When Mickey Harte became manager of the Tyrone minor football team in 1991, no-one could have anticipated the journey ahead.
Twenty-six years later he is now into his 15th season in charge of the Red Hand county. And only another seventy minutes stand between his side and the fourth All-Ireland final appearance of his tenure.
At each of his managerial levels, Harte has achieved All-Ireland success. Three provincial titles at minor level would culminate in a 1998 All-Ireland final victory against Laois.
Goals from Enda McGinley and Owen Mulligan, both of whom would go onto greater things, secured a 2-11 to 0-11 win.
Having progressed to the county under-21 side in 2000, Harte led the side to three successive provincial titles. Two All-Ireland titles were also won by this golden generation as players like Kevin Hughes, Stephen O’Neill, Philip Jordan and the late Cormac McAnallen continued their progress from the minor ranks.
Only a semi-final defeat to Dublin in 2002 was to deny Harte a chance at the hat-trick.
The next year saw the Glencull native finally take the reins at senior level and he immediately etched his name into Tyrone GAA folklore. By beating Down 0-23 to 1-5, after a replay, they captured the Anglo-Celt Cup.
A dour semi-final victory over Kerry resulted in RTÉ pundit, Pat Spillane, infamously branding their style of play as ‘puke football’.
However, most of all, progression to the final was all that mattered.
A first final between two sides from the same province saw Tyrone take on neighbours and defending champions, Armagh. By now, most of Harte’s under-age lieutenants had finally graduated to senior level. Ably led by the illustrious Peter Canavan, they ground out a 0-12 to 0-9 victory.
A memorable late block from Conor Gormley with Steven McDonnell bearing down on goal was needed to keep the opposition at arms length.
However, 2004 was to prove a tragic year for Tyrone GAA and the sport as a whole. Only a week after lifting the McKenna Cup as captain, Cormac McAnallen sadly passed away. Just 24 years of age and held in the highest regard by all, any aspirations for Tyrone GAA in 2004 became completely inconsequential.
A second Sam Maguire was won in 2005 and the final would be Tyrone’s tenth game of a lengthy campaign. They had defeated Armagh by the minimum in the semi-final, gaining revenge for a provincial final defeat. Again, Tyrone would face the holders of the title, Kerry, in the final and Harte showed his tactical nous.
Peter Canavan, by now a relative veteran, scored a late first half goal before being withdrawn by Harte at half-time. Harte then brought him back in the last quarter with the game in the melting pot.
With fresh legs, Canavan struck a wonderful point before winning a fee which Stephen O’Neill converted. A second Sam Maguire triumph was sealed by the O’Neill county as 1-16 to 2-10 would prove to be the final score.
A further Ulster title was won in 2007 but it would be the following year before Tyrone reached the summit again. A surprising early loss in Ulster against Down meant Harte’s men were banished into the back door system.
Still under the radar at the quarter-final stage they then dismantled Dublin by 12 points at Croke Park. And after a routine semi-final victory over Wexford the Red Hand county found themselves in the final again against old rivals, Kerry.
A goal by Tommy McGuigan at the start of the second half was the crucial score as Tyrone sealed their third football crown in six years.
Provincial titles were won in 2009 and 2010 but Tyrone could not make the same impression at national level. Harte, however, had to deal with a much tougher challenge following the death of his beloved daughter, Michaela, in 2011.
As many of Tyrone’s golden generation started to retire, Donegal and Monaghan took over as the kingpins of Ulster. A back door journey to the All-Ireland semi-final in 2015 was a sign of Tyrone being rejuvenated at senior level. In 2016, a late victory over Donegal ended a six- year wait for an Ulster title.
This year, having dismissed Armagh in the quarters after retaining the Ulster title with ease, they face Jim Gavin’s Dublin. A side that may be the greatest of its generation and quite possibly of all time.
Seven Leinster titles in a row and three All-Ireland titles in the last four years give merit to that statement. Jim Galvin’s men have suffered just one defeat in the last twenty-nine Championship fixtures.
Rumours of discontent were whispered as Tyrone’s standards slipped during the barren years. Indeed, even this season, after a poor finish to the league, people were questioning Harte’s ability to lead. And this is a man who has brought great success to his native county.
Harte has overseen a massive overhaul of his senior panel and Sean Cavanagh is the only starting member of the 2008 side currently in Harte’s first 15. Recent under-age successes at minor and under-21 level have bolstered the county. But Harte is the man who has been responsible for the transition of the side. Not only in their personnel but also in their playing style.
Over the last three years, an initially defensive system has expanded into a dynamic counterattacking force. And Mickey Harte must be sick of hearing that apparently his side don’t have a marquee forward.
When the number of players hitting the target is generally double figures the need for one is negated. If Harte can get his players to execute his game-plan then they should have every chance.
With a breathless running game, Harte has adopted a style of play quite similar to Jim McGuinness’ Donegal. The last team to beat Dublin in the Championship was? Yes, you guessed it, it was Donegal. The occasion? Funnily enough an All-Ireland semi-final (in 2014). Could history repeat itself? Quite possibly.
To reach the top in your chosen field in any generation is an achievement in itself.
To do it fourteen years apart it would cement Harte’s position as one of the greatest manager’s in the game’s history. And it has been no easy road for him to drag Tyrone back to dine at the top table.
If Harte can mastermind his team to victory on Sunday then it could just represent the pinnacle of an already glittering career.
Michael O’Neill, Pundit Arena
Check out the latest episode of The 16th Man where we looked ahead to all the weekend’s action.