This week, he chats with former Tyrone ace Mark Harte.
Mark, a school teacher by profession, was a fine footballer in his day, the son of one the greatest ever GAA managers and is now making his mark as one of the top coaches/managers in Ulster.
With success in the DNA, Mark has followed in his dad's footsteps in carving out a niche in what is a very vibrant and competitive club scene. Having gone through horrendous grief off the pitch with the horrendous murder of sister Michaela, his honesty and dignity is obvious, as is his grit and determination to honour his sister's memory. That same grit and determination is also obvious as he strives for yet more success as a fledging manager...
Oisin: How have you adapted to the new way of life?
Mark: The main thing is that so far, thank God, everyone at home has been safe and well. We had a baby girl in the middle of everything at the start of April, so Ailagh has been a real blessing and a great distraction. Hopefully normality isn’t far away.
Oisin: As a manager/coach, how has the pandemic challenged you in making sure your players are looked after?
Mark: Players’ wellbeing and that of their families is the top priority. Thankfully, the GAA has led the way in terms of the response to lockdown and the health of its members. We have followed that guidance. It has been challenging in terms of contact, training and meetings, but the time for all of that will come again soon. Players have followed programmes and I think everyone in the GAA is longing for action to return, when the circumstances permit it.
Oisin: The club game is returning first. Are you excited for this or do you remain cautious?
Mark: You have to be excited by that prospect. It has been a very strange time for those of us who are usually in the thick of action right now. All precautions will be rightly taken. This news has been a real boost for all GAA families, clubs and counties.
Oisin: How different will it be and what are you expecting?
Mark: We’ve never experienced anything like this before, so it will be new to us all, but I’d expect plenty of games and less training over a shortened time period, which is what all the players and teams want. It might be something for the GAA to consider in terms of the debate over fixtures.
Oisin: If we go back to your playing days, you enjoyed plenty of success at club and county level. You must be immensely proud of those achievements?
Mark: It’s not something you think about at the time, but in retirement you look back on it fondly. Management is satisfying, but playing football is king. I was fortunate enough to play in an Errigal team and a Tyrone team in their prime. There better players than me who weren’t so fortunate but who laid the foundations for successes.
Oisin: What do you feel you brought to the team?
Mark: My team-mates might answer that one better than me. I’d like to think I brought a love of playing football, a pride of place and the commitment to contribute positively to the teams I played on. I loved scoring from play, free kicks, penalties, spotting a pass, anything that led to a score.
Oisin: Is there anything you felt you missed out on as a player?
Mark: I feel that we let a number of championships for both club and county slip through our fingers, but from a personal point of view, I feel lucky to have had the experiences that football and the GAA has given me to this day.
Oisin: How difficult is it being the manager’s son in a team full of such talent?
Mark: Being in a team full of talent is easy. Being the manager’s son definitely increases the spotlight on the both of you. I played under my father since under-12, so it’s something I was used to. He was always fair and had the good of the team in mind at all times. When I played well, we had a chat about why, and when I didn’t, we had a chat about why. The quality of the teams meant I had enough on my plate trying to keep my place or break into the team, never mind anything else.
Oisin: Did you feel pressure from him because of that?
Mark: Not at club level as I just loved playing football for Errigal up through the ranks and I didn’t really think of it as a big deal. County was different. The focus that it got was surprising and disappointing at times. All I could focus on was my training and performances. It was an exciting time to play for Tyrone. When my form in training was good enough, I got the nod. When someone else was going better, they did.
Oisin: What’s your favourite memories as a player?
Mark: The Ulster Club with Errigal in 2002 was incredible. After winning Tyrone, we beat Cross (after three games), Ballinderry (all-Ireland club champions) and then Enniskillen Gaels in the final. The senior All-Irelands with Tyrone were unbelievable, but the 2000 All-Ireland U21 title three years after losing the minor All-Ireland final was unreal. We lost Paul McGirr tragically during the minor campaign in 1997 after a freak accident in the Ulster championship match against Armagh. That was special for us all. The buzz from pulling on a jersey and running out is hard to replace.
Oisin: You lost your sister Michaela. How tough has that been on you and your family?
Mark: It’s hard to believe that next January will be 10 years since Michaela was taken from us. It’s hard to put into words how difficult that has been, but I’m blessed to have had a sister like her. She was and continues to be very special to us all. The rawness has eased over time, but the sense of loss and grief are ever-present. We’ve had some precious days as a family since and it would have been lovely for her to have experienced those. We would love to get justice for Michaela one day, but even that will never be enough.
Oisin: How important was your dad staying on with Tyrone for all of you at that stage?
Mark: It was crucial for both himself and the family. It’s hard to imagine him not being involved with Tyrone. It has been such a part of his and all of our lives since he started with the minors in 1991. I think as a family we took our lead from him that as hard as it was going to be, we owed it to Michaela’s memory to get on with life as best we could.
Oisin: What do you feel your dad’s lasting legacy will be?
Mark: For me, it will be a father who supported his family in every way he could, a fierce competitor with a refusal to accept defeat and a man with strong convictions on life, faith, football and everything else in between.
Oisin: How do you see your coaching career developing?
Mark: I get a great buzz from working with players. Any way you can help players to improve is a good thing and you learn a lot from them as well. GAA changing rooms, huddles and sidelines are unique places and, although it’s not just as good as playing, it’s very satisfying. Every training session and match is different.
Oisin: What makes you proud of the GAA?
Mark: The community spirit, pride of place and sense of worth. The proudest I’ve ever been of the GAA was in the days immediately after Michaela was killed. The GAA community supported us in a way that we will never be able to fully thank them for.
Oisin: What do you think needs changed in the GAA?
Mark: I think the GAA needs to change the need to makes changes. The same discussion comes up every year in the off-season prior to congress. Let the games evolve and enjoy them for what they are, rather than feeling the need to constantly tinker with them.
Oisin: Who was the one player you revelled playing alongside?
Mark: Peter Canavan (above left). When you played with Peter, you felt anything was possible. And most of the time, it was.
Oisin: Who was your most challenging opponent?
Mark: Every opponent brought their own challenges. Keith Higgins (Mayo) and Ryan McCluskey (Fermanagh) were two that stood out. Keith Higgins for his lightning speed and counter-attacking, Ryan McCluskey for his positional play, reading of the game and football intelligence.
Oisin: Who was your favourite player of all time?
Mark: Peter Canavan, without a doubt. Some of the things he used to do in club and county games and at training were breathtaking.