Pitch idea. Allianz Football League Division Four North, only it’s a western.
Leitrim manager Terry Hyland is the world-weary sheriff. One day, three mean hombres ride into town. Mickey Harte with Louth, Enda McGinley atop Antrim and Tony McEntee saddling Sligo. Hyland doesn’t like the look of these boys one bit, on account of all the trouble up north back in the day.
“Ah don’t laak the lookah you boys one bit, on accountah all the trouble up north back in the day,” he says.
Fingers hover over pistols. A horse snorts nervously. A Mariachi trumpeter sounds an ominous note. A rattlesnake...rattles?
Suddenly Mickey reaches for his gun. But the younger men are faster. Now everyone is shooting, the horses are spooked, dramatic music swells, a dust cloud rises. Cut to opening titles.
Hey, it’s a piece about Allianz Football League Division Four North, I had to do something.
In terms of national media interest, Division 4 is Gaelic football’s version of Off-off-Broadway, a place of haiku match reports and grainy Zapruder TV coverage. Even when the results are read out on the news they only bother to tell you who won the games. When you lose in the Allianz League Division 4, no one can hear you scream.
Still, the arrival of a clutch of high-profile veterans from one of the GAA’s great battlefields is a chance to capture fickle attention spans, especially with this year’s football league being run off in a fun-size, four-team format.
McEntee, late of Crossmaglen and Armagh; in the ex-Tyrone corner, McGinley, his number two Stevie O’Neill and then, of course, Harte: close your eyes and think of the places they’ve been, the things they’ve seen. Think of the mid-2000s and the white heat of that rivalry, as bitter, intense and captivating as anything in sport.
Remember how they had to move the Ulster final to Croke Park, it was so big? Remember that astonishing trilogy in 2005, the ferocity of it, how it shocked people and how, by the exhilarating end, there was this sense that, for better or worse, the sport itself had been moved to some new plane. A terrible beauty was born.
And now open your eyes. For McGinley and McEntee these unlikely environs are a logical step in a career path. Both are dipping toes into inter-county management having served time in the club game or on other coaching tickets. Both will bring the acute intelligence and professionalism typical of the players from those hellfire days.
Harte signed up only 10 days after things ended with Tyrone. After 18 years, he had asked them for one more; one more for a proper go, to finally bring together the awkward, tangled threads of his second decade. They said no.
There had long been a strange feeling about Tyrone, though the team remained in the top four or five in the country. The bond between county and manager, in the end, sat in that emotional space known only within families, somewhere unnameable between love, loyalty, duty and resentment.
It may be that Harte went the way of many great, long-serving managers — Arsene Wenger, Brian Clough, other men whose glorious early alchemy calcified into reductive, intractable dogma. Denied the generational talents that had adorned the All-Ireland wins, Tyrone become a team in their manager’s dogged image, lacking the stardust of Canavan, McGuigan, O’Neil, l or Mulligan.
Whether or not Harte was to blame for the failure of forwards like Kyle Coney, Lee Brennan, Conor McAliskey and others to come through is, you’d imagine, the kind of topic debated long into the night in the salons of Tyrone football.
But if Louth felt like the rash call of a man on the rebound then that would be to misunderstand the man in question. His convictions were the rock on which a great team was built and what allowed him to bear incomprehensible personal tragedy. He has long been impervious to whim or popular opinion or criticism of his own hypocrisies.
As a devout, traditionalist Catholic, Harte campaigned against the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. So did Louth GAA chairman and independent TD Peter Fitzpatrick, who resigned from Fine Gael over the matter. Who knows whether that made Harte more receptive to Fitzpatrick’s phone call?
Happily, Division Four needs people with the courage of their convictions. After a lifetime in the furnace, Harte comes to a place where the call of the county leaves many cold. Aside from natural disadvantages, the big problem facing most teams at this level is a calamitous turnover of players, guys walking away because the demands involved far outweigh the benefits. A lot of blood, sweat and tears and no glamour, fame or glory.
The big-name manager arrives in the lowly county to act as hype man, Pied Piper and prophet. For a zealot like Harte, this is fertile territory. There is a video on Louth GAA’s YouTube channel of an interview that took place a few days after his unexpected appointment. Lobbed a few gentle questions, Harte’s expression suddenly changes and, unprompted, he begins to preach to those who would be consumed by apathy. He rattles out words like commitment, heart, work, drive. The Old Testament.
“We want people to improve, to get to a new level,” he says, his expression intense, his hands clenched, “to take on this challenge of making the people of Louth proud of them, proud to go out and support them.”
“It’s about lifting people’s spirits. If you get good results, that’s brilliant, but you’re still making yourself a better person, still giving the people of your county something to be proud of. That’s what our challenge is right now.”
And that’s what has landed into town in Division Four North. All that mid-noughties, mid-Ulster fervour. No quarter asked or given. People who’ve stared into the abyss of Francie Bellew, who have tussled with Ricey McMenamin. Who mean business.
Old Sheriff Hyland will have his hands full.