When a career in management is as long as Mickey Harte’s then certain statistics glue themselves like barnacles to the hull of a ship.
This is his 17th season on charge of the Tyrone senior football team and when you count in the few years over the U21s and his eight years with the minors, he has featured in 16 All-Ireland semi-finals with his county.
When they run out to face Kerry tomorrow, they will already know the identity of the team they can meet in the final on September 1. It’s quite likely to be Dublin and if Tyrone can upset the odds, it’s a repeat of last year’s All-Ireland final. While Dublin are the benchmark now, in Harte’s first season that tag belonged to Kerry.
Their first encounter with Harte as manager was instructive. A league game on March 23rd, 2003, Harte studied Kerry’s game against Dublin the week before intently and noted how Seamus Moynihan’s runs from centre-back carved open the Dublin defence, leaving space in behind the Dublin defender who would come out to tackle Moynihan, benefitting inside forwards Declan Quill and Colm Cooper.
Tyrone would not fall into that trap. Instead, they clogged the middle with bodies. By half-time, the score was 1-7 to 0-4 to Tyrone — in Killarney — and Tyrone held on for a two-point win.
Harte’s method of dealing with Kerry is to take all the sentiment out of it and make it a footballing puzzle. Break it down, then build it up from your end of things. Football as an equation. On his best days, Harte has always figured it out.
Later on that summer, they caught them again in the semi-final. The tactics were not much different. It was just a drier day and players could move around the Croke Park pitch faster.
“At that time because we made the breakthrough in 2003, we kind of caught Kerry unawares and it seemed like a once-off event but our team proved we could do it a couple of more times,” recalls Harte.
They did not like the new kids on the block coming along but they were respectful of the fact we did it but since that time they have had the upperhand in big games since that ‘08 victory we had.
“In the very important games they have grabbed the ground back so we are the ones searching for that high level of performance and not them at this stage.”
Kerry football has always been good at the PR stuff. In public, they hold out the hand and congratulate those that have beaten them, but as soon as they make it back into the dressing room and thereafter mix among their public, the bloodletting begins.
When Jack O’Connor’s autobiography — a manager who was beaten in the 2005 All-Ireland final by Tyrone —Keys To The Kingdom was published, his salty comments regarding Ulster teams surprised all but those in Kerry.
Losing to Tyrone is worse than losing to almost anyone else,’ he said. They’re flash and nouveau riche and full of it.
For those that feel Harte is unable to contextualise, that he holds onto grudges, then his thoughts now on that intense rivalry are surprisingly mellow.
“Maybe people in the media were elevating us to a height we didn’t deserve to be at, but it was all relative,” reflects Harte.
“Relative to what Kerry had achieved, this wasn’t anything wonderful. It was wonderful for a team who had never done it before of course, and if he (Jack O’Connor) felt we were getting too much air space for once-off event, then he was entitled to think that.”
The fun and games in the lead-in to big games is at a whole other level now. There is a sophistication to it. A few days out, former players will make the case for protection for this player, or exert gentle pressure on the referee to look after their boys against the opposition.
This week, it was Seamus Moynihan ‘appealing’ for protection of David Clifford. Perhaps because of tactics such as these, Harte rejects the suggestion that Tyrone are a more streetwise outfit than the callow young youths of Kerry.
“I am not sure that is quite true. If you were playing anyone else but Kerry you might have a case to say that is true but nobody can tell me that Kerry don’t have experience within their ranks,” he said.
“Yes, it was some other county who were novices to the scene and depending on young players to be the backbone of their team, you might have a point but this is Kerry and they don’t get that affectionate name for nothing.”