Tyrone boss Mickey Harte is refusing to rest on laurels
Published 01/02/2014 | 01:30
It's got to the stage where we must begin to contemplate Mickey Harte's longevity. The link to 2003 is still there, but they are becoming a compliment to the rest of the talent, rather than the base of the team. It is a 'new' Tyrone.
When he got the job in late 2002 nobody could have predicted it would last this long. The All-Irelands illustrated that Tyrone needed Harte. Sometimes, Mickey has needed the job too, but the loyalty between manager and county board was never in question.
As the longest current serving inter-county football manager, his nearest challenger is James McCartan, heading into his fifth season. The three-year extension Harte agreed with Tyrone in May 2012 will take him up to 14 years service.
One more season than Pete McGrath's stint with Down. The same period Mick O'Dwyer spent with Kerry.
The record holder for length of service is Sean Boylan at 23 years, and given the pressures of the modern game, it's unlikely to be broken.
But consider that since 1991, Harte has been a figurehead of a Tyrone squad in one shape or other, whether that be minors, under-21s and senior. His only real downtime came in a few months in 2002, in which he led Errigal Ciaran to a county, and then Ulster, title.
Tyrone's current form has Harte contented, dispensing with the standard plamás pointing out what month of the year it is.
"People say it's only January, it's only McKenna Cup, but at the same time it's good to be showing good form," Harte says.
"I don't care at any time of the year or against any opposition, I like the players to show good form. I think to date they have been showing decent form."
Despite being a team that was in deep transition last year, Harte did not get due recognition for reaching a league final – in the process being the only side to beat Dublin in league and championship football – before they were defeated by Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final.
"I said that it was great to have last year, provided we stepped on from that. And if we do step on from that then we would be in a very good place," is his assessment.
Last weekend, the downpour in Enniskillen temporarily delayed Harte's 10th appearance as manager in the Dr McKenna Cup final.
Tyrone have found many ways to get there down through the last decade and more, but this year's effort was probably the most impressive.
Missing the McMahon and Cavanagh brothers, along with Conor Gormley and Stephen O'Neill, the link to the 2003 squad was severed.
Some players elevated themselves. Others, most especially Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly, became leaders, the team performance lifting measurably when they exerted periods of influence upon the four games.
Though we shouldn't be too surprised that this has happened. If anything for Harte, they have taken their time in becoming the mature figures they are now.
"It's a blessing that they have had to do that (become leading players) because sometimes if they have to lean too long on the people who have a lot of experience, then they don't assume responsibility for themselves," he explains.
"After all, we are talking about people here who have won the All-Ireland minor title in 2008, that's now going on six years ago, therefore they are seasoned campaigners now, they have a lot of football behind them at a high level.
"Even if they hadn't as much gametime as their predecessors had in that 2003 team – who came off the '98 minors, 2000-2001 Under-21s – they actually might have emerged as a group at a younger age and established themselves as first team players earlier."
The future is theirs to mould and shape, Harte maintains.
"I think that these men now are assuming an attitude of 'we are the ones who are going to make a difference, so it's up to us'. They can't be waiting for the cavalry coming because if the cavalry is there, brilliant. If they are not there, then they need to become the cavalry."
Before the league throws in tonight, with a typically skin-and-hair flying cross-Sperrins derby against Derry at Celtic Park ahead (7pm), it is noticeable that their often blistering January form hasn't always carried over into league successes, the final triumph over Laois in his managerial debut year of 2003 representing Harte's only league win.
The closest they got was last season's one point loss to Dublin, a game that still stings.
Harte rues: "We would be very disappointed that we didn't win it last year because we were in touching distance.
"There was a stage in the final last year when we were one point up and I think a second point from ourselves to go two up would have been enough to win the game at the latter stages, but we didn't get that vital score."
This week, it has been mentioned more than a few times that Tyrone have a poor record against Derry in Celtic Park, a selective statistic that ignores the amount of league football the Oak Leaf side have hosted at venues such as Bellaghy, Ballinascreen and Lavey.
Harte is not one for reading anything into records of this kind.
"The team that is going there, many of them have never played Derry in Celtic Park.
"It's not a big issue for them and if it is a fact that Tyrone have not beaten Derry in Celtic Park in a while then so be it," he explains.
"These things do happen from time to time and the landscape changes," Harte says.
"It will be the 15 that Derry put out and who they bring on that will be important, not the tradition of past history. It will be a live issue on the night."
The competitor in him says that 12 seasons on from taking over his county and 23 seasons since his first Tyrone posting, they can still do anything.
His appetite remains undiminished.