By Shaun Casey
MICKEY Harte is always one step ahead. Always planning, always prepping, always thinking outside the box. In last Sunday’s Leinster semi-final win over Offaly, sending Louth through to their first decider since 2010, Harte threw a curveball into the starting team.
Just over two weeks ago, Dylan McKeown wasn’t even training with the Louth senior football team. He had impressed in an All-Star game, just before the new year, where the Louth club All-Stars played the county team, but didn’t make the cut. Until last weekend.
His call-up was late, but worth the wait. McKeown kicked two points as the Wee County delivered a 0-27 to 2-15 extra-time victory to set up a Leinster final date with Dublin. That sums up Harte’s approach. Always one step ahead.
Harte was the same during his days in charge of his native county Tyrone. When the Red Hands were on course for their third All-Ireland title in six seasons in 2008, Harte faced a dilemma. Kerry’s Twin Towers of Kieran Donaghy and Tommy Walsh were proving almost unstoppable. Almost.
Harte had a trick up his sleeve. He moved wing half-forward Joe McMahon into the full-back line alongside his younger brother Justin and the Omagh siblings got to grips with Donaghy and Walsh. The rest is history.
With the tactical move paying off, no one could argue against it. Even Ciaran Gourley, who was the unfortunate defender that missed out on a starting place.
“He’s ruthless in his determination just to win,” said Gourley. “I wouldn’t say it’s a case of win at all costs, but he’ll express it in such a way that winning is important to him and it should be important to the team and important to the players.
“Truth be told, I sort of had an inkling it was going to happen. If I was being honest as a player, I looked at the Kerry players and tried to think of the match-ups,” recalled the three-time All-Ireland winner.
“I knew physically and height wise, I wasn’t going to suit the inside men that Kerry had. I suppose Mickey had to try and explain it to me in such a way, it was disappointing obviously, but he had to make a decision that was best for the team, and that’s what he does.
“He’ll make decisions that are best for the team and as a player you have to respect that. He’ll make sure that the players in Louth know that sometimes there’s decisions that have to be made and ultimately, it’s for the better of the team.
“That’s what they have to realise with him, he’s doing it for the best and he wants to get the best out of them, and he wants success. If those decisions have to be made, he’ll do it and ultimately on a lot of occasions, he’s been proved right by doing that.”
Peter Fitzpatrick was the Louth manager when they last reached the Leinster final, but more recently, he’s the county chairman that appointed Harte.
The move was as surprising as it was exciting for Louth folk. Harte had just stepped down after almost two decades managing Tyrone, but Fitzpatrick knew the Errigal Ciaran man was the right man for the job.
“I would have known Mickey even during my playing days with Louth, I knew him pretty well. At that stage, we were looking to build a stadium, a new 14,500 seated stadium and we just looked at the bigger picture.
“What’s the point in having a big fancy stadium and maybe not having a team to play in it? So, we said we’d be ambitious, we’d get someone who we knew would be capable. I said we’ve one chance of getting ourselves out of this hole, because club football was going pretty well in Louth. I approached Mickey one week before he resigned as Tyrone manager.
“Mickey said he wanted to stay with Tyrone for one more term, but he’d wait to see what would happen and he gave me a commitment that if he didn’t go one for one more year that he’d give me a call the following weekend.
“True to his word, after he resigned, Mickey contacted me and we met up, we had two or three meetings and then he agreed to become manager of the Louth senior football team.
“Getting someone of the calibre of Mickey Harte, it was a no-brainer. I played for Louth for 16 years in the ‘80s and ‘90s and we had an opportunity to get Mick O’Dwyer into manage the team. We also had an opportunity of getting Joe Kernan in to manage the team.
“We always had the talent in Louth, we just didn’t seem to have the captain of the ship to put a system in place to organise the whole thing. When I sat down and spoke to Mickey for the first time, I honestly knew straight away he was the right man for the job.”
Harte’s tactical approach has often had its critics. His Tyrone team in the noughties were deemed the inventors of ‘puke football’ and the blanket defence. But Gourley doesn’t agree with that narrative.
“When I was playing under Mickey, Mickey always asked you to just work as hard as you could for the team. Different people have said to me about Tyrone’s tactics, but there was nothing really magic about it. He just asked that when you go out on to that pitch to work as hard as you can.
“I suppose there were players on our team that really epitomised that but at the tim. Every player that was on that pitch realised that if they were going to play, they had to work, no matter what position they were in. That’s one of the things that he would have strived for, that every player was working hard for the team.
“And then we saw the results we were getting as a result of that hard work and with the Louth players, the first thing he would have established with them would have been making sure that they were prepared to work. And if they were prepared to work, they’ll see the benefits.
“They obviously have talented players but if he has all those talent players working, then they’re in the right place. I remember Stevie O’Neill saying one time that if you have talent and work together, it’s a great combination. If you have those two things working together, then you’ll go places and Mickey always strived for that.”
While Harte was the big name, the star attraction, he wasn’t coming on his own. It was a package deal. “He said it was a partnership he had with Gavin Devlin,” added Fitzpatrick.
“Even there last Sunday when we were coming home from the Leinster semi-final, he said to me, ‘you knew about me, but you didn’t realise about Gavin Devlin.’ The combination of Mickey and Gavin is second to none.
“We have lads, like Ciaran Byrne there who played Aussie Rules in Australia for two or three years, we have a lot of players that would have played under different coaches, and everybody says that he (Devlin) is by far the best coach they’ve played under.
“So, you have Mickey the mastermind, you have Gavin, the combination is absolutely fantastic, the two of them really bounce off each other. Mickey was right, we didn’t realise this package was going to be so, so good.”
“We were always aware that he was a good communicator,” said Gourley of his former teammate Devlin. “But more than that, he was a good, positive communicator.
“He would have made you feel like you were the best player in that position, in Ireland. He makes players feel good about themselves, he gives them great confidence and great belief in their own ability. He’s clearly developed as well as a coach over the last ten-plus years.”
The progress Louth have made under Harte and Devlin has been astonishing. In three seasons they’ve achieved back-to-back promotions, finished third in Division Two and will compete in their first Leinster final in 13 years.
“I told Mickey that our ambition was to get to Division Two as soon as we can and he asked me, what about Division One?,” remembered Fitzpatrick, reflecting on one of their initial meetings. “I said that if we got to Division Two, then the pressure would be on to get to Division One.
“At that stage (2021) we were in Division Four and you had Antrim, Sligo, Leitrim and ourselves, you’d four good teams in Division Four. You normally wouldn’t see that kind of calibre in Division Four.
“Antrim beat us in the first game and then we had to beat Sligo and Leitrim, there was no easy, automatic promotion. But when we sit down with Mickey and Gavin, you do realise that they have very high standards, they have very high expectations, they’re very motivated and they really have confidence in their own abilities.
“We have a very, very young team and the future looks really, really bright under Mickey and Gavin and we’ll have them for at least another two years.”
Two more years of progress, the sky is the limit under Mickey Harte. Can Louth achieve the impossible and down the Dubs to create history? Harte will believe they can, and his track record means they have a chance.