Wednesday 17 October 2018

Brave Harte just keeps beating

TO MOST outsiders, grizzled Tyrone manager Mickey Harte looks like a man with the Gaelic Midas touch.

Within 12 months of his taking over in late 2002 they had won the National League and the county's first All-Ireland and within another two years they won 'Sam' again.

Yet the 56-year-old has been slogging it out now at the managerial coalface of Tyrone football for 18 years in a remarkable innings that has brought him to the cusp of a third senior All-Ireland in six years.

And it is that unbroken intercounty managerial experience -- since taking over the county minors in 1991 -- which has sustained him in this difficult season which has somehow come good.

It started badly when Stephen O'Neill (27) was prematurely lost to retirement back in January, starting rumours that he and the manager had a falling-out, which appear to be unfounded.

The nadir came when Tyrone were knocked out of Ulster's first round (after a replay) by Down, prompting calls from some locals for Harte to call time on his reign and walk away.

Yet it was actually a teenage O'Neill who persuaded Harte not to quit as county minor manager back in 1997.

After seven years of trying, they'd just lost the All-Ireland minor final to Laois and the Ballygawley PE and English teacher called it a day.

The death of team member Paul McGirr, who died tragically after an on-field injury against Armagh, bonded that team of players and management deeply but, as Harte revealed in his '04 autobiography 'Kicking Down Heaven's Door', O'Neill had to talk him round.

A year later they had that coveted minor title, followed it with back-to-back U-21 All-Irelands and Harte then succeeded Art McRory and Eugene McKenna as Tyrone senior boss.

He was still coaching his home club Errigal Ciaran, whom he led to an Ulster title in '03, and by year's end Tyrone also had that memorable first All-Ireland.

But that was also followed by the tragic death of Cormac McAnallen in March '04, whose loss once again galvanised a hugely talented group in an unimaginable way.

And now, after surviving two seasons ravaged by injury crises, Tyrone are back knocking on Heaven's Door and people wonder how Harte keeps doing it.

His professional training has undoubtedly kept him at the cutting edge of training methods.

Harte was using the 'Elite Sports Analysis' system of statistical team analysis back with Errigal Ciaran before most county teams had even heard of it, and he brought in a 29-year-old, Paddy Tally, to train the Tyrone seniors when he started.

His skill as a motivator is legendary and it is no surprise that he brought Brian Cody in to talk to his team earlier this season because there are clear similarities between them.

Just like Cody at Kilkenny, Harte believes in winning every game you play. He also doesn't 'do' challenge games, or foreign training trips, but concentrates on instilling a massive personal work ethic and team loyalty in his players.

Even as a minor manager, Harte started a dressing-room routine that mirrors that used by rugby's Lions players, where players are called up individually to receive their jerseys and they all put them on simultaneously.

Devour

Another favoured bonding technique was for players to nominate their favourite song which were then made into a team compilation album to be played personally and on the team bus.

Harte's logic? That every time a player ever hears one of those songs they will think of that team-mate.

A devourer of sports biographies and coaching and psychology manuals, Harte was years ahead of the 'Dublin Blue Book' in his bonding techniques and this year's rash of Tyrone beards -- no shaving till Sam perhaps? -- prompted by the players apparently, is another classic.

Five years ago Harte was teaching and doing youth-work and the family had a small grocers in Ballygawley.

But in '04 he sold the shop, started working for auctioneer Martin Shortt and today also works as a motivational speaker and management consultant -- not just on sport but on personal development and spirituality.

Many wonder how Harte's innate niceness -- he's a pioneer, a family man and deeply religious -- can be married with his team's ruthlessness on the field, or his own single-mindedness of it.

Eyebrows were raised when he jettisoned Paddy Tally after '04 and replaced him with the Red Hands' current trainer, Fergal McCann.

He often resolutely refuses to accept Croke Park dictates, is unapologetically anti-International Rules and refuses to speak to one Irish tabloid because of two articles it printed, one of them related to Cormac McAnallen whose family he still visits every month.

To understand that principled, maverick streak in Harte's character is to know the history of Errigal Ciaran, a club born out of the ubiquitous Irish 'split'.

Unjust

Originally a member of St Ciaran's Ballygawley, Harte lined out for his local area of the parish -- Glencull -- in a winter league in 1982 when he got suspended. He wasn't upset by the playing ban but felt the decision to also bar him from coaching the team was completely unjust.

Glencull subsequently pulled out of all local competitions and spent the next seven years, cap-in-hand, pleading with Ulster Council to over-rule Tyrone and let them start their new club.

In that time they essentially ran and funded their own, unrecognised club who played matches everywhere but in Tyrone, which meant that a young local prodigy Peter Canavan actually didn't play any competitive under-age football until he was 19.

In his own words, Harte had "a modest but honest" eight-year inter-county career up to 1982. He was 28 when the row started and 36 before it was resolved and played no competitive football in between.

But on the principle of the thing, he simply would not waiver and it is that strength of character and belief that has brought him, and Tyrone football, back to Croke Park again as modern football's great survivors.

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