Thursday 23 January 2020

Losing key coaches, McShane's AFL move and a tough schedule - why Mickey Harte's 18th season will likely be his last

The Tyrone manager is beginning his 18th and possibly final season

‘Drawing a line down the middle of a page in order to weigh up the reasons for and against Harte staying would be an interesting exercise’. Photo: Sportsfile
‘Drawing a line down the middle of a page in order to weigh up the reasons for and against Harte staying would be an interesting exercise’. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

At some stage during the last year, relations between Stephen O'Neill and other parts of the Tyrone management set-up are believed to have come under a degree of strain.

O'Neill isn't a character given to melodrama or public displays of pique. His manner of coping was to keep his counsel and retreat more into the background. When the season finished, after the All-Ireland semi-final loss to Kerry, he stepped away quietly.

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O'Neill is said to have been an immensely popular figure with the players and his departure was deeply regretted after spending two years as their forwards' coach. He is now to be found looking after Dungiven in Derry. After O'Neill left, Kevin Madden, the former Antrim player, came in to fill a vacancy. Through no fault of Madden's, he could not hope to have the hold on Tyrone player affections that O'Neill commanded.

It has been a turbulent few months for Mickey Harte, now in his 18th season as manager - which is looking a good bet to be his last. Questions also followed the exit of Peter Donnelly and why he was allowed leave Tyrone, initially to pursue a position with the Ulster Rugby Academy, before ending up working simultaneously with Monaghan under Seamus Mc-Enaney.

People can rationalise Donnelly wanting to try his hand at a professional sport, with perhaps better financial conditions than the Tyrone board, his previous employer, could offer. But the Monaghan part didn't make sense. If he could do Monaghan, why not Tyrone?

Donnelly, a former Tyrone player at all levels and All-Ireland winner, who won a county championship medal in goal with his native Coalisland in 2018, came in as strength and conditioning coach after the 2014 season, having earned his stripes with Cavan. By all accounts his influence has been extremely positive and the players were enthusiastic about his input.

"I think he is an unbelievable loss to Tyrone," says Damian O'Hagan, manager of Coalisland in 2018, who took Donnelly to his first county minor trial. "I can't understand why the Tyrone management or county board lost Peter Donnelly. I have no doubt that he will be back in Tyrone in the future. His heart and soul is in Gaelic football."

In Donnelly's place is the rugby strength and conditioning coach Jonny Davis. Harte recently spoke of his positive influence and the benefits of change and having a man with experience of a professional sporting culture and set-up. The irony of Harte speaking of the benefits of change, having held the senior post for 17 straight seasons, is one thing. But now he has felt the brunt of professional sport too, with the potential loss of Cathal McShane to the Australian Football League.

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In the final year of a three-year extension, Harte has been suffering the kind of afflictions and misfortune that make the end more conceivable. A serious injury to Mattie Donnelly, ruling him out of the National League at the very least, leaves the spring a major challenge, with two of their key forwards now missing.

No manager or mentor can be held accountable for injuries or a player who is determined to leave, but losing McShane the year after he won an All Star is a stinging blow to Tyrone, and Harte personally. The hurt and frustration was palpable in interviews he gave on McShane's offer of a new adventure, his contempt for the GAA's pact with the AFL devil coming to the surface.

Harte is consistent on the hybrid game, to be fair, and he deserves sympathy, as does any club or county that invests time in developing a player only for some other club or organisation to sweep them away. After McShane having such a memorable year it is all the more galling.

Losing Donnelly and O'Neill is more troubling and inexplicable as it seems evident that in the former's case he wanted to stay if an agreement could have been worked out. "I think he would have been over the moon to stay with Tyrone," says O'Hagan of Donnelly. "He is mad interested in Tyrone football. He is mad interested in Tyrone youth. They didn't do enough to hold on to him.

"And I can't understand the walking away of Stephen O'Neill, it beggars belief, and seeing the improvement in Cathal McShane I put totally down to the work of Stephen O'Neill's coaching. I have watched Cathal McShane from being a minor and I've watched a serious improvement in him. As a minor, McShane was more than raw and still shows bits of rawness at times, but he has proved himself, to win an All Star, and it's great to see what coaching has done to him."

Drawing a line down the middle of a page in order to weigh up the reasons for and against Harte staying would be an interesting exercise for the county board executive and maybe Tyrone followers right now. He is the longest serving inter-county manager currently involved in Gaelic football. Sean Boylan resigned in 2005 after 23 years managing Meath. Harte, even with his gift for endurance and original thinking, is likely to fall at least five years shy of that.

Tyrone open their Division 1 campaign with a home tie against a newly-promoted Meath in Healy Park in two weeks and face a tough ordeal to stay in the top flight. The championship begins with a match against Donegal in Ballybofey. If they end up in the qualifiers the prospect of a soft landing is reduced with the absence of teams from the lower division of the National League. There is a sense that public opinion in the county is beginning to turn against him, though not too many will risk stating that publicly given his record of achievement.

Getting Tyrone to an All-Ireland final was an impressive feat in 2018, even if you ignore that they have failed to beat Dublin, Kerry or Mayo in the championship since 2008. Would anyone else do any better? Maybe not. But the reign may reach a natural end unless Tyrone produce something special this season. In 2015 he wasn't automatically reinstated for the first time, and his future looked uncertain for a while. Issues merged over the team's form, the non-availability of players to clubs, sponsorship and his ongoing boycott of RTÉ on which he hasn't flinched.

He ended up getting two more years, since extended by another three. After the Kerry defeat last August, Harte was on the end of criticism from Sean Cavanagh who believed that the time had come to consider a new direction.

The loss of the likes of O'Neill and Donnelly looks to have weakened Harte's hand, but even in the best of times, when Tyrone were winning All-Irelands, prominent players went away - O'Neill included - before returning. The former Tyrone manager, Danny Ball, is a first cousin of Stephen O'Neill's father and from the same club, Clann na nGael. "I was surprised to see him going, yes," he says. "I think he had a lot to offer there. I never got speaking to Stephen as to why he left. But they've lost Peter Donnelly as well to rugby. Peter obviously made a massive contribution to the development of Tyrone. I find it strange why he went down to Monaghan and he has still a lot to offer Tyrone. I don't know the background to it."

Pascal McConnell, the former Tyrone goalkeeper, speaks of a "massive, massive loss" to Tyrone with Donnelly's departure. "First and foremost he is one of our own. He is a man rich in Tyrone blood. He fought for the cause and went to the trenches and had his success as well at underage and senior level. Going on what the players were saying they were speaking so highly of the lad. They held Peter Donnelly in such high regard.

"Tyrone have seen a lot of very good strength and conditioning coaches. Right, he was going to a professional game, that was acceptable, in the sense of maybe that's what he wanted to be at. Suddenly then he is diverted to Monaghan and you are thinking 'all is not what it seems here'. Something is wrong within Tyrone that we have let this talent go. The man is going to go to the top, there is no doubt about that, he is a talented man, but why he was let go so lightly? Question were asked 'was there a fight to keep him'?"

Carrickmore's Ryan Daly has also left as head of the Tyrone academy which surprised many and for a while the development squads suffered from his absence. Again, there was a feeling that more could have been done to keep him on board. Gavin Devlin, the Tyrone senior football selector, later took on a role with the academy. He is serving a 24-week ban arising from an incident which took place at an under-15 match between Tyrone and Down last July where he was charged with 'disruptive behaviour by a spectator'. The suspension will rule him out of Tyrone activities until late February.

Harte is still standing and ready to give another year, at least, to the cause. "Everyone has an opinion, everyone has an opinion on how the game is played, on different tactics and things like that," says Pascal McConnell. "We are football people, we are free to air our opinions. Yes, Mickey, the success he has had with Tyrone is second to none. I as a player along with my ex-teammates have a lot to thank Mickey for, there is no doubt about that. Is the thing gone on a little bit long? The debate is open."

The views on McShane's decision to try his luck in Australia are predictably mixed. In Owen Roe O'Neills, the club he helped raise out of junior ranks in recent years and almost win promotion to senior when losing a play-off in 2019, they will feel the loss most severely. The club's All-Ireland medal winner, Declan McCrossan, feels that because of his age, being older than most recruits, and having trained as a teacher, McShane is more secure if it doesn't work out and he has to come home.

No matter what views you may hold on Harte's longevity, and the obvious restriction on other possible candidates, the task of managing Tyrone has become notably more challenging.

Speaking to journalist Kieran Shannon before the 2018 All-Ireland final, Harte addressed the possibility of staleness due to his length of time in the position. "I was never worried about that at all. I've always believed that I have the capability of moving with the situation that's in front of us. People love the idea of change and that idea that everything will be better because of change. That presupposes that change can't take place within the same head and, if I wasn't changing my thinking and not adding value to what we had here, there was no point in staying."

For this year at least, it is as you were.

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