By Gerard O’Kane
IF only I had known then what I know now. That’s a saying widely used in many parts of life but in my last column where I talked of the changing landscape in Ulster for the forthcoming season, I was talking about the new appointments in Cavan and Donegal.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think that three weeks later Mickey Harte would be appointed as Derry manager immediately after the last column. Two-plus weeks later, it is still hard to believe.
However as with many things, the GAA world has moved on over the years and comparisons to soccer are not really comparable. Soccer is a billion pound industry which works on a worldwide scale.
GAA is completely different in that everything is localised and in a lot of respects certainly restricted to your locality, within reason, of two plus hours max.
So when members of the Derry executive sat down to draw up a list of potential candidates for a new manager, one of the first things they had to do was to look realistically at the geography of Derry and where it is situated on the island of Ireland.
This is something I always refer to. If we were a midlands county, you could take a compass and draw a circle around two hours of travel and hit 12 to 14 counties within two hours no problem. In Derry we are sort of hemmed in so any potential candidate had to come within a 90-minute or two-hour window max, already limiting the pool of candidates as this only takes in six counties.
To those who question the idea of an outside manager, Derry’s last last Ulster titles – the recent back-to-back titles and 1998 – have all been with outside managers in Brian Mullins, Rory Gallagher in 2022 and the Gallagher-Ciarán Meenagh axis in 2023. Whatever way you look at it, I don’t think this has diminished the importance of these titles or what they mean to Derry folk.
That said, it is probably the name Mickey Harte and his bond with Tyrone that is most jaw-dropping in terms of the appointment. There has never been much love lost between Derry and Tyrone over the years and with Mickey to the fore of Tyrone football for over 30 years he was always in the middle of it all. That might take a bit of getting used to for some Derry people but for some clarity, Mickey Harte is certainly not coming into Derry football to perform a sabotage job – far from it.
In the twilight of his career there are probably only limited years to win another All Ireland and that is what he is coming into Derry to do. How he attempts to go about it is another thing and this is one of the things Derry fans will hope he doesn’t take directly from his latest project in Louth and his later years in Tyrone. The style of football in Mickey’s later years with those teams does not correlate to what Derry have been playing in the last three years but the tools he has at his disposable in Derry are a lot different. He has inherited a top four team, of that there is no doubt given the consistency Derry have shown over the last few years. Given Mickey’s legacy and presence, his name carries a lot of weight, something which has maybe been overlooked is the presence of Gavin Devlin at his side.
Around these parts of the North, Devlin has long been lauded as one of the best coaches around and anyone who works with his or has spent time under his tutelage only has good things to say about him. His presence on the training field three plus times a week is one of the major advantages of having Mickey on board. Any players at an elite level can see through bluffers a mile off and I would imagine that Mickey and Gavin will command respect right from the off and it won’t be a case of using big words and fancy drills to impose themselves on the players, but more than likely a few subtle tweaks here and there just to try to tip the balance ever so slightly more in Derry’s favour. If nothing else it will cause excitement even for the McKenna Cup.
No doubt Mickey will be busy this weekend as the knockout stages of the Derry championship get underway with four games in the seniors and four in the intermediate and the same in the junior.
Owenbeg is host to the four senior quarter-finals on Saturday and Sunday afternoon and there will be plenty of strained heads as Mickey makes his way long the back to take his seat most likely in the centre of the stands for the best viewing point (and also the best entry and exit point for half-time tea). On the field, there are a few interesting ties and it will be interesting to see if the group stages have worked out in the way it was hoped, i.e. that it has just not provided cannon fodder for the higher seeded teams to get over another round.
Glen are the obvious big hitters and Kilrea have the unenviable task of trying to stop their quest for three in a row. Sleacht Néill are still the main challengers but Magherafelt will fancy themselves too in a one-off game scenario.
They have been ticking along nicely all year and with the injection of Lynch, McEvoy and McCluskey to their defence along will provide a strong base on which championships can be won. With the semi-finals the week after it will take the depth of a lot of squads to take the championship home.