Family, faith and football – the Mickey Harte interview

Long-serving manager talks about the good and bad times and shaping his mark III Tyrone team

There are traces of ice and stubborn snowmen in the driveways and gardens of Fintona and Ballygawley and among the late breakfast crowd in Kelly’s Inn, Mickey Harte talks about the goal around which Tyrone’s year revolved. A full six months have passed and the Tyrone man couldn’t relive it any more vividly if he was running through it on pause-play. But he summons all this while he butters toast.

“People think you make excuses but it is those little things that happen in a game that don’t seem particularly significant. But they are huge. It wasn’t even the goal itself. It was the lead up to the goal: this is a run-of-the-mill play in a game of football. People are going forward. They [Tyrone] are on the front foot. They make a little handling error and are turned over. And often a team will pay to some extent. But sometimes, you pay a high price. And we paid a high price that day. If you look at it – and this is not to make excuses but if you look at it you’ll see – the referee got a little bit in the way.

“Niall Sludden passes to Paudie Hampsey and the referee is kind of in his peripheral vision as he runs and Paudie just didn’t handle it perfectly. Ciarán Kilkenny comes in and challenges for it. The ball breaks perfectly for Dublin rather than us. Into the hands of Philly McMahon who kicks it to the man [Con O’Callaghan] who is supposed to be marking Paudie Hampsey. Because he is number 11.

“And if the number six goes forward and the 11 watches him go, well, I don’t think that’s good practice. So he should have been after Hampsey! Now, he gets the ball 45 metres out. We aren’t totally blame-free here because our philosophy is that if the centre-half goes, somebody should take his place. Nobody did. We didn’t observe our own rule.


“But his [O’Callaghan] not following Hampsey left him in this place where he was free. After that, you have to give him full credit for his ability and his ambition to go for goal. He didn’t really have any business to go for a goal. A young fella like him just into the team... I know he is a quality player and all the rest. He could have been happy to take a nice point but he decided to go for the jugular. Obviously he would believe in his own ability to go past a static defender. But then he went on and said: ‘I am going to bury this.’ So I’d have to give him full credit for that.

“Now, he got it in a way I wouldn’t like – by not being an honest broker and going after the man he should have done! That’s neither here nor there. But that changed the entire tenor of that game. We felt we could contain them for 45 minutes. The goal cut a hole in the team – not just on the scoreboard but psychologically. Conceding a goal like that was not something we did very often – particularly so early in the game and through the heart of our defence.”

He takes a sip of coffee and thinks about those few seconds. Kenny Rogers is singing about love gone awry in the background. The new football season is just days away.

After Michaela

Letters began arriving to the house in thick bundles in the days after Michaela Harte died. Not just in tens but in such volumes that the postman left them in a box at the front door. Mickey Harte didn’t sleep for a second on the night he learned of his daughter’s death, but after that, through what he says was the grace of God, he found that he could close his eyes most nights. So he used to get up at seven in the morning. “And I had about two or three hours when everyone else was asleep or not fit to get up. And I read those cards by myself. Alone in a room.”

Thousands: Mass cards, letters of sympathy, letters telling stories, almost all from complete strangers. He had a profile, of course, as an exceptionally successful manager of one of the most brilliant and singular Gaelic football teams ever. By January 2011, Harte had been in charge of Tyrone for eight years, winning three All-Ireland titles and four Ulster championships.

He was a familiar voice and face nationally and because Michaela had been coming to training and games with him since she was a kid, she was often seen with him on those days when the team was without peer. Ireland is a small country and the manner of her death, murdered while on honeymoon in Mauritius, shocked the land for those few days.

It was literally unbelievable. The GAA, both locally and nationally, sort of swept in to help the family through the practical requirements of that bereavement, but still, Harte was taken aback by the number of people who took the time and care to sit down at tables all over Ireland.

“And maybe some people couldn’t handle the reading of those things. I could. To me, they were a therapy. Emotional, by all means. But I feel I got a lot of my emotion out at that time. I could try to be semi-normal after that. And those people who sent those cards: I could never thank them all. I am forever grateful to them all. It was just heartfelt sharing.”

People wondered what Harte would do in the weeks that followed. Could he continue managing Tyrone? Would he want to? How could any football game ever matter again? He can see now, when he thinks back to the 2011 season, that he was running on empty throughout that time. It takes enormous physical and emotional energy to conduct an intercounty training session.

And he was depleted. He had nothing. Composure has always been Harte’s calling card in public life and he knew that, from the outside, he still had that. People looked at him and would probably say, ‘yeah, Mickey was holding up’.

“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. People can think that you seem to be fine: I don’t want to say that it hasn’t been very difficult for each of us in our family. 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.”

Football: the ritual – the routine of Sunday games, the sound of the dressingroom, of Tyrone – gave him a few recognisable references through the haze. He has been involved with Tyrone football teams since he was given the minor job in 1991, but that was the season he needed it most: the one for which he is most thankful.

As days gave way to weeks and then months, the letters slowed to a trickle and were stored away. And then as months became years, the terribleness of what happened to Michaela Harte flared in the public mind only when it was referenced on the news, but for the family and their circle of friends, of course, it has remained constant.

And still we saw Mickey Harte on the sideline on Ulster’s banner days, implacable, studying the game with his glasses on and keeping his counsel as northern power swung unexpectedly and decisively away from Tyrone to Donegal, who had come screaming out of nowhere under Jim McGuinness. Beaten in 2011, 2012 and 2013 by a team and county that had never greatly preoccupied Tyrone.

Harte could have been forgiven for thinking that the very landscape was beginning to shift and alter beneath their feet. If anything, those years taught him how much emotional weight he had placed on Ulster championship games. Before Michaela’s tragedy, those losses would have felt funereal and the absolute end of something vital.

“And maybe others in our camp felt like that after those defeats – and that’s understandable. But right then I felt we could learn to live with it. It changes your whole perspective on life. Every family has issues far and above football. We have to understand that – while not diminishing what football means to us as well. Because if it doesn’t mean that much to you, well then: maybe you should be doing something else.”

Tyrone mark III

Life and sport are not indivisible. It all swirls. Particularly in his sport, Gaelic football, which runs through the national DNA. In August 2015, when Tyrone were back in an All-Ireland semi-final, Harte spoke in a Sky television interview about concentrating on living in the present.

“I think sometimes we live too long before we discover that fact of life. There is nothing like the present. The past will take care of itself and the future is not in your hands.”

Within the realms of football – and Tyrone football, specifically – that is difficult simply because their recent past was so rich and luminous. It wasn’t just that Harte’s teams won those three All-Irelands, it was that they won them with a fiercely independent attitude. Even when they were the standard-bearers, Tyrone were always firmly outside the establishment.

As a football team, they were admired but never loved, and it was only as they began to break up, post 2008, that their brand of silk and flint was appreciated – that they had been a great team. Seán Cavanagh’s retirement last autumn closes the door on the last connection between the current squad and the 2003 side.

“The original breakthrough team,” smiles Harte. “And while it was great to have Seán, and I wish he was still with us and young again, maybe this is a chance for the younger generation to say: we have to make our own piece of history – whatever that will be. And that may not to be winning All-Irelands. I think we were blessed to win three in five years.

“But while we haven’t been winning All-Irelands, we haven’t fallen to the depths of lower divisions and in the last decade have the best record of any Ulster team in terms of titles. So maybe it’s a question of judging this generation on what they have achieved and not what they have failed to achieved.”

Dublin's bravura style of attacking football suddenly made the defensive model appear dated. He persisted in reshaping a team around that fundamental principle regardless of the fashion

The task for Harte has been to build a third distinct team capable of challenging for the All-Ireland. He has never hidden his vexation at the general tendency to use the final score as the interpretation of what went on in a match. For him, it has always been much more shadowy and nuanced. His mind turns to the 2011 semi-final against Donegal. It’s often forgotten just how rampant Tyrone were in the first 20 minutes of that match.

“We nearly had them gone before they got their feet on the ground. And if we had been 11-2 up at half time instead of 6-4 – which we could have been – how would history have been? These are the fine lines. Now, our time was going to come and we would have run out of steam. The day of reckoning was coming anyway. And that game probably speeded it up.”

Maybe from the outside, it looked as if Harte had lost his grasp on the magic and that Tyrone were slipping from relevance. He knew the Tyrone public was frustrated. He knew that the whispers that his time was up were loudening. And Dublin’s bravura style of attacking football suddenly made the defensive model appear dated. He persisted in reshaping a team around that fundamental principle regardless of the fashion.

“I was content enough that we were building. The only way we could do that was to be mean at the back. If you weren’t mean at the back, well you might be part of wonderful games but you would be coming out the wrong end of them. To me that was just a Kevin Keegan-Newcastle-affair. It might be good for neutrals to watch but not for Newcastle. It was going to end in tears.”

Privately, he was satisfied that Tyrone were travelling in the right direction even when Donegal and Monaghan was the only brawl in Ulster. It was a question of patience. In reasserting themselves as the leading county in Ulster with back-to-back Ulster titles, Harte couldn’t but hear the buzz words about his team – negative, defensive, cynical.

The blistering totals Tyrone posted in claiming those championships are seldom mentioned. That the two top-scoring Ulster championship winning teams since records began in 1940 were Tyrone 2016 and Tyrone 2017 is never referenced because it doesn’t fit the handy narrative.

“The group-think mentality,” Harte calls it. Last summer, Tyrone dismantled a young Donegal team in Clones, putting up 1-21 on their way to collecting a consecutive Ulster title. What happened was inevitable: one team was rising while another was beginning to fall. Maybe the old saying is true. Sometimes you have to take your medicine.

“Yeah. I really do feel that that is the case.”

The RTÉ feud

He nods at the suggestion that maybe it would be easier just to speak to RTÉ again. Harte hasn't communicated with the State broadcaster in the seven years since the company committed what he feels were terrible breaches of trust. A confidential letter he wrote concerning the coverage of Gaelic games was somehow leaked and became the subject of a radio sketch which concluded with the tune The Pretty Little Girl From Omagh.

Airing just four months after Michaela’s death, it was, at best, monumentally insensitive. Any overtures RTÉ have made to try and make things right have, he feels, been too little too late.

If that seems stubborn, then so be it. Ballygawley is a part of the world where heads aren’t easily turned. It is often forgotten that the best of Mickey Harte’s football career coincided with a local feud between Glencull and Ballygawley which started over bad feeling after a parish league match.

If he has mastered anything in his third phase as Tyrone manager, it has been that skill for not even hearing the outside voices, whether they are singing his praises or calling on him to go

Neighbours and in-laws and teammates remained intransigent for a decade: Glencull, unable to gain full affiliation, played tournaments and challenge games for the full decade when Harte was their best player. It cost him and he has no regrets. But that was just football. He is absolute in his conviction about RTÉ now.

“I am more interested in the right thing than the easy thing. For me, the right thing is what I am doing. It is a point of principle. Not just for me but for many others. It is time that people stood up to people who behave in a way that is not good enough. This is my way of doing something about it.”

Anyway, the background noise is easy to ignore. Tyrone's training centre is just a three-minute spin from the house. He says he leafs through the Tyrone Constitution now and then but seldom reads national newspapers. He completely ignores social media. If he has mastered anything in his third phase as Tyrone manager, it has been that skill for not even hearing the outside voices, whether they are singing his praises or calling on him to go.

“None of this lasts. Take it with a pinch of salt. I think it is crazy to allow someone else to take control of how you feel. I won’t do that. I just won’t do that.”

Catholic faith

When they were children, Mickey and the others became used to having visitors landing in the kitchen to pour their hearts out to their mother. Mary Coyle was a Carrickmore woman and had an endless willingness to listen to people. She’d seldom offer any heavy advice.

But neighbours trusted her. Sometimes she’d hear the same story week after week and if the youngsters were in and about the kitchen they’d hear the same stories. “To the point where we would be asking how she could keep listening to this,” he laughs. “She was no psychologist or learned lady in terms of how the world might work. But she was very good with people.”

Football and the Catholic faith became the twin pillars of his life. It was the same with Michaela and the three boys, Mark, Michael and Matthew. He has this saying: “Faith is caught, not taught,” and he has lived his life by Catholicism in a way that has been fearless of public opinion or perception. It helps him to understand the world.

And, of course, time swirls. You can’t be entirely rooted in the present. It makes him happy now to think back to the connection his daughter had to her grandparents and how she’d chat and quiz them endlessly. He says that her strength of faith made what happened a little easier to deal with.

Harte keeps pressing forward, one step at a time, his faith and hope intact. His new agreement with Tyrone will take him through to 2020. There are no grand promises on this January day, just a wide-eyed curiosity for what's next

In this part of Tyrone, the recent past, the football past, is inescapable because those three shining years were like explosions of joy on a county that had its fair share of troubles over the previous 100 years.

Sometimes he will bump into the old crew – former players like Brian McGuigan or Brian Dooher. And meeting them leaves him with a warm feeling. “Because I had them since they were boys. And very different people, but they’ve turned out, in their own ways, to be class of their own making. Just class.”

And yes, so many of the Harte family memories of Michaela are wrapped up in Tyrone’s invincible summers. And if people feel that it can’t be the same again, they are right.

“There comes a stage when you realise that the sun will never shine the same way again. The smell of cut grass . . . the things that touch your senses: you think they will never be as good. But with the help of God, and with prayer and time, you begin to realise: well, that is how you felt then. But the more you travel on this journey, you can get back nearer to appreciating those wonderful things of creation again. And so it never will be exactly the same. But it still can be very good.”

So Harte keeps pressing forward, one step at a time, his faith and hope intact. His new agreement with Tyrone will take him through to 2020. There are no grand promises on this January day, just a wide-eyed curiosity for what’s next.

“All I care about is: do we do things to the best of our ability for the people we have ? If we do that, how anyone else perceives it is up to them. Time was, maybe when you are younger and less wise to the ways of the world, you might get annoyed and bring on a fight about it and that there. I am not interested in that. I am interested in helping people be the best they can be.”