Tyrone boss Harte ready to join 200 club
Almost lost among all the questioning and probing at the Tyrone press night, a little statistic popped out.
The forthcoming All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo will be Mickey Harte's 200th game in charge of the county senior team.
When you consider that he took over in the autumn of 2002, he is getting into Mick O'Dwyer territory in terms of time served. The legendary Kerry coach took charge of the Kingdom from 1974 to 1989, making the hop straight from player to manager.
Harte wasn't a renowned player like O'Dwyer, skirting around the fringes of Ulster during a slow decade for Tyrone football, but he laid down a serious managerial apprenticeship of eleven years divided between the county minor and under-21 sides.
The narrative of Mickey Harte's life has partially obscured one important facet; that he was a coach who made his mistakes on the job.
Harte is grateful for the patience that was invested in him.
He was beat in the first round of his first year in charge, 1991. In 1993 they reached a final, but it wasn't until 1997 that they won Ulster.
“If they wanted to move me on it would have been very easy for them to do so,” he recalls.
Recalling those times brings him back to his thoughts and feelings as he began coaching.
“I was only interested in managing the minors,” he mentions as you point out the significant numerical landmark.
“My aim in life was to win the Tom Markham Cup. I had great reasons for doing that because I played in '72 when we lost it to Cork.”
Then, he offers a glimpse of the little things that he takes and stores away for motivation.
“In '73 they won it and I was underage. I saw what it meant to Tyrone. For us that lost it, we were lost altogether and nobody thought or talked about us again. The boys who won it were hailed, having won the cup, 25 years later they were recognised and we were not even thought about,” he continues.
“Nothing pleased me like winning the Tom Markham Cup in 1998. It was almost a lifetime's achievement.”
He enjoyed success. He wanted more and it was a logical move up to the under-21s. More silverware.
At senior level, Tyrone were stuttering. The crew of McAnallen, Mulligan, McGuigan, O'Neill and others were coming onto the scene with unblemished hopes and ambition.
Harte continues the story. “The senior job became an option. By then, it was in my blood too much to not want to continue doing it.”
2003 was Year One for Harte. Year One for Tyrone football too, as they tried to dig themselves out of a pit of despair. They had lost to Sligo in Croke Park in a qualifiers game that felt like the end for a generation of players.
Worse still, Armagh had just landed their first Sam Maguire. For a county so steeped in Gaelic football, Tyrone had to endure the taunts of not just neighbouring Derry, but now Armagh having leap-frogged them in the honours table. But of all the teams Harte has taken, he rates the class of 2003 apart.
“The only year that I would have been sure of winning an All-Ireland,” he says.
“We just felt the time was right, we had the Peter Canavans, Chris Lawns, Brian Doohers, Ger Cavlans, waiting in the wings for a bunch of under-21s who had won minor and under-21 All-Irelands and were confident in their own ability.
“In '05, we had to work harder to win it and in '08 we won it against the head.
“No-one really expected us to do it.”
Now, he is still here. Darragh ÓSé used to talk about this time of year, how you might see the odd chimney puffing on your way home from training, with the nights on the turn.
That's when you know the biggest days are soon here; when Mickey Harte is most alive.
Belfast Telegraph Digital