Football books that are written from the perspective of one team – or, more narrowly, from the standpoint of one person within a team – are generally unsatisfactory in that, of their nature, they can only hope to provide one side of the story on how sporting contests are played out. One team’s heroic victory is another another’s heartbreaking defeat and so when you’re only getting one team’s version of the contest, it follows that you only end up with, at best, half the story. This lack of balance is, to my mind, what ultimately makes all books written by sporting protagonists (or, more frequently, by their ghostwriters) a frustrating and largely unsatisfactory experience.
Mickey Harte’s book suffers from this drawback but, despite this, I still found it to be quite a compelling and worthwhile read. For starters, Mickey chose well in getting Michael Foley to ghost it for him – Foley is a talented journalist and his Kings of September ranks as one of the better GAA books in recent years (the fact that it has a very happy ending helps, I suppose). But Mickey’s book is also interesting in the way that it shows what makes the Tyrone supremo tick and how his approach to managing Gaelic football teams appears to form part of a wider and very well-rounded philosophy on life.
I’d wager that there aren’t too many GAA (or indeed other sporting) books where religion and philosophy take up as much space as they do in Harte’s treatise. Right throughout the book, philosophical thoughts and ideas keep re-appearing in the text and as you make your way through his account of his time on the Tyrone sidelines you find yourself rubbing shoulders with everyone from Saint Augustine to Karl Popper. I doubt if that’ll be the case when Ryan McMenamin finally sits down to pen his memoirs.
At one level, Harte appears quite a forbidding kind of creature, what with his traditional Northern Catholic roots, his Pioneer pin, his teaching background and all the rest. A bit of an ascetic, in other words, but one who, when he turned his gaze towards a career in Gaelic football management, has achieved quite astonishing results. So while Mickey doesn’t come across as the kind of man who would ever be the life and soul of the party, you can be sure that the rich fruits emanating from all the sober work he has put in have sparked more than a few wild parties in his native county over the past decade.
How the great three-times All-Ireland winning Tyrone teams of the Noughties came together is, of course, the main theme of the book. The way in which they did so – fashioned by Harte’s deep-thinking plans and tempered by the repeated tragedies faced by his increasingly worldy-wise squad of fiercely determined players – is engagingly and, to my mind at least, very honestly recounted.
An appetite for hard work, a refusal to accept second-best and a continual striving for year-on-year improvement are all features that have been the hallmarks of Tyrone teams in the first decade of the new Millennium. To the outsider, the modern Tyrone set-up (one that’s still in place, lest we forget) is both uplifting and daunting. On the one hand, it shows that if a team wants success badly enough, it can – if it gets its act together properly and has the raw talent available – realistically aim to reach the promised land. On the other hand, though, Harte’s book provides ample evidence that this road is not one for the faint-hearted and that by the time you reach the summit (assuming you’re able to do so), you’ll be in no doubt that it’s all the hard work you’ve done that’s got you there. In other words, there are no short cuts on the road to sporting success (okay, being in Munster every year is a help but let’s not go there now).
The lessons for us (and any other counties harbouring idle thoughts of approaching Gaelic football’s highest peaks) are obvious. Do we approach the preparation of our teams with the same degree of rigour that Mickey Harte’s Tyrone have been doing for the last seven years? Do we have a clear set of values that our players buy into? Do we have a common goal about where where we want to get to as a county? Do we have a team calling the shots that can get us there? I could be wrong but I’m not sure we tick any of these boxes right now.
With Tyrone having recently given Mickey Harte a renewed mandate to remain on as senior manager until the end of the 2012 campaign, we can, I think, be reasonably sure that the Red Hand are going to continue to be there or thereabouts at All-Ireland level over the coming years. Anyone who wants to know why this is likely to be the case would do well to spend some of the quiet time between now and the New Year reading through this insightful and thought-provoking book. While the cynic in you might at times bridle at all the self-help quotations that keep cropping up (I found this to be the case more than once), you need to keep reminding yourself (as I repeatedly did) that this is the man who delivered six All-Ireland titles (three senior, two U21 and a minor) for Tyrone in an eleven-year spell and, in doing so, who elevated his county from being a middling force in Ulster to become the only team capable of going toe-to-toe with the Kerrymen. As far as I’m concerned, any man who can do that is well worth a hearing.