Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin are set to be named as the new Derry management tonight. Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO
the last dance

Mickey Harte's move to Derry one of the most jaw-dropping the GAA has seen

Move that has shocked the GAA world shows how Harte, at 69, is still a born competitor who wants the top honours.

WHERE TO START with the Louth statement that landed on Monday afternoon?

Part-dignified, part-news statement, a smidgen of ‘turned the kids against us’ and a trace of inverted Dear John letter. You can parse through the lines to get a sense of real hurt experienced by those pushing Louth ahead, only to find their most prized asset pinched in broad daylight.

Mickey Harte’s move to Derry – which will certainly be ratified at a county committee meeting tonight in Owenbeg – is genuinely one of the most jaw-dropping moments to happen in years.

Moving to Derry? Tyrone are like Tipperary in that they share county boundaries with many and their list of rivalries are almost exhaustive. But still there’s a needle with Derry owing to the sheer proliferation of clubs along the Loughshore of Lough Neagh, and the Derry footballing heartlands nearby of the greater Maghera area.

Nobody from Kerry has ever managed Cork. A Corkman managing Kerry sounds like a punchline. Same for Meath and Dublin, if not quite for Galway and Mayo with John O’Mahony’s successful spell as an welcome interloper among the Tribes.

Still and all, Harte is going to be ratified tonight; 30 years to the day that Derry won their sole All-Ireland.

This sort of manoeuvre is rare.

When did it last happen that a sitting manager, content with the role and with a happy county board, should up and leave their post to take another county?

It’s not completely unheard of, but the circumstances vary.

In recent years, Jack O’Connor left the Kildare job. Liam Cahill left his post in Waterford. But both men were ‘going home’ to manage their own in Kerry footballers and Tipperary hurlers. Nobody sensible could begrudge that.

In the past, Mick O’Dwyer has went straight from Laois to Wicklow. Mickey Moran was with Sligo one season, Donegal the next. But there was always a period of grace and an acknowledgement that the project had run its’ course.

Derry have wiped Louth’s eye.

Louth’s statement in which they outlined Harte’s intention to join Derry, feature some wrestling with the narrative. The usual ‘wishing you all the best’ sentiments were included, but they are hurting that they have lost Harte.

County board chairman Peter Fitzpatrick is a man who enters things with a full heart. He has plans for Louth that involve rebuilt stadiums and Division 1 football.

Harte has taken them to the cusp of that. Last year they got off to a brutal start in the league, losing by a point to Clare.

The next game, they lost to a Derry goal. How the game unfolded however, caught the eye of various people in Derry who were familiar with the methods of then-manager Rory Gallagher, and how Harte coached a somewhat limited team to deal with it.

Louth rallied thereafter to beat Limerick, Meath, Kildare and Cork with their final game against Dublin being a shootout for promotion. They lost by seven points.

They reached a Leinster final, again facing Dublin, went for broke with an attacking approach and lost by 21 points.

And that was the moment Harte and his assistant Gavin Devlin could feel their heads banging off the glass ceiling.

All the same, Fitzpatrick’s personal feelings will oscillate between gratitude at a job well done, and knowing that when he made his move for Harte, he wasn’t exactly jumping any queues and many would have questioned what a 66-year-old had to offer an intercounty set-up any more.

Nobody is questioning Harte now. He and Devlin went into Louth and breathed life into it. One of the first actions they did was to convince the county board to redevelop their Darver training base.

mickey-harte-and-gavin-devlin James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

They knocked down walls to make a huge dressing room for everyone to fit in. They decorated walls leading out to the pitch with imagery of great Louth players and teams of yore. They tossed more walls to create a convivial area where all the team and management could eat together.

And all the while, their reputation was enhanced and on their terms.

Harte has an ability to keep everything in house and let it play out as he desires. When the time came for him to leave Tyrone, he was in complete control.

Take yourself back to Friday the 13th, November 2020.

His Tyrone side had lost to Donegal in an empty Ballybofey the previous Sunday week and time was up for Harte with Tyrone. But there wasn’t a squeak of this from any source. On the Friday morning, Harte invited two journalists, Brendan Crossan of The Irish News, and myself, up to his house to conduct interviews when he said he was finishing with Tyrone.

An agreement was made between Harte, Crossan and myself that the news could be broken at 9pm that night.

We were aware of the decision before the vast majority of Tyrone players. Some player felt hurt by that and have said it in the intervening period. They were entitled to that.

The point was, nothing happened until Harte decided.

Two days later, he was being shown the media ropes for BBC Northern Ireland by Peter Canavan as they were on pundit duty for the Ulster semi-final between Down and Cavan in the Athletic Grounds.

mickey-harte-along-with-the-bbc-team Harte on punditry duty in November, 2020. Matt Mackey / INPHO Matt Mackey / INPHO / INPHO

By then there had been an outpouring of tributes to Harte and his spell with Tyrone, the 18 years with the seniors and 30 years unbroken service all in.

He seemed destined to settle into his next life as something of a statesman-pundit, but a few spiky exchanges with fellow pundit Oisín McConville showed his complete inability to go along with a consensus and just make nice for the sake of it.

And then he outfoxed all by taking the role with Louth. Until he decided that he wanted more.

“I got a phone call from Mickey at eight o’clock on Sunday night looking to meet me in Dundalk and I met him and Gavin on Monday morning,” Peter Fitzpatrick said last night.

“He told me that they were resigning as manager and selector of the Louth senior football team. They’d been in negotiations with Derry and were offered a three-year term. I was completely taken by surprise but thanked them for the fantastic effort they put in.

“I knew there was no way I was going to change their minds and I’ve built a very good relationship with the two lads over the past three years and I didn’t want to leave on bad terms.

“Mickey told me that they only finalised everything with Derry in the last week and I wish them best of luck going forward. I do believe that we’re in a better position now than when Mickey and Gavin came in, but it is really a shock.”

What he said on Louth Meath FM was the real juice.

“Mickey Harte was very upfront with me, he has a three-year term with Derry and wants to win another All-Ireland before he retires.”

Derry will not be entirely unfamiliar to Harte. Gavin Devlin has spent a spell up coaching Slaughtneil and his ability to organise a team found favour among the leaders in that club.

The mutual appreciation was reciprocated when Devlin brought Chrissy McKaigue into his Ardboe club last year to run a few sessions. McKaigue is precisely the kind of driven individual that Harte forms fast and close bonds with.

All of this will play itself out in the coming weeks. The other side of it is that it piles on even more layers of intrigue on the Gaelic football scene.

Let’s be ruthless about this. The prospect of Harte marooned in Division 2 with Louth seems a terrible waste.

Instead, let us salivate at the sheer needle that will be everywhere next year. When Harte faces Tyrone, it will be hotter than a Scotch bonnet. And lurking in the background waiting for their shot in Ulster will be a Jim McGuinness-managed Donegal.

Back in that interview in November 2020, I concluded my questions by asking Harte, ‘You are 66 now. What’s next?’

He answered, “Learn how to hit a golf ball with an iron. I am alright with a wood, but I can’t hit it with an iron.

“At the minute I have an open mind. I am quite spontaneous. I am here today, I could be anywhere tomorrow. If you ask my wife she would say the same thing. I just let days unfold and whenever things come up, I just go to them. I am flexible like that, not rigid in that. Not programmed.

“I don’t know what the future holds, I just know what today holds.”

A life of surprises.

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