AT Liam Hinphey’s wake on Sunday, somebody asked his son Liam Óg what had finally done for the great man. He said, “The news about Mickey Harte.”
The house was filled with kids wearing their Kevin Lynch hurling shirts. Many of the adults were wearing Kevin Lynch shirts and track tops. A Kevin Lynch jersey was hanging outside the front door to be signed by the players who had played under him.
By the time I signed it, there was no room left on it, covered in hundreds of tiny signatures of the great man’s old boys. From 1970 until his death, big Liam coached hundreds of teams, four, five, six, sometimes seven days a week. He persuaded the Kilkenny County Board to send hurls and jerseys and even their hurlers to do a bit of coaching. Eddie Keher, Fan Larkin and Brian Cody would turn up at O’Cahan Park to spend a Saturday spreading the gospel. Not a penny ever changed hands. A few pints afterwards in the club. A bit of music. Stay over with a local family (Keher stayed in ours) and a hearty breakfast before heading back to Kilkenny. In those days, we were all in it together.
We were all in it for the right reasons. In the wake house, I looked around at this incredible community that Liam had engineered. He loved us all and we loved him in return, even if he would cut you to pieces at the slightest hint of bullshit. His beloved daughter Emer said to me “It’s weird.” Him lying in a coffin beside us. “It is weird” I said. I cannot remember him ever not being there. A colossus who had no interest in plaudits or credit. A man who took his joy from the exploits of his boys and the health of his community. A true GAA man.
Meanwhile, in Louth they are furious. Plans had been made. Clubs had been consulted. Louth chairman Peter Fitzpatrick said last week he was “left in shock” after Harte dropped “the bombshell.” He said when he told the players at a meeting the following day, “they were devastated.”
This is the thing about professional sport. There is no loyalty. But even by the lowly standards of the GAA, this is shabby. David Jeffrey, the legendary Linfield FC manager, said on William Crawley’s Talkback program this week, “I am surprised with Michael. There has been incredible uproar with him going to Derry. How can Derry people welcome him to there county? If I ever rocked up to the Oval, who from Glentoran would welcome me? And I can assure the Linfield football family I would never, ever go to Glentoran.”
It was sickening to listen to them:
William: Is this divine intervention?
Jeffrey: Michael looks to see where God is looking to lead him
William: Which saintly intervention carried him to Derry? (laughter)
Meanwhile, Tyrone people are veering between scorn and amusement. Sean Cavanagh pointed out in his Star column last week that Mickey – when he was a Tyrone man – was strongly opposed to Tyrone Gaels coaching outside Tyrone. Owen Mulligan tweeted, “Just when I was starting to like the ****.”
The Dungiven boys WhatsApp group has been renamed ‘Mickey Harte’s Apostles.’ In Derry city, the gormless lad in the Derry Girls’ mural has had his face replaced by Mickey Harte’s. Most depressing is the fact that the younger generation don’t see the problem. For them, the soccer language of the new GAA has replaced the old language of community bonds and loyalty.
The GAA has become a tawdry cartel, full of barter accounts. At least the League of Ireland declares their salaries, perks and transfer fees.
Last week, Malachy O’Rourke turned down the Derry job. Within 24 hours, Gavin Devlin (whose assistant manager at Ardboe is Chrissy McKaigue) and Mickey Harte had a firm offer on the table. From there, it was only a matter of informing the Louth chairman that all his dreams had come true. As Peter Fitzpatrick told the media, “Mickey told me he would love to win an All-Ireland before he retires and he thinks that Derry is the best chance for him.”
When the GAA investigated under the table payments during Sean McCague’s presidency, Peter Quinn famously said, “We couldn’t even find the tables.” Since then, a professional cartel has taken over the game. Clubs have lost faith in their own. Counties, apart from the successful ones, have lost faith in their own.
In the last 20 years, six counties have won Sam Maguire. Armagh (Joe Kernan) Tyrone (Mickey Harte, Feargal Logan/Brian Dooher) Kerry (Jack O’Connor, Éamonn Fitzmaurice) Cork (Conor Counihan) Dublin (Pat Gilroy, Jim Gavin, Dessie Farrell), Donegal (Jimmy McGuinness). In that same time, the hurling winners are Kilkenny (Brian Cody), Cork (Donal O’Grady), Tipp (Nicky English, Liam Sheedy, Michael Ryan), Clare (David Fitzgerald), Galway (Michael O’Donoghue). Notice anything?
I have been arguing for 15 years that the GAA should make a simple rule that only a club man can manage his club, only a county man his county. So, club and county eligibility would be precisely the same as for players. This would return the game to amateur status, save clubs and counties a fortune and most importantly protect our ideal. An outside manager comes in and his priority is not to be beaten.
Blanket defending, heavy training, nil regard for the overall welfare of our boys. This has helped to produce the boring, unadventurous dross we see at senior level, a wonderful pastime turned into a sterile, hermitic bore: all life coaches and nutritionists and video analysis and stats, which make no difference any way.
I coached underage teams in my club St Brigid’s for 15 years. With passion and imagination and obsession. Loved the boys. Loved being part of their development on and off the pitch. We suffered joy and disaster and death. Once when I was teaching them the rules of goalscoring, to the vast amusement of the group, I brought a blow up doll to training (don’t ask) and put her in nets. The idea we had was that the goalie is ” a figure of fun” who only saves a shot if it is kicked at him or where he wants it to be kicked. Soon, we were firing in goals easy-peasy.
By the time they were skilled and understood the game, we won two u-16 A championships in a row, then played in two minor A finals. The boys later went on to win the A u-20 championship in thrilling style. Then, the senior management post came up and I was invited to ‘apply’. Gareth Bradley, John McKenna and me, who had soldiered with these boys since they were six years old in the St Brigid’s tiny gym (we painted goalposts on the wall) sat before an interview panel of St Brigid’s trusted friends and team mates. We were asked what our budget was. We said “nothing.” We were asked what we needed. We said, “The group will sort anything we need.” I said we would contest a senior final within 12 months and be champions within two years. I explained how we would do it. We left the room enthused, ready to embark on this labour of love, as we knew there were no other St Brigid’s people applying.
A few days later, the chairman, a friend of mine, rang me and said, “This is the hardest phone call I have ever had to make.” I put the phone down. Turns out they paid an outside manager. A psychologist and training guru. It was of course a disaster. Heavy blanket defence. Endless meetings and video analysis. Inspirational messages. Key players drifted away. Mind numbing football. Rubbing salt into the wound, shortly after he was appointed he rang me to see if I would “sit down with me and go through what we have.” He drifted on to somewhere else.
Me? I have never recovered from that disloyalty. I feel the hurt yet. I cannot be in their company. If I am, I pass myself, as though chit chatting with a stranger.
I go to the games but it is not the same. Something precious has been lost. Something more important than football. Something big Liam understood.
I can see him in heaven, cigarette lit, pint of stout in front of him, giving out about St Peter being holier than thou and wondering where he can watch the Kilkenny matches.