Yet it took Mickey Harte 40 years to even contemplate the possibility of getting his hands on the Sam Maguire Cup.
Much of that was down to the environment he grew up in. In Ulster in the 1970s and ‘80s, the Anglo-Celt Cup was the limit of ambition. August and the trip to Dublin might have been part of the reward for the provincial winners, but it was almost always a poisoned chalice.
Between Down’s All-Ireland wins in 1969 and 1991, Ulster had representation in only two finals. Even an imagination as fertile as Harte’s had limited opportunity for growth.
“When you were playing you would have loved to be part of it in some way but, in Tyrone in those days, you never aspired that high,” says Harte. “To get to an Ulster final would have been a major breakthrough. You didn’t have the ambition to get to Croke Park. It was always about other teams.
“I have been to every All-Ireland final since 1972, apart from ‘92 when I was out of the country, and we would come back to my sister’s house in Dublin, sit round the table having dinner and we would talk about the match and who was great and who wasn’t. It was always about somebody else. It never even entered our heads that it could be Tyrone.”
For over quarter of a century, Mickey Harte’s ambition was focused on another trophy. In 1972, he was full-forward on a Tyrone minor side that retained the Ulster championship with a six-point defeat of Cavan in the final but their shot at immortality was deflected by Cork in the All-Ireland final.
Twelve months later, Harte’s successors climbed the final step onto the Hogan Stand and the seeds of one man’s obsession were sown when the victorious panel returned to Tyrone to be feted that night and for years to come.
“I always remembered the difference in the team that won it and lost it. We were forgotten. Nobody cared about us, nobody knew us, but the team that won it in ‘73 were still being hailed 25 years later. They were members of a team that won an All-Ireland. We were just nothing. It was always in my mind that, one day, I would love to get that Tom Markham Cup that we didn’t get in ‘72. That was my total ambition. That was my Sam Maguire.”
A teacher and youth worker, his day job skills transferred seamlessly to the underage football scene and he cut his teeth managing the school teams and Errigal Ciarán.
In 1991, he finally returned to the minor grade with the county and for the next five years, Harte’s Tyrone teams were never far from centre stage, though they never copped the lead role.
They won Ulster in ‘93 but got hammered by Meath, won it again in ‘97 after the tragic death of Paul McGirr but lost out on what the whole squad came to believe was their destiny against Laois in the All-Ireland final.
It was at that point Harte accepted defeat in his pursuit of Tom Markham but a clutch of the ‘97 boys were underage again the following year and they twisted the manager’s flexible arm to give it one more shot.
Looking back on it, that is possibly the most pivotal moment in Tyrone’s history. Had Harte gone and walked, where would he be now? Where would Tyrone be or Gaelic football for that matter?
“It’s highly unlikely that I would have been involved in county management again. I would have said: ‘that’s it, I’ve given it the best shot and didn’t do what I wanted to do’. I probably would have gone back to the club where I had managed at every level. I certainly wouldn’t have got to where I am now because the U21 All-Ireland win in 2000 followed on from that minor in ‘98 and then 2003 came from that.”
His loss to the senior game would have stretched far beyond the county borders. Spend any length of time in his company and it is impossible not to be impressed by the man’s energy and optimism. Eye contact is constant and his hands are constantly a whirl as he expounds on his football philosophies.
His management style has been built on co-operation instead of coercion, core principles he took with him from the classroom and the youth centre into the dressing room. Whether kids or adults, his players have always been treated with the same respect.
“It has been a building process. My ideas of management when I first took over were of a certain nature and I have had to modify them as I have gone along. I was happy with them at the time because that’s all I knew and that’s all I believed. As you go through each year you learn other things of value.”
He has gone beyond the conventional parameters too. His diary of the All-Ireland winning 2003 season contains quotations from Camus, Aristotle, Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ and a handful of respected US sports thinkers.
“I don’t read fiction. I would rather read something of substance to which I could apply to what I do. All my books are on sports psychology or written by basketball coaches or things to do with emotional intelligence. That’s the arena I like to immerse myself in. You see a little nugget and you underline it and make a point of using it at the next team talk or whatever.
“When I met Bart McEnroe in 2003, that was another stage of the development in my approach to management where he came to me and talked about another way of dealing with players. He works in the business world in a private capacity. Together, we struck a chord. He was talking to me about his philosophy in his world but he also found he could gain something from talking to me. That gave added value to my approach with players.”
It’s his approach to football itself that has generated most debate in his five years at the helm in Tyrone. Castigated, along with Armagh, for playing ‘puke’ football, Harte’s attention to detail on all things defensive has been unpopular among the game’s ‘purists’.
THE image of eight Tyrone players hounding and surrounding one Kerry player during the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final is one that remains seared into the mind of every Kingdom supporter.
“It’s all about honesty. The tackle in the past in this game of ours wasn’t fair. That was because the forwards stayed up front and had to be fed the ball and if that didn’t work for them they folded their arms metaphorically and the defenders, from one to seven, worked to get it back to them. How dishonest was that? The onus is now on everybody. The opposition has the ball, it’s your responsibility to try and get it back. That means you’ve got to work.
“Equally, if we have the ball, that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative just because you are a defender. That has given the game a whole new dimension because players have taken on all these new roles. Let’s not forget there is something very creative about being a good tackler as well. It’s just defending gets a bad press and I don’t think that’s right.
“I don’t see defending as being negative provided it’s being done within the rules of the game and nobody is being brutalised. On odd occasions people lose the bap and go over the top but there are people there to punish them for that. We certainly never advocate that kind of approach. We advocate controlled aggression within the rules of the game. And all in the name of creativity.”
He’s not in the business of comparing players, teams or championships from different eras, Players down the years performed to their best given the resources at their disposal. Instead, he prefers to view football as a constantly evolving organism. If it doesn’t continue to grow, he feels, it will die.
He loves the new democratic nature of the sport that has seen players shed their straitjackets to the extent that a corner-back can think nothing of scoring a point or a corner-forward in attempting to block one.
Not everyone has been so enamoured with the changing face of their game. Kerry’s All-Ireland success last year was unusual in that it was welcomed by as many people outside the Kingdom as in it.
The reason was the switch of Kieran Donaghy to full-forward from the All-Ireland qualifier against Longford on and a reversion to what some misty-eyed romantics called the old catch and kick of years gone by. Harte has no problem with Kerry’s tactical tweaking, but he can’t help but hide a little frustration when talk turns to the ‘glory days’.
“You need to see innovation. That’s what people like to see. People talk about the kick and catch game 30 years ago but it was more kick and not much catch. Balls were usually kicked in the wrong direction. I admire the pace that things are done in the game today and the skill levels and dedication of the players. Who ever said what the perfect template was for Gaelic football? Who ever said it was the stuff of the 70s or any other era? There is no such thing as a perfect formula. It’s just a game that evolves all the time. We have people bringing new skills to the game the whole time and that is so refreshing. I’m not going to say that there was anything wrong with the game in the 70s.
“It was good at the time and successful for many people but you can be successful in many ways and you shouldn’t be disparaging of new ways of doing things just because they are different. Maybe that should be food for thought for some people.”