Match for Michaela a story of love and courage


SIDELINE CUT:Michaela McAreavey’s vivid energy and spirit and love of Gaelic games will be celebrated in Casement Park this evening

THE STREETS around Casement Park have known more than their fair share of sorrow and heartbreak through the decades, so there is something appropriate about the fact that the rambling Belfast ground will stage the first bright moment to emerge from the terrible tragedy visited upon Mickey Harte and his family.

Tonight’s Match for Michaela is reportedly going to attract a full house, which is no mean feat for a challenge game on a wintry November evening. The attendance speaks volumes for the GAA’s enduring sense of being a “family” in the wider context. Next year’s proposed Gathering is surely just an extension of the GAA’s innate sense of belonging and fraternity.

Few county football teams have divided opinion as starkly as Tyrone did after Harte transformed the senior team from flaky stylists into what they became: a daring, high-octane, in-your-face team capable of playing beautifully synchronised football.

When they weren’t perfectly calibrated, they didn’t win. It was that simple. They always fascinated me: they seemed to be a brilliant combination of choir boy and street boy and they made it plain that they couldn’t give a toss for the establishment or for the natural order in Gaelic football.

There was something of the 1988 Detroit Pistons or the first appearance of the Smiths on Top of the Pops about Tyrone: they were unexpected and provocative and just had “it”.

Sometimes it was difficult to associate Mickey Harte’s persona with the football teams he has shaped for the past 10 years. I have interviewed Harte three times since he took over as Tyrone manager and it is hardly a secret that he is one of the most interesting people involved in sport.

While he grew up in the fiercely local perimeters of Ballygawley, his interest in sport spanned continents, and he could comfortably switch from the infamous feud that left him in exile for the best years of his own football career to the coaching philosophies of John Wooden, the revered former basketball coach at UCLA.

Harte is a strategist and his demeanour on the sideline always emphasised that: he thought his way through games rather than blustered his way through them. In those interviews, he was always loquacious and answered every question honestly but always maintained a fairly formal question-and-answer format rather than have the meeting loosen into a general conversation. He answered a question and when he was finished, he waited for the next.

Two of those meetings took place in Kelly’s Roadside Inn and it was during the second of those in which he almost incidentally explained how his daughter Michaela had grown up travelling to training sessions and games with him. When Tyrone came to prominence, the sight of Michaela rushing to congratulate her father after big wins became common. It was clear they had a wonderful, unabashed bond and that she was the apple of his eye.

When Michaela McAreavey met her tragic death, it was inevitable that many GAA people soon wondered if and how Mickey Harte could carry on in the game. It is impossible to quantify tragedy but this seemed particularly merciless: the girl was on her honeymoon. It was beyond sense.

In the months afterwards, Mickey Harte somehow found the strength to resume his role as Tyrone’s coach. He did this despite the heartbreak he was suffering with his wife and children and extended family, and through the hurricane of the media coverage and nightmarish trial in Mauritius, which ended with nobody being found guilty of killing Michaela McAreavey. He did so with profound grace and dignity and at times the strain showed on his face. But at the core, the great coach was always there.

Early this summer, Donegal and Tyrone met in a riveting Ulster semi-final. The match was typically Ulster: low-scoring, tactical, absurdly tense. Harte was asked a question on the field afterwards about the quality of the game and he delivered an unforgettably analytical lecture about why a low-scoring game of football can still be a good game of football. Then he took his leave.

The heavy defeat that Dublin inflicted on Tyrone in 2011 and the fin de siècle qualifying game against Kerry in Killarney this summer suggested that Tyrone’s glories are fading. The retirement of Ryan McMenamin adds to the notion that all is changing. But it seems clear that Harte is intent on building yet another Red Hand team and the fact that they have been drawn against Donegal, the All-Ireland champions, has given them an explicit challenge.

Tonight, Donegal will provide the opposition to the rest-of-Ulster opposition, which Harte will coach alongside Joe Kernan. The coach in Harte will be scribbling mental notes all night long. But the main purpose of this football match is celebratory. Through the Michaela foundation and the Michaela Girls Summer Camp, her husband John McAreavey and the Harte family have managed to preserve her vivid energy and spirit and love for Gaelic games as part of her legacy.

In a complicated and often bleak time for Ireland, tonight’s football match in Casement Park is just a straight story of love and courage. No wonder if it’s a sell-out.

Tickets for tonight’s match cost £10 and admission can be paid at the gate.

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