Heading into his 15th year as manager of Tyrone, Mickey Harte was in comparatively mellow mood in Dubai where he will, with Tipperary's Liam Kearns, be one of the titular coaches for Friday's All Stars football exhibition in Abu Dhabi.
Harte has always spoken softly but tended to carry a big stick – the better to chastise people whose ideas he didn’t agree with.
His opinions have carried the weight of someone who brought his county to three All-Ireland titles including the very first, in 2003, with a combination of exciting young players and innovative tactics.
Given this track record of delivery there were raised eyebrows at the county board decision to turn down his request for an extension to his current appointment, due to conclude next year.
The Tyrone manager did bridle a little at the suggestion that his refusal to engage with RTÉ in recent years was causing problems for the county board in respect of sponsors.
“No, that’s a myth, too. That’s a myth altogether. The sponsors have never spoken directly about this being an issue at all. That’s just stuff that gets into the grapevine, people repeat it and it becomes the truth. In fact it’s not the truth at all,” said Harte.
In the vast majority of his years in charge his teams have been relevant to the championship at its highest level, either as All-Ireland winners or a team that winners had to get past.
Although this year finished in a somewhat disappointing fashion, Tyrone went unbeaten as far as August and won the McKenna Cup, Division Two of the AFL and the Ulster title for the first time in six years.
They were expected to reach at least the last four of the championship if not the All-Ireland final, but the manager says that he was pleased despite the apparent loss of ground in the All-Ireland series.
“People always look for progression and if you’re in a semi-final one year and a quarter-final the next year, it doesn’t look like progression. But in many ways it was because we had a lot of our players without an Ulster championship medal and until you achieve that, that’s still to be done.”
He is philosophical about the narrow defeat to
in the quarter-finals, weighing it up against the narrow win over Donegal in the Ulster final.
“It was us and Donegal except with the wrong result, you know. We did very much the same as we did against Donegal and because we won that day there was no big issue with it and it was to me very similar. I know that on reflection there were things you might have done differently if you had another chance, of course there are.
“But, you know what? If we had kicked the ball between the posts and converted the chances that came our way, tactics would not have been the biggest issue here. It was actually finishing.”
One of the big setbacks for Tyrone in attack that day was the loss of captain Seán Cavanagh to a black card. The recent news that the only survivor of the 2003 All-Ireland success had decided to give the team another year next season was a positive development.
Harte mentioned that he used Cavanagh’s decision to pass over a possible career in the AFL to try to dissuade – unsuccessfully – Conor McKenna from joining Melbourne club Essendon.
Whereas he accepted that the latter had “great potential” and that he would be “very interested” in having him on the panel, the fact was he said the player had other plans and that he wished him well in his career.
Referring to Cavanagh he made the point that although he had been a “big player during that top era” he later realised that he “had to lead as well as play football and he’s taken that on very well so it’s a credit to him.
“It is superb to see him with the enthusiasm of a youngster and that’s what he has. It’s great and it’s right too. I knew when he walked off the pitch that day in Croke Park, ‘this cannot be the end of your career. This is not right. What you’ve given to Gaelic games and what you’ve given to Tyrone...’
“Seán Cavanagh I never saw lift his hand to hit anybody and that’s a credit to him because he’s taken plenty of treatment during his career and he’s still managed not to do that, not to retaliate in any way. So if it was not right for anybody, it is definitely not right for him to leave the scene that way.”
Asked about the Irish rugby World Cup 2023 bid, which rests on the availability of GAA grounds Harte was positive, terming it “a great thing” and he referred to his little-publicised rugby career with Omagh Academicals, for whom he played in the three-quarters line or at full back.
“I really enjoyed it. Back in those days, Gaelic footballers were a bigger asset than they would be now because then, people who didn’t play Gaelic games weren’t very adept at kicking the ball with both feet, and catching the ball.”
One crossover that he hasn’t been keen on is the adaptation of the Australian Rules mark into football from next year. Harte believes the move will slow down the game and also queried whether allowing the mark to be claimed at chest height or in a diving catch was encouraging high catching.
“People say if you speak against some of these things that you’re always negative and I don’t want to be portrayed that way because I think people do all of these things for their best own reasons and they think they’re going to improve [the game]. I have said for a long time that I don’t agree with that; that’s not to say I’m being negative. I’m saying I have a different view.”