Kingdom fear Mickey Harte has their measure as Croke Park scars linger
Published 22/08/2015 | 02:30
Kerry people have good reason to like and dread Mickey Harte in equal measure. He is the stone in their shoe, football's ultimate pragmatist, a man who has forced them into more bouts of self-reproach than anyone else still living.
Harte still courses them with a view of the game that is hard-nosed and unromantic. He has never mistaken management for the choreographing of Swan Lake.
Yet the applause that followed the Tyrone bus all the way into town from Fitzgerald Stadium after that 2012 qualifier spoke of the broader GAA community reaching out towards one of their own.
Harte would have understood and appreciated that. He'd lost his daughter Michaela 18 months earlier, all concept of normality in his world now hopelessly torn. Yet here he was before them, still walking that whitewashed line, still living.
To this day, that 10-point Killarney win is filed away in Kerry minds as some kind of ghost statistic. A victory signifying nothing.
The three Championship games they really needed to win against Mickey Harte all left a cold wind blowing through their chests. Each time, he had their measure, coldly set their panic.
Tyrone's intensity caught Páidí Ó Sé by surprise in the '03 All-Ireland semi-final and Jack O'Connor says that the Kingdom had to basically re-educate themselves after losing the '05 final.
Against "hard-tackling northern teams" their romantic view of the game was becoming a restrictive conceit. Kerry needed to learn how to tackle in a way that rattled not just the opposition's teeth, but their very chromosomes.
They came back to win the All-Ireland in '06, devouring Mayo in a lopsided final. But it felt bloodless. After Tyrone, Mayo just seemed a day at the beach.
Jack was on sabbatical by the time Tyrone beat Kerry again in the '08 final, Harte catching the Kingdom off guard with his delegation of big Joe McMahon to police the aerial threat of Kieran Donaghy and young Tommy Walsh.
Tyrone didn't care much for any gentle courtesies the same day, Walsh a specific target of what we know today as sledging.
And they made no apologies for their bad manners after. Why would they?
Brian McGuigan made an intriguing point on Newstalk this week, reading significance in the continued involvement of Marc Ó Sé and Aidan O'Mahony with Kerry when so many Tyrone contemporaries, like McGuigan himself, Philip Jordan, Owen Mulligan and Stephen O'Neill no longer even play club football "because those years took so much out of us."
What he seemed to be saying was that to play in a Mickey Harte team could never be an equivocal experience. Even the McKenna Cup must be pursued with a ferocity others summon only on select days. For Harte's Tyrone, intensity wasn't an optional virtue.
O'Connor's experience of '05 drew him to a conclusion that, losing to Tyrone, was "worse than losing to almost anybody else."
He talked of an "arrogance" in Ulster football generally, about a tendency to "advertise themselves well." O'Connor was scornful of a northern tendency to mythologise their victories "as if they'd just split the atom."
Yet it was interesting to note the language used by Peter Canavan in this precinct last Saturday in his interpretation of the Tiernan McCann story. People in the south don't ordinarily use expressions like 'lifelong Gaels', maybe because it never seems as if, down here, lives are so defined by that simple worship.
To some, Canavan's references to McCann's family seemed needlessly over-arched and haughty, declaration of a status hard to reconcile with the simple kicking of points or winning of games.
But Peter's sense of a GAA allegiance is, inevitably, different to that of a player in Kerry or Mayo or Dublin. It must be. Likewise Harte's.
When you've known people murdered for that allegiance, it's surely human to see your identity in a starker light.
And, when you've walked behind the hearses of your own daughter, of two of your players, maybe it becomes easier to entertain an us-against-the-world philosophy.
But, for Kerry, that's only part of the puzzle to be faced now. It's Harte's football brain they dread.