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comment Whatever happens in the corridors of Red Hand power over the coming weeks, Mickey Harte's place in history is assured

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Tyrone manager Mickey Harte could be set to step down

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte could be set to step down

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte could be set to step down

THE idea of someone other than Mickey Harte wearing the Tyrone ‘bainisteoir’ bib will seem almost preposterous, because this is how it has always been since his appointment as the county’s senior football manager in November, 2002.

But it has now moved one giant step closer to reality, once news broke last night that the Tyrone GAA executive has turned down Harte’s request for a one-year extension.

Various county board officials could not be contacted for a comment this morning, but the lack of an official confirmation doesn’t negate the significance of this development.

In effect, for the first time in 18 years, Tyrone’s history-making manager must apply for a position that is now vacant. But so too can others, and the name most frequently mentioned in speculation thus far has been Feargal Logan, who managed Tyrone to an All-Ireland U21 title in 2015.

Peter Canavan, another long touted as a successor, has already ruled himself out of the running so long as his son (Darragh) and son-in-law (Peter Harte) are involved.

It’s true that Harte is the great survivor. It’s equally true that a previous request for an extension, four years ago, was also rebuffed by the county board.

But there’s one big difference between then and now: in 2016 he still had a year to run on his existing deal and was seeking to have this extended until the end of 2018.

Now, all the informed speculation is that Tyrone chiefs are seeking to open up the process and invite potential candidates to apply for the role on a three-year term.

Does the veteran boss still have the hunger to hunker down, make his case for continuity and see if any potential rival is willing to raise his head above the parapet? After all, you would be taking on a Red Hand demigod.

The counter-argument, though, is that Tyrone need a new voice and it’s not even clear if Harte retains the same voracious appetite to carry on, something that has always been a given up to this strangest of years.

The Covid-delayed 2020 championship would prove the shortest of Harte’s epic reign, for the obvious reason that there was no ‘back door’ escape route after they lost their Ulster quarter-final to Donegal last Sunday week.

Afterwards, the losing manager was asked the inevitable question about his future intentions. "I haven't considered anything about that just right now," he replied.

Those journalists present in Ballybofey were struck by the equivocal answer. After all, previous championship exits were invariably greeted by bold declarations that he had no plans to go anywhere.

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When Tyrone lost by four points to Kerry in the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final, Harte stressed that "I really enjoy this particular role and feel privileged to be in that position." Asked directly if he would be there in 2016, he replied: "I haven't said I am going anywhere … "

Two years later, having retained their Ulster crown, Tyrone suffered another semi-final loss, this time to Dublin, this time in a 12-point landslide.

"I do expect to be here," he said of his future. "It's not in my hands. Somebody else might choose to do something different - that's their prerogative to do so. At this point in time, I've no intention of walking away."

Whether that remains the case, even more so given this week’s development, must be open to debate if not considerable doubt.

In one respect, the temptation to stay on must be great. Here is a Tyrone team suddenly bursting with forward potential, with the recent addition of Conor McKenna and Darragh Canavan allied to the prospect of All Star Cathal McShane’s return to fitness in the New Year.

But the sense remains of a team that, under Harte’s latter tenure, continually hits a glass ceiling.

If they had taken all their goal chances in the wind and rain of Ballybofey, they could conceivably have toppled Donegal. But were they the better team overall? No. And did they fully go for broke in those closing stages, trailing by two points and with their season on the line? No again.

In recent years, they have ceded top spot in Ulster to Declan Bonner’s Tir Chonaill men … while, in a strange way, still proving themselves to be the top team from Ulster when it came to the All-Ireland race.

And yet, against the genuine contenders, Tyrone have continually come up short. Post-2008, they have contested six semi-finals and the only victory came against a relative outlier, Monaghan by a whisker in 2018, whereas Cork, Mayo, Dublin and Kerry (twice) had their number at the penultimate stage.

In this same period they have lost four knockout duels with Dublin (including the 2018 final, Harte’s first in a decade); three with Kerry and two with Mayo.

It’s all a far cry from Harte’s noughties pomp, when he inherited a county with no All-Ireland pedigree and created history within 12 months. In his first six attempts, he masterminded a staggering three Sam Maguires. His tactical acumen, often at its sharpest when tackling a mid-game crisis, made him the Midas man.

Back then, Tyrone didn’t ooze invincibility like the Dublin team of today; while they won via the conventional route in 2003, they required back door assistance for the All-Ireland wins of ’05 and ’08. But this was a supremely gifted, well balanced squad, and their manager utilised his resources to maximum effect.

Back then, Harte was the bogey man for both Kerry and Dublin … no longer.

Whatever happens in the corridors of Red Hand power over the coming days and weeks, his place in history is assured. But he wouldn’t be the first decorated manager to stay perhaps too long; Pete McGrath in Down and Seán Boylan in Meath are more emphatic examples of legendary leaders whose counties had fallen precipitously from old All-Ireland heights by the eventual time of their departure.

The same cannot be said of Harte, who led Tyrone to three consecutive semi-finals (and one final) between 2017 and ’19. But he’s 68 now, some six years older than Boylan when his 23-year Royal reign ended in 2005.

Does he still want to fight for a role he has so long cherished? Watch this space

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