Mickey Harte – Tyrone’s great tactician

By John Scally

It is the end of an era. Thirty unbroken seasons as Tyrone manager through minor, U21, and senior teams came to an end for Mickey Harte when he retired as Tyrone manager in November 2020. It was an incredibly successful period in Tyrone’s history.

Harte’s great team of the noughties changed the game forever, landing the Sam Maguire Cup three times in 2003, ’05 and ’08. Even though that would be his last All-Ireland, in subsequent years he still won four Ulster titles and reached another All-Ireland final appearance. There is no doubt he is the greatest Tyrone manager of all-time.

Mickey Harte has rewritten the manual for GAA management. He was a very astute, shrewd manager who is most meticulous in his preparation. The great managers are often not easy men. They have to be driven by an endless quest to avoid the inevitable, to minimize risks and to maximize potential. Management is a process of replacing one anxiety with another. Harte was noted for his attention to detail.

His record as a manager at minor and under-21 is unrivalled and the final part of his CV came when he delivered Sam Maguire to Tyrone. With that kind of track record it is very hard to find flaws in his makeup. He is a very serious thinker about the tactical side of the game. He is a stickler for statistics.

What draws people to him is something intangible. By instinct he has an exceptionally firm grasp of human psychology and how to appeal to it. He reached the top because his assessments, his strategy and his organization are more instinctively accurate, more directly arrived at, and more meticulously effected than those of any of his rivals. But despite the calm exterior, he maintains on the sideline, even in the heat of battle, a fierce energy and drive fuels him.

The Tyrone manager showed himself to be a genius, a tactical master. He innovated a new style of football which nobody had seen before. His towering gifts as a manager – the priceless ‘feel’ for players and commanding urgency of his voice, the cold nerve and iron determination, the judgement that springs a sub at precisely the right moment to suit their capacities – have never been better exemplified than in his icily patient delivery of the injured Peter Canavan in the 2003 All-Ireland final.

Harte guided Tyrone to glory that year using controversial new tactics. In this approach nothing was left to chance. Tyrone’s success was based on a platform of defence and safety first: keep possession, keep mistakes to a minimum and play in a manner that allows skilful players only the least little bit of room and time to do their thing. It appeared that Tyrone football subscribed to the belief that victory is based on getting defences right, players funnelling back and slowly but surely choking individuality.
After Kerry lost to Tyrone in 2003 in the All-Ireland semi-final, their star player Seamus Moynihan observed: ‘The midfield area was like New York City, going down Time Square, crazy.’ Such a tactical approach was very effective.

Pat Spillane was its most vocal critic and famously called it ‘puke football’. However, he did change his tune:
“I am not going to use the ‘P’ word again but at its worst Gaelic football is like watching Tyrone beat Kerry in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final. A perversion of the beautiful game like that is like measles; it is something you should get over young, not at my stage of life. Football should leave you looking frenzied, looking mad with joy. That type of football simply left me looking mad. It is watching muck like this that is causing me to grow old disgracefully.”

“Having said that, Harte brought a more expansive style to Tyrone in 2005 when they deservedly beat Kerry to win the All-Ireland, playing some great football. Before Tyrone played Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2008, I was ready to write their obituary but they produced the performance of the year and came out and totally demolished the much hyped Dubs. They played with composure, class, total commitment, teamwork, flair and skill. They put up a great score in the most atrocious conditions. I know many people will be surprised to hear me saying this but in short they played football the way it should be played. Even my beloved Kerry could learn from them on that performance and they would prove that when they beat the Kingdom in the final that year.”

“Mickey Harte was tactically innovative. He converted Sean Cavanagh and Cathal McShane into brilliant full-forwards, Joe McMahon to full-back for an All-Ireland final against Kerry’s so-called twin towers and Cormac McAnallen to one of the game’s best full-backs before his tragic death. Although they have some great players, a lot of the credit for Tyrone’s success must go to Mickey Harte. He is one of the finest managers of all time.”

Twice winning All-Ireland manager John O’Mahony is a huge admirer of Harte’s achievements as a manager:
‘In ‘05 Mickey Harte had been working on the team for three years and had a harmonious blend between defence and attack. Although Kerry got off to a great start in the All-Ireland final that year, Tyrone wiped the floor with them and played beautiful football and showed they had some great players. Harte’s tactical genius was again showcased in 2008 when against the odds, he led Tyrone to another All-Ireland at the expense of red hot favourites Kerry, having earlier crushed the highly fancied Dublin side in the All-Ireland quarter-final. He’s one of the best managers we have seen.”

Harte has also experienced the most devastating tragedy. His daughter Michaela had become a well-known face in the GAA because of her devotion to the Tyrone team and because of her frequent appearances in the media. In 2004, she was a finalist in the Rose of Tralee competition. She shared her father’s strong faith and had a great devotion to Padre Pio in particular. Before the historic 2003 All-Ireland she presented each member of the Tyrone team with Padre Pio medals and rosary beads. To the shock of the entire nation she was shockingly murdered while she was on honeymoon in 2011.

Dermot Earley Jnr was struck at the speed at which dreams can be shattered and how close the veil between life and death, is as tragedy swoops like a hawk flying down from the sky, a fearsome beast, ferocious as it ripped and shred and tore, attacking all it saw:
“On the morning of Dad’s removal as we were having our breakfast, Mickey Harte called to express his sympathies. As he shared tea and toast with us I never dreamt then that just seven months later my mother would end up making the journey to Tyrone to offer words of condolence to Mickey after the horrific murder of his much loved daughter Michaela. It was such a tragedy and it touched the entire nation.’


Neither Mickey Harte nor the Tyrone footballers spoke to RTÉ since 2011, after a skit was aired on RTÉ Radio One, which Mr. Harte felt showed disrespect towards the memory his his daughter Michaela, who had been tragically murdered while on her honeymoon a short time before.

On one of the few occasions when he mentioned the 2011 incident, Mickey Harte told journalist Kieran Shannon in an interview that it was nothing personal, but he was against the institution. He felt it was a faceless thing, with certain individuals who had done things they should not have done. “As a point of principle, as far as RTÉ is concerned, I am not speaking to them, because they didn’t do the right thing at the right time.”


The longest-serving inter county football manager in the game, Mickey Harte led his native county to three senior All-Irelands (2003, 2005 and 2008) and to six Ulster senior titles and minor and Under 21 All-Ireland successes. In late November, shortly after Tyrone had turned down his request for a one-year extension and he announced his retirement with them, the Louth County GAA Board expressed delight that the famous Tyrone man was to take over their senior footballers as manager with his former player turned coach Gavin Delvin joining him, as being named as Louth’s new assistant manager, and he will also join Mickey Harte in taking over the county’s Under 20 team.

The former AFL player, Ciarán Byrne, who returned to Louth last year, described the arrival of Harte as “a huge boost” for Louth and thinks it’s just what “The Wee County needed.”