It is difficult for the dust to settle when the wind still blows. James Califf’s phone has been hopping since Monday evening. His, he knows, is not the only one.
The Mickey Harte Years, time will determine their legacy. Still, nobody could have predicted the ending – a sudden departure by the godfather of Tyrone football who had decided instead to hitch his wagon to the most unexpected of passing trains. Mickey Harte, Derry manager. Choo, choo.
Former Tyrone forward Owen Mulligan jokingly online compared it to taking charge of Rangers, while ex-Derry player Joe Brolly ventured that it is ‘the worst thing to happen to Derry since the plantation’. At least Harte appears to have already united the camps.
For Louth, they were the collateral damage.
“I suppose we’re still coming to terms with the news,” says Califf. “It came out of the blue, it stunned a lot of players, to be honest.”
Califf was a central pillar in the Harte and Gavin Devlin Louth project. After the best part of a decade in Louth’s midfield, Califf had hung up his intercounty boots when a proposition was put to him to return as a goalkeeper in 2022.
Harte and Devlin met him to outline their vision. “It’s very hard to say no to them in person,” he smiles. They coaxed him back to be Louth’s goalkeeper for 2023 as well.
“I was more or less done the year before they came in. I just had other stuff on, after the first year they kind of approached me to go back as a goalkeeper.
“I probably would have felt I had as close a relationship as any other player with them, given I was one of the elder statesmen.”
But like everybody else, he was blindsided by Monday’s developments. After Louth chairman Peter Fitzpatrick spoke with Harte on Monday morning, team captain Sam Mulroy was alerted and he met with the three-time All-Ireland winning manager.
Subsequently, a joint meeting of the Louth panel and the county’s management committee was called for Darver on Monday evening.
Califf, who became a father for the first time only two weeks ago, couldn’t make the meeting. And he wasn’t the only absentee, with several players having training commitments as the club championships are ongoing.
“It’s strange, we hadn’t even heard any whispers about it. We weren’t exactly sure what the story was because it was such late notice,” says Califf. “It wouldn’t be totally unusual for us to have meetings like that, last minute. It could have been about preseason or anything, so it just came as a shock to the lads.”
Califf was part of the Louth minor management team this season and soaked up as much knowledge as possible from Harte and Devlin.
“To be able to learn off them was great, I’d be interested to see how they operate and things like that. It’s funny, I thought I knew football and had tactical awareness, but then you meet Gavin and Mickey and you gain a completely different perspective and insight.”
Still, the ending came in such a rush. One moment Harte was Louth manager, the next he was off to Owenbeg. The cold analysis suggests Harte and Devlin feel there is more potential in Derry than Louth. Sam Maguire trumped Sam Mulroy.
“When you look at Derry from the outside, they were semi-finalists and probably could have been in the All-Ireland final,” adds Califf. “Maybe that was the pull. Look, Mickey and Gavin are ambitious men, no matter what you say maybe they feel they could get the top silverware quicker with Derry, perhaps that was in their thinking.
“Obviously there is location too, it’s closer to them and there is familiarity for Gavin with the Slaughtneil lads as well. You can’t deny they probably did see there was a good chance of getting the top honours with Derry fairly soon rather than staying on a longer project with Louth.”
Not that Califf believes the last three years were a waste. Far from it, in fact. He views the experience as very much a positive for Louth football, which if harnessed correctly can prove to be a solid foundation for further growth.
“The players are disappointed but at the same time everybody is grateful as well,” explains Califf.
“There are not too many players get the opportunity to work under such experienced coaches like Mickey and Gavin. And it wasn’t just one season, they were there for three years. For Louth football it is better to have had them for that period than not at all.
“That might have got overlooked in all of this, but not many players get exposed to that level of man-management and coaching for three seasons.
“It was invaluable exposure to that level of coaching and it’s a matter now of building on that. The players are still there, they are eager to learn, so we’d hope the position does attract good interest and somebody takes on the role now to continue the project.”