Tuesday 12 December 2017

Devout, tough and ruthless: Why Mickey is Tyrone's Harte and soul

One of the GAA's most successful managers, Mickey Harte hopes to rise to the occasion again tomorrow when he leads his county into battle against champions Kerry. We profile a man whose teams inspire both love and contempt... and who has had to cope with great personal tragedy

Mickey Harte's teams inspire both love and contempt
Mickey Harte's teams inspire both love and contempt
Mickey and his beloved daugther Micheala after Tyrone won the All-Ireland
John Meagher

John Meagher

On the fourth Sunday of September 2003, Tyrone's footballers banished years of underachievement and the odd near-miss to win the All-Ireland title for the very first time. They beat reigning champions Armagh in a hard-fought match, the first ever to feature two Ulster sides. All summer, manager Mickey Harte had instilled a simple mantra in his men: "No ifs, no buts, no maybes - total faith."

Among the photos printed in the next day's newspapers were those of Harte embracing his sport-mad daughter Michaela moments after the full-time whistle. The emotion was writ large on both faces and you didn't need to be a scholar of Gaelic football to understand just how much the victory meant.

They were pictures that would be everywhere again in January 2011, when Michaela was murdered while on honeymoon in Mauritius with her husband-of-a-week, John McAreavey. Two employees from their hotel were arrested, tried and found not guilty. The case remains unsolved. It was a murder that brought enormous pain to the Harte and McAreavey families (especially to Mickey's wife Marian) and touched Irish people in a deep and profound way.

A sense of the killing's impact in hearts and minds was evident when Tyrone played Kerry in the All-Ireland qualifiers in Killarney the following year. Hundreds of local people waited outside the Tyrone dressing room after the game in order to offer their condolences to Harte. He was said to be greatly moved to the show of solidarity from the GAA community.

By the time of Michaela's murder, Harte was known to GAA fans everywhere, having guided Tyrone to three All-Ireland titles in six years, but the killing of his daughter, and the extraordinarily dignified way he conducted himself afterwards, would ensure that he was to become a household name everywhere.

The 63-year-old was not an unexpected choice as first guest for Pat Kenny's much-hyped UTV Ireland interview series earlier this summer, and he spoke candidly about coming to terms with Michaela's death: "I miss her so, so much and in human terms, your heart is broken. But, on a higher level, I just feel there is a special connection - and I can only just believe that that's the work of God and the work of Michaela - because she had such a belief and that gives me great help, because she so believed in God and believed that was her purpose in life, to work her way towards God."

In an increasingly secular Ireland, Harte's Catholicism stands out. A sense of just how important that faith is in his life, was provided by his son Mark, when speaking at a Novena in Co Fermanagh in 2013. He talked of how his earliest memories include saying the rosary each night and making St Brigid's crosses and how his father still blesses each bedroom door with holy water. "Prayer and faith has been a great source of strength in living with the loss of Michaela," Mark said at the time.

Mickey Harte's story resonates across the north's religious divide according to Belfast Telegraph GAA correspondent Declan Bogue, who recalls a sporting awards night held by his newspaper two years ago in which Harte's speech captivated the entire audience.

"You had [Ireland football manager] Martin O'Neill and [former Northern Ireland international] Gerry Armstrong there, but everyone wanted a piece of Mickey Harte," he says. "Even people who had never watched a Gaelic football match in their lives were taken with him. Not many people are capable of that."

But with Harte's Tyrone set to reach their fourth All-Ireland final under his watch should they beat All-Ireland champions Kerry at Croke Park tomorrow, critics of his style of football have been lining up.

"He is the manager of a team whose rap sheet includes diving, feigning injury, sledging, trying to get opponents sent off and some of his management team getting involved with opposition players," wrote former Meath forward Colm O'Rourke in his Sunday Independent column last week.

"His defence is generally on the lines that there is a The Sunday Game agenda and a bias in the southern media."

Another outspoken pundit, ex-Derry player Joe Brolly, was even more scathing when discussing Harte on 2fm sports show Game On in March: "Mickey Harte said, 'We're not in the business of entertainment'. Well then f**k off and play behind closed doors if you're not in the business of entertainment. Have you ever heard such a perverse thing?"

But it was the soundbite delivered by Pat Spillane, The Sunday Game pundit and former Kerry footballer, back in 2003 that has clung to Harte's Tyrone: "Puke football". The term was coined after a semi-final in which Harte's blanket defence system ensured that hot favourites Kerry scored just six points - an unthinkably low haul.

Declan Bogue believes the put-down does Harte a great disservice. "You still hear it," he says, "but people conveniently forget that Tyrone played some very good, attack-minded football over the following years. They might say otherwise, but I think some of the RTE pundits have an anti-Tyrone bias."

There was certainly a sense of us versus them after the defeat of Monaghan in the All-Ireland quarter-final when Tyrone's comparative newcomer Tiernan McCann was caught on camera faking injury in order to get an opponent sent off. He had faced an eight-week ban, which Harte strongly opposed.

"It's the sort of thing that's become part of the culture of the game now," Bogue says, "and it's certainly not confined to Tyrone. Other counties do it too, but you don't get the same sort of widespread condemnation."

Some believe the antipathy directed towards Tyrone - occasionally billed as the Millwall of the GAA, in reference to the widely despised English football club - stems from geography.

"They're a northern team who upset the cosy apple-cart," says one GAA writer. "They had the temerity to take on the southern aristocrats and win All-Irelands on their terms. Why should Kerry have a God-given right to win? Why not Tyrone, or Armagh, or Donegal?

"People in the south sometimes haven't the faintest idea just how important the GAA is in the north, and how it wasn't always easy being a player or supporter on that side of the border."

Declan Bogue - who lives just a few kilometres away from Mickey Harte - concurs: "In the past, you'd have players who'd be heading to training and would get stopped at army checkpoints and maybe delayed by half an hour as their car was searched from top to bottom.

"'Sambo' McNaughton [the former Antrim hurler] talked about getting stopped; he might have six hurleys in the boot and they'd break them all and throw them into the ditch."

With such an environment part and parcel of life up to quite recently, Bogue says it's hardly a surprise that some northern players and spectators might feel they had to work that bit harder to pursue the game they loved.

"It might be one of the reasons," Bogue says, "why there would be a greater sense of support and solidarity among all the Ulster counties if one of them got to a final, than you'd have in the other provinces. I mean, if Cork hurlers get to the final, would Tipperary people want them to win?"

Harte is often described as a genial, highly principled man and has been praised for his skill in navigating the sometimes choppy waters of being a public figure in the north. But he has never been afraid to ruffle feathers.

As a player, he led a walkout of his club, Ballycawley St Ciaran's, and was instrumental in setting up a 'phantom' club which operated outside the Tyrone County Board jursidiction for seven years (until peace was made with Ballycawley and the amalgamated Errigal Ciaran was formed).

He also came out swinging against RTE in 2011 when he and a number of other high-profile managers, including Kilkenny's Brian Cody, jointly sent a letter of condemnation to the station's director general over the way they felt it had demoted the veteran GAA broadcaster Brian Carty.

Over the years, Harte has not been afraid to make his deeply orthodox Catholicism known, most controversially in 2009 when he attended the launch of an anti-contraception book by Tyrone pharmacist Patrick McCrystal, Who's at the Centre of Your Marriage... The Pill or Jesus Christ? and he was among those interviewed for a Catholic video campaign, In Praise of Priests.

This has been a challenging year for Harte, not least because of the operation he had to undergo in April for a serious medical condition. Media enquiries to the family have been met with a strict rebuke: private matter. But Harte is said to be doing well.

Should Tyrone beat Kerry tomorrow, and then triumph in the final in September, Harte's place in GAA lore will be even more secure than it is now. Don't bet against it.

Mickey Harte in his own words

On breaking away from his club as a player: "It finished my inter-county career, but for what I lost on the field, I gained more from what I learned off it. I learned how to lead, how to nurture a cause. And I learned that there's a stubborn streak in me."

On hammering the game's minnows: "We're not in the business of being sympathetic; we're in the business of being ruthless."

On suggestions that he used negative tactics against Monaghan: "There were 32 scores in our game in Croke Park, that seems to have gone unnoticed."

On having Michaela's killer or killers brought to justice: "I don't think ultimately it changes anything. The end result is still the same - we have still lost somebody very dear to us and we have to learn to live with that."

On coming to terms with Michaela's death: "I felt God was there for me and I couldn't have gone through it without him. I almost heard or felt a message saying, 'You can manage this'."

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