No sign of hunger abating as Harte strives to reclaim old glories
Red Hand maestro still chasing grand obsession despite five-year barren run.
Nineteen days before Tyrone played Donegal in the 2011 Ulster semi-final, Mickey Harte accepted an invitation to be guest of honour for a prize-giving day at the Little Angels school in Letterkenny.
The invitation came from Donegal wing-back Kevin Cassidy, a teacher in the multi-denominational school for special needs children.
After the formalities had been completed, Harte was brought to the staff room where he skilfully avoided any talk of the looming Championship game. Eventually one teacher wondered aloud how he managed to sustain such hunger for success having already managed Tyrone to three senior All-Irelands.
Harte's simple response was: "If I didn't have this, I don't know what I would do."
There has long been an understandable belief that Harte will remain Tyrone manager for as long as he has a desire to. His record simply brooks no challenge. Having delivered minor and U-21 All-Irelands to the county, he took the senior job in November of 2002, his appointment triggering an era of success that would previously have been unimaginable.
Over the next six summers, Tyrone won the Sam Maguire three times. In a county the Cup had never visited before, this was beyond extraordinary.
But as Tyrone prepare to renew hostilities with Donegal in Ballybofey tomorrow, they do so in search of their first Ulster title since 2010. They are a somewhat neglected sixth in the betting to win this year's northern crown and find themselves even deeper in the wilderness (ninth) when it comes to the market for prospective All-Ireland champions.
The National League resulted in relegation from the top flight for only the second time in Harte's 13 seasons at the helm (albeit they were crowned Ulster champions when it last happened) and he arrives into this Championship with his current term as manager due to expire at season's end.
If there is no palpable appetite for change in the county just now, another abbreviated Championship run could sow some seeds of unease, particularly with the county having just won an All-Ireland U-21 crown under three of Harte's former foot-soldiers, Feargal Logan, Peter Canavan and Brian Dooher.
That said, the county's debt to Harte would make any involuntary departure seem almost distasteful.
Not alone was he Tyrone's public face through the tragic deaths of Paul McGirr in 1997 and Cormac McAnallen in 2004, the murder of his daughter in 2011 felt like an assault on an entire community given Michaela's closeness to her father and her visibility within the county squad.
In some ways, football seemed to become Tyrone's only refuge through those awful days, and Harte's spirituality their most comforting anchor.
Six days after he buried his daughter, Tyrone played Donegal in a McKenna Cup game in Dungannon. To the players' amazement, Harte was waiting to address them when they gathered pre-match at Kelly's Inn in Ballygawley. He thanked them for their support through the week and simply asked them to be the best that they could be.
It was selector Tony Donnelly who talked them through the game-plan but, a point and a man down at half-time, Harte decided to speak. His message was that such a handicap was "nothing" to a group of their calibre.
In Declan Bogue's wonderful book 'This is Our Year', Ryan McMenamin recalls: "Once Mickey started speaking, you could see all the boys lifting themselves. He got the hair standing up on the backs of our necks and our performance immediately went up. We got the bit between our teeth.
"Words can't describe what kind of a man he is. I don't know how he does it. He must have phenomenal strength."
Tyrone won the game by a goal.
Yet, for all that natural presence, it is Harte's tactical astuteness that has made the biggest difference with Tyrone. He created a system for the team in '03 that became a template for the more extreme version deployed by Jim McGuinness with Donegal in more recent times. Harte eschewed the convention of simply setting up man for man, introducing us essentially to the first draft of what we now term 'blanket defence'.
Mind you, the key to Tyrone's success was not simply a propensity for suffocation, it was the coherence of their transition from defence into attack. With marquee forwards like Canavan, Brian McGuigan, Dooher, Stephen O'Neill(right) and Owen Mulligan at his disposal, Tyrone's victories came on the back of some truly spectacular counter-attacking performances. The question now is whether he can master another reprise.
Despite winning All-Ireland minor titles in 2008 and 2010, the senior harvest has not been what was hoped. The stars of those two teams, Kyle Coney and Ryan O'Neill, have struggled to become the players Tyrone want them to be and there has been a sense, particularly in this year's League, of a puzzling inconsistency afflicting Harte's men.
Ostensibly, a single victory from seven outings looks a wretched return, but Tyrone drew with both Dublin and Kerry (the runaway favourites in the All-Ireland betting) as well as Derry, they lost to Cork by a single point and that lone triumph was an impressive four-point victory in Mayo.
The real aberrations were losses to Monaghan by seven points and Donegal by ten.
Presumably, the latter will be referenced in their approach to tomorrow's return to Ballybofey, especially given Tyrone have not recorded a Championship victory over Donegal in eight seasons.
On occasion, Harte seems lost for words at such fluctuations in form, but he is said to have been more hands-on in training this year, despite missing the end of the League for medical reasons.
His direct opponent tomorrow, Rory Gallagher, was in his last year as a minor with Fermanagh when Harte was guiding Tyrone to an All-Ireland title in that grade. Gallagher marvelled this week at Harte's longevity, given the growing intensity of inter-county preparation.
That said, there is a view that this very intensity is what most sustains Mickey Harte now. His love of the game remains palpable, albeit he has become increasingly irritated by those inclined to carp about over-defensive game-plans.
After Tyrone's defeat of Mayo in this year's League, he said: "Sometimes it is very black and white from people's perspectives and I have to allow people to be as ignorant of the facts as they want to be."
He will forever stand as one of the truly great figures of GAA life, but for how much longer will he keep chasing this grand obsession?
For Harte, the fervent hope must be that he, and he alone, provides the answer.
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