Monday 27 January 2020

Mickey Harte will be there as long as he wants

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Given his success and longevity, Mickey Harte might have felt confident that his bid to have his term extended by one year, to 2018, would have carried enough support when it was floated last year. Tyrone had won a first Ulster title in six years and in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Mayo the difference between winning and losing looked threadbare. They seemed on track.

Instead, the proposal was turned down at a county board meeting. In 2015, Harte received a two-year extension and this was an attempt, in the middle of that arrangement, to add a further 12 months. There were logical reasons why board delegates might have felt it an inappropriate time to move the goalposts. Harte was in charge for another year anyway; they could review it again when that term expired. By then they would also have a better idea of how the team had developed.

The decision was widely reported as a form of rejection, which in a sense it was. It might as easily have been interpreted as an exertion of authority by the board, a reminder of who called the shots.

Ultimately, however, they all wrap themselves in the same flag. Those who wince at the style of football played by Tyrone will ignore those reservations if they achieve the goal of a fourth All-Ireland under Harte, who is in his 15th season as manager.

Harte has said it is not his job to entertain but to get results. This year has been a strong vindication of his methods, with a string of rampant championship wins and reaching a third All-Ireland semi-final this decade by demolishing Armagh. There is no threat to Harte's position and it is inconceivable, unless they were destroyed by Dublin today, that his position would not be secure when the season ends.

Recently, however, another proposal to have his position discussed at board level was refused. It is clear that the board will be making that decision when the time is right and sees itself needing some leverage in any future negotiations.

"I don't think that the Mayo defeat (last year) had any real relevance," says Art McRory, the former Tyrone manager, of the refusal to extend Hart's term. "There would be a, let's say, body who wouldn't like the defensive tactics being employed by the squad. That same cohort would still be there. Make no mistake about it, Mickey Harte will be there as long as he wants to be there.

"Until he's decided he's going I cannot see any change. I cannot see any contender for the position, certainly any obvious contender. I could name you half a dozen people who would do the job, but they are not contenders while he is there; they have too much respect for him. A lot of that was fake news, to quote Mr Trump. There was really nothing much to it."

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The former Tyrone player Brian McGuigan says "50 per cent back Mickey in Tyrone and 50 per cent don't" and adds that those who are Harte sceptics "are probably patting him on the back now".

He notes the "transformation" in the team since they lost to Armagh three years ago, a performance bearing little resemblance to the one that wiped out Armagh in Croke Park a few weeks ago. He also cites the positive changes to the backroom team. Gavin Devlin is a recognised motivator and Peter Donnelly's appointment as a strength and conditioning coach for Tyrone is paying dividends.

"You are only seeing the benefit of Donnelly now," says McGuigan. "He came in after the Armagh defeat. We are seeing his impact across the board and the fact that he is there full-time means he is able to supervise everyone from under 16 level up, so we will see the benefit of those players coming through in a few years too. The way Tyrone are playing now, where you have to move up and down the field relentlessly, you need to be extremely fit."

Having reached the All-Ireland semi-final in 2015, last year's loss to Mayo tested faith in Harte's system. Doubts invariably surfaced about whether Tyrone could win an All-Ireland playing that way.

"There was criticism afterwards which was unfair," says McGuigan. "Tyrone had most of the possession. I think one of the last chances Darren McCurry had, if he was in training he would have scored that with his eyes closed, but he put the ball wide. Sometimes players were taking shots from out the field, silly shots from 50 yards out, that maybe were going short. You would hope that in a tight game they would have learned from that."

Pascal McConnell, the former Tyrone goalkeeper, says the failure to defeat a leading county since 2008 created a balloon of frustration which the Mayo loss pricked and led to questions over Harte's future.

"I think that was how the doubters' camp looked at it, they wanted freshness, change and new impetus. But the overriding question is, who is going to replace him? And I think when that question is put out there, there are not many people coming forward with answers.

"We are a fickle bunch. We are probably not the easiest to please. But when you have that success you want it more. Tyrone people are passionate about their football. I suppose in some quarters a lot of criticism was very unjust. Even during the most successful spell when there were one or two poor years he was still getting flak. We are a hard bunch to please."

McRory isn't going to lie and say he enjoys the football Tyrone play. But that does not dilute his support for the team and management.

"To say that Tyrone are playing to their strengths by sitting back inside the 50-yard line is not very complimentary to the players. I would love to see them play a more expansive game. Then again, I am a spectator and you would like to see a more expansive game. This back and forth across the field is hard to watch.

"That again leads to the way the game has developed and the way the rule-makers have allowed the game to develop. I do think the game needs somebody to take a damn good look at it. Knock up a few rules that make it a better spectacle. It is deteriorating as a spectacle.

"Put it this way: I would go to see Tyrone playing on Sunday, but I certainly would not be going on Sunday, in fact I would not go out the door, to see any other team playing the same way. I'd switch off the telly by half-time."

McGuigan believes "a bit of animosity" developed between Harte and the county board relating to his hardline stance with RTé in turning down interviews. This had a related impact on sponsorship with reduced exposure for financial backers.

"I think it is maybe a case of the county board playing hardball with Mickey," says McGuigan. "But who in the county board is going to have the courage to say, 'Mickey, you are sacked'? I don't think that will go down too well with the people of Tyrone."

All expect Tyrone to really unsettle Dublin. Harte must take credit for creating the conditions where Tyrone now look a more credible All-Ireland bidder.

"Tyrone people are confident they will put up quite a fight," says McConnell. "They don't expect them to be steamrolled. They are very fit. They have a game plan in place, not to everyone's liking but it is effective."

McRory says he can see Dublin getting frustrated. "A lot depends on the maturity of Dublin in exactly how long they can cope with this frustration. I do think they will close them down. If Dublin move too far forward they get hit on the break. And if Tyrone get a score or two and Dublin are not getting scores they could get quite frustrated. While Dublin are Dublin I don't think they have been quite as impressive as they should have been. Even going back to last year's All-Ireland final. They are living on a reputation of sorts.

"At one stage I would have thought they had the ammunition to be as good as the good Kerry teams (of the 1970s and '80s). But that has not materialised. Now, having said that, it would also be fair to say that Dublin are a team in transition in that Jim Gavin has introduced quite a number of players and has successfully blended them with what he has already. And I do think that is their strength at the moment, there is a continuity about them."

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