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How Mickey Harte is still the main man as Tyrone aim to end ten year wait for Sam

 

By John Campbell

When Mickey Harte took his first faltering steps as Tyrone manager, he could never have envisaged the epic sporting journey on which he was embarking.

It was in the depths of winter in early 2003 that Harte found himself immersed in preparing his Errigal Ciaran side for their All-Ireland Club Championship semi-final against Nemo Rangers while at the same time coming to terms with the challenge of leading the O'Neill County out of a football wilderness.

They may have lost to Dublin in the 1995 All-Ireland final but, for the most part, Tyrone had continued to dwell in virtual oblivion, a team that rarely enjoyed the spotlight yet which clearly craved success.

Step forward Harte. Less than a year after commencing active duty as county supremo, Harte - whose mantra in life is faith, family and football - was to embrace Peter Canavan at the bottom of the Hogan Stand in Croke Park as the first captain from the county to take delivery of the Sam Maguire Cup.

It was to be the first of three similar triumphs, the others arriving in 2005 and 2008, years in which Harte's mushrooming man-management skills and considerable tactical acumen came to the surface in a much-changing GAA landscape.

A decade has elapsed since the most prized possession in Irish sport last rested in Tyrone hands and Harte, currently the longest serving manager on the island, is now clearly focused on bridging what he views as a much too lengthy gap when his side step out against familiar foes Dublin on September 2.

For Harte, it will be another milestone in a managerial career that has to date been laced with considerable success and personal heartbreak.

The tragic death of his daughter Michaela while on honeymoon in Mauritius in January 2011 shook the entire country, yet Harte's inner strength, a hallmark of his psyche, helped him to deal with the tragedy.

Never one to seek solace, his inherent courage and resolve were to subsequently prove a beacon for others.

"I know that almost at the same time I heard the news of Michaela's death, I can say I got some strength or grace at the same time. That doesn't take away the devastation. There were some very dark days and we had to live through them - but always with the hope that there would be a brighter day ahead," he said.

Football is certainly not a panacea for all of life's ills but in its own way it can prove a soothing balm.

Harte's passionate commitment to Tyrone, his single-minded determination to project the county up even higher among football's elite and zealous desire to showcase the wealth of talent he has helped to nurture can yet prove a passport to a sporting heaven once again.

And to think that just last autumn there were those who had cast doubts about his capacity to keep weaving his magic wand in terms of the county's footballing welfare.

Suffice to say a further three-year term was agreed, it was business as usual again and if Tyrone surrendered their six-year hold on the McKenna Cup, then retaining their place in Division One of the league and charging into the All-Ireland final far outweighed any minor irritants that might have intruded.

And this brings us neatly to Harte's forthcoming challenge in a match the build-up to which is certain to see proverbial forests of newsprint digested and the broadcast media switch into overdrive mode.

Yet far from even contemplating the possibility of self-gratification or seeing his Red Hands players achieve the status of demi-gods, Harte has his own reason for hoping that Tyrone can exact retribution for their humiliation at the hands of Jim Gavin's side in the last four of the All-Ireland race last year.

"We needed to clinch this place in the final so badly. In the 10 years since 2008 we reached the semi-final on four occasions but we were unsuccessful in getting into the final," pointed out Harte.

"We felt as a group we needed to be in the final. The public need it, Tyrone people need it. They will want us to make a real fight of this final and we certainly haven't great memories of our semi-final against the Dubs last year."

Words such as 'pressure', 'stress' and 'challenging' tend to dominate in the lead-up to major matches in virtually every code, yet Harte's perspective is refreshingly insightful.

"It is such a privilege and such a gift to be in an All-Ireland final. Maybe when we look back to the Noughties we didn't fully appreciate that we got three titles in five years, but now we know what 10 years of trying is like and we are just so happy to be there," stated Harte.

"But we do want to ensure that we give our best when we are there. Obviously we need to perform but it's a great place to be in just the same.

"I hope that the colour will burst out in Tyrone because it would be very nice to see a lot of red and white around the countryside.

"We can't thank our followers enough for being so loyal but, I suppose when you think about it, if we were to win the All-Ireland title that might be construed as enough thanks if you think about it."

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