Wednesday 21 February 2018

Peter Canavan: 'The standards he asks of you as a player are the standards he sets as a manager'

Mickey Harte's ability to get inside the heads of his players is the reason so many of us will do anything for him

Peter Canavan and Mickey Harte chat on the sideline during the 2003 League final. Photo: Sportsfile
Peter Canavan and Mickey Harte chat on the sideline during the 2003 League final. Photo: Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

The all-too-brief heatwave we had this week reminded me of one of the few disagreements I had with Mickey Harte when I was playing.

It was on a training camp before the 2004 All-Ireland quarter-final. Temperatures were soaring and we were staying in a Dublin hotel, but we weren't seeing much of the sun.

Mickey and his management team had decided to bring in a sports psychologist and inside a darkened room we were subjected to what I can only describe as excruciating, meandering droning - when all we wanted to do was go out and kick ball.

My head was fried and I could see all around me boys were tearing their hair out. After about the third session, the players and (Brian) Dooher, as captain, went to Mickey with a plea for the talking to stop. When Mickey was told, he didn't like it one bit, but he relented and we got our way.

What Mickey didn't realise that it was him we wanted to hear and not anyone else, regardless of all their qualifications. As far as I was concerned, Mickey Harte is the best sport psychologist I've ever listened to.

Mickey has a mantra that has been in my head ever since my first year being managed by him. These 24 words perfectly sum up what he demands of his players and the man himself - Mr Persistent.

"Persistence is awesome, it is absolutely awesome - it is this that takes an average performer of average ability and moulds him into a champion."


The quote comes from someone that most of you probably have never heard of: George Zalucki, who has been used by companies worldwide as a personal development trainer. That's all I know of George; thankfully I know a bit more about Mickey.

Our family homes are separated by just three fields in Glencull, Co Tyrone, but I was in the 'autumn of my career' before I first came under his management. Fortunately, he made it a golden autumn.

Having been involved in successful Tyrone minor and U-21 teams, he took over as manager of our club Errigal Ciaran at the start of 2002 and by the end of the year, we were both county and Ulster champions. Mickey then became Tyrone senior manager and the following September, I was lifting the Sam Maguire in front of a sea of white and red in Croke Park. The stuff of dreams.

A decade earlier, I had played alongside him on the Errigal senior team. He was entering his 40s and was Tyrone minor manager at the time, but he still wanted to play with the club.

There was an underlying reason - for eight years, there was no football in our parish over a bitter dispute with the county board, and when the club got going again in 1990, Mickey was determined to make up for lost time. Just three years later, Errigal won the Tyrone senior championship and went on to become the first Tyrone team to win an Ulster club, with 41-year-old Mr Persistent a sub on the team.

While these two medals took an awful long time to get, I know how dearly he holds them.

So what makes him such a great manager, over such a long time? Well, there are many characteristics that make up the man, but from a player's point of view, the one that instantly grabs you and remains a constant is that he practises what he preaches.

The standards he asks of you as a player are the standards he sets as a manager.

And as a player, he constantly wants you to think for yourself. For example, if he's looking back at something a player did wrong on a DVD of a game, he won't tell the player 'you should never do anything like that'; instead, he will ask the player 'what do you think you could have done better?'

His positivity is infectious. I always looked forward to what he had to say at the end of the last training session on the pitch and our team meeting prior to championship matches.

You'd have 30 fellas around in a huddle but there'd be complete silence and we'd all hang on his every word. The team talk wouldn't last long, but the words would be chosen carefully, delivered calmly and received enthusiastically. You'd float off the pitch when he was finished and speaking to current players, I know this still holds true.

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The training itself was not rocket science but the emphasis from him is always on quality. When I was playing, Mickey did the sessions (that has changed a bit since but the underlying principles haven't). They never lasted more than one hour, and 99pc of it was done with the ball.

The drills were short, sharp and at pace, but the one thing he'd always want is for you to do them at the highest possible standards. There's a saying that you "should always train as you want to play, and play as you want to be remembered" and that is very much his philosophy.

If he wasn't getting 'all or nothing' from the players in training, he wouldn't be long about calling in the group and letting everyone know, in the strongest possible terms, that they were letting nobody down but themselves. I can tell you he can bark with the best of them!

I often laugh when I hear commentators describe him as the paragon of serenity on the sideline. Trust me, this is something which has not come naturally to him. When I see him, I know that inside the calm exterior he is kicking every ball and cursing every dodgy refereeing decision.

Back in his playing days, if there was a Vesuvius erupting on the pitch, the lava would be spilling from Mickey. But as a manager he soon learned that he couldn't afford to be dragged into sideline rows. His focus had to stay entirely on the team.

It's only through pure dogged 'persistence' that he has learned to keep his head when all about are losing theirs, and we saw the benefits for Tyrone in Clones last Sunday. At half-time, the verbals were coming hot and heavy from the Donegal dug-out, but Mickey didn't bat an eyelid, turned his heel for the dressing-room and just concentrated on getting his players right for the second half.

A great myth developed during the noughties about how Tyrone had developed the knack of 'stopping Kerry from playing'. Now I know people won't believe me, but there was no discussion about disrupting their kick-out or targeting certain players such as The Gooch.

Mickey's way was to tap into the nervous energy and make it positive energy. There was certainly no paralysis by analysis of the opposition. He was always telling players they were only going to win by getting the best out of themselves, and by the time we got on the field, we'd be ten feet tall.

Apart from radiating positive energy, perhaps Mickey's greatest attribute is ability to reinvent himself as a manager. I know he reads a lot about managers from other sports and other countries, and he is always willing to learn, keen to embrace new ideas.

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Back in the '90s, players were attending games in shirts and ties - now, instead of travelling in tracksuits, the Tyrone fellas are getting off the bus dressed in the finest clothes courtesy of Cuba Clothing. He wants his players to look the part and play the part.

That shows in the current Tyrone set-up. It's not that long ago that disgruntled players were leaving the squad, and Mickey was also coming under pressure from sections of the county board after some poor performances.

But he took a step back and shook things up in his own inimitable way - the appointment of (Gavin) 'Horse' Devlin as trainer and former All-Ireland winner Peter Donnelly as strength and conditioning coach being a prime example of how he was prepared to take something new on board.


These are the reasons why he has three All-Ireland SFC titles in the bag, which is some achievement considering the trials and tribulations he has endured: the tragic loss of his daughter Michaela; the sudden death of two young players, Cormac McAnallen and Paul McGirr; being subjected to a torrent of abuse from a section of supporters for playing his son, Mark; a row with the national broadcaster; a stand-off with his own county board executive over the demands of the team sponsor; and then having to deal with serious illness last year.

This time 12 months ago, he had to have surgery during Tyrone's run in the qualifiers.

Yet, he defied doctor's advice to get out of his sick-bed in order to attend team meetings and, despite being clearly unwell for the game against Tipperary, his sheer willpower ensured he made it on the sideline in Thurles. It is this type of persistence that leaves many in awe and I'm sure it will ultimately mould his players into All-Ireland champions for a fourth time.

Irish Independent

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