, Brian Cody. It has always been fascinating to watch them operate: Harte's sustained loyalty to those he has battled with through good times and bad, Cody's ruthless culling of those he considers past their sell-by date and his pattern of injecting fresh blood at least every other season.

In the modern era, both are anomalies of course. Such staying power in hugely stressful positions shouldn't really be possible and whether it should ever be desirable is a moot point. No one questions the success Kilkenny and Tyrone have enjoyed under Cody and Harte, but ask supporters who would be next in line in either county and you will be met with furrowed brows or, in some cases, casual indifference. "He'll be there forever anyway," is one Kilkenny man's assessment of the Cody question.

County boards can't afford such insouciance, however. When Kilkenny won their fourth successive All-Ireland title in 2009, the question of a successor to Cody was raised in the aftermath and Ned Quinn, the county chairman, was quick to point out that they were on top of the issue. Whatever about the plan they had in place, it was impressive enough that they had at least given the matter some thought.

The issue had arisen as far back as 2005 when Kilkenny had been beaten by Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final and the feeling was that Cody would walk. It seems incredible to think now that the dearth of viable candidates was so pronounced that the prospect of scouting for an outside manager was mooted. Six years down the line how far have they moved on from that bleak scenario? Some day Cody will go and you still wonder if Kilkenny will be ready for it.

The thing is we pay due respect to the onus on developing young players, but rarely acknowledge the need to nurture managers as well. It may make perfect sense to retain the services of managers enjoying sustained success in their roles, but is there a price to pay if they stay too long? How many potential good managers do you imagine were put off entering inter-county structures in which they saw poor prospects of promotion?

When he unsuccessfully applied for the Tyrone senior job in 2002, Liam Donnelly took control of the minors instead, won two All-Irelands before moving onto the under 21s, as Harte had done before him. Now he is back managing Trillick. Raymond Munroe, the current under 21 manager, has six years and an All-Ireland with the minors behind him. Will either ever get a cut at the top job? Well, that's hard to say.

Nowhere have the risks of longevity been more conspicuous than in Meath. In the recent furore over Graham Geraghty's return and the resulting departure of selectors Liam Harnan and Barry Callaghan, there wasn't much mention of Seán Boylan. While there's nothing remarkable about that it's still fair to assume that Meath's current problems are at least partly attributable to the unprecedented 23-year term Boylan served as Meath manager.

When Meath secured their fourth All-Ireland title under Boylan in 1999, it seemed the perfect time for the manager to quit. Boylan had no intention of going, however, dragging on for another six years. And when he finally did relinquish the reins, they were faced with the dismal reality that there were few serious contenders waiting in the wings. Eamonn Barry had bravely opposed Boylan the previous three years and, almost by default, stepped into a job that had few willing candidates.

And why would there have been? Boylan's grip on the Meath job was such that if there were those among a great generation of players who fancied it they would have had to take on their former mentor in order to succeed, a process few of them were willing to contemplate. Hardly surprising then that in the wake of Boylan's departure, Meath have lurched from manager to manager and, now, to outsider, a bitter pill many within the county are still trying to swallow.

There is no ideal template, of course. But Tipperary hurling isn't a bad model. It's a mere coincidence that the last two managers to guide them to All-Ireland glory both resigned afterwards, but on both occasions Tipperary had ready-made replacements. It took them some time to find a replacement of Nicky English's calibre, but the structures they have put in place over the last five years should ensure a steady production line of options.

When Liam Sheedy stepped down after last year's All-Ireland, Declan Ryan was the outstanding candidate to fill the vacancy. Tommy Dunne, a selector under Ryan, would strike most as an ideal prospect in a few years' time. Some feel there is more yet to come from English. Whatever, they will never be short of options or over-reliant on the genius and staying power of a single figure.

None of this is meant as a slight on Mickey Harte, of course. For more than a decade Harte has graced the All-Ireland stage with impressive authority and extraordinary dignity and faced more searching questions than those that accompany him into this afternoon's Ulster championship contest against Monaghan. That he has constantly faced down his critics and renewed himself for each bracing challenge is an achievement that will mark him out as one of the greatest managers in the history of the game.

Yet even the greatest have a shelf life. Towards the end of his absorbing autobiography, Presence is the Only Thing, Harte muses on his future, wondering if his talents could work on another stage. "We have been blessed in Tyrone with a marvellous generation of talent," he writes, "but I still believe the basic principles of team-building -- trust, loyalty, good practice, communication -- can deliver results anywhere."

You could wonder when that future will be, perhaps, but then such idle thoughts have always provided fodder to spur Harte and his players on to bigger things.

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