The 15 years that have passed since Mickey Harte was in his first All-Ireland final, prompted a look back at ‘Knocking Down Heaven’s Door’, a season diary Harte kept that coincided with Tyrone’s first-ever All-Ireland title.
As a sports book, it has aged remarkably well. As a historical document, it is fascinating how the world of football, and indeed Harte himself, has changed his thinking and methods.
Back in 2003, Harte was a teacher in St Ciaran’s, Ballygawley. He also owned a shop in the village.
On the week of the All-Ireland final, he admitted to the phone ringing off the hook with acquaintances requesting tickets. He spent an evening that week at his sister-in-law’s where they were having a ‘Tyrone party’ with the various Tyrone songs blasting through the stereo.
A week before the final, St Ciaran’s bade him farewell with a massive party in the main sports hall, with ‘The Boogie Men’ performing their song ‘Na Na Nah, Tyrone.’
Perhaps the hardest element to take is how prominent his daughter Michaela is.
In almost every chapter she is a huge presence, making albums up for the players with their song choices, transcribing the lyrics of the Irish national anthem for the players to sing, weaving in thread for miraculous medals. His paternal devotion is intense and at the very front of the book is a scan of the napkin she wrote at the losing minor All-Ireland final banquet in September 1997 promising that ‘we’ (Mickey and Michaela Harte) would win the minor title in 1998, the All-Ireland under-21 title in 2000 and the senior title in 2003.
Given it all came true, you can understand Harte’s faith, his trust and his unwavering confidence that he can surmount any obstacle.
The hardest one has to be getting over the murder of Michaela on honeymoon in January 2011. This is his first final without her.
He seldom talks in specifics now, the way he might once have, but he came close when he said: “I have had challenges to deal with in life and I have always felt that God was with me through those.
“It’s something that has come to me. I’ve had a good life, many good things have happened to me and I have had setbacks. But all the while I have believed that God was at the helm of everything.”
Whatever faith he has, he needed it in 2016. His arrangement as Tyrone manager was due to expire at the end of 2017 and he sought an extension. The county board voted that down.
All the more surprising when he was granted a three-year term at the end of last season, which would ensure that should he see that period out, it would be 30 seasons unbroken service managing Tyrone representative teams.
He understands that sometimes, he is not going to be the darling of every football person in Tyrone.
“I understand that some people always crave change if you’re not winning, I’ve seen it and heard it,” he says.
“Someone at a meeting decried that it was seven or eight years since Tyrone had reached an All-Ireland final and this was a real problem for them. I began to wonder what we were doing for the 119 years before we won any!
“There are people with that mentality. That’s fine, they can be as they may… But I still felt over the years that there was still something we could offer as a management, and that I could offer as a person to Gaelic games at this level.
“I still believed I could do that and I’m glad that people on the county board who mattered agreed with that assessment.”
A fourth title would be an astonishing and most unlikely feat, not only because of formlines but also because of lifespans of coaches, their appetite for the game they are involved in, and general fashion trends. Harte has clung on to power when the easiest thing might have been to let it go. Any study of his life would reveal he has had no interest in doing the easy thing.
Little wonder that he is savouring the build up to this final.
“It doesn’t feel as good (as 2008), it feels better,” he glows.
“I think I have come to learn over the last 10 years that this isn’t an easy place to get to. And that, it seemed to come maybe too easy to us in those five years when we had three experiences of that nature.
“With general opinion you can get caught up in thinking this can happen very often. But, if we look back through history we realise that it doesn’t happen very often.
“It is a real blessing for me personally to be in this fourth final and for anyone who has a connection with the team of 2008. Not many do. I think with Cathal (McCarron) being injured, Colm (Cavanagh) is the only one who played in that final.
“So the rest of the boys, it is new to them as an experience. It is happening very fast for them too, it is condensed into three weeks.”
On Saturday, Tyrone held their ‘meet the players’ event back in St Ciaran’s, the scene of the Boogie Men back in 2003. Players and management grinned widely as they signed autographs before heading off for a training weekend to put the final touches to their preparations. The team feel good about themselves and the county is daring to dream once again.
“There has to be a degree of enjoyment by all means,” says Harte.
“They have worked so hard to get to this place but the real enjoyment is coming home with something to show for it and that is the challenge we have to embrace now.”
He continues: “Maybe I am an eternal optimist. I always believe things are possible. And even though certain results hit you very sorely and you are thinking ‘are we every going to get back to the top table?’ You do have to ask yourself these questions.
“There is something about that, about being patient, trusting what you are about, adjusting what needs to be adjusted to try to come up with something better and something different.”
And that’s the task for the week ahead.
Mickey Harte has been in charge of Tyrone representative teams for 28 unbroken years, beginning with 1991 and the county minors.
He has managed Tyrone in 30 finals, winning 27 of them. His only defeats came in the 1997 minor All-Ireland final and Dr McKenna Cup finals of 2010 (to Donegal) and 2011 (to Derry).
In his senior record he has managed Tyrone in 286 games from 2002 to now. They have won 189 games, giving him a win ratio of 66%. To put into perspective, Alex Ferguson won 60% of his games, Bob Paisley 57%.