independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Cork's Con Murphy is just what the doctor ordered

Con Murphy's 'crucial' skills have been healing Cork bodies and minds for almost 40 years

A name and job description rolled into one that barely touches the depth of his vocation. Medicine may be Con Murphy's profession, but communication is his gift. The gentle, playful cadence of his voice has become as much part of a Cork dressing-room today as the distribution of crimson jerseys.

To many of his generation, the young may be an enigma. But almost 40 years into this story, Dr Con still seems instantly reachable and knowable to players sitting in clamourous dressing-rooms, the swell of a huge, expectant crowd so palpable overhead.

Tomorrow will be his 25th senior All-Ireland final with Cork. In that time, he has watched the GAA world do somersaults, locally seen good men just about pull through the sparky upheaval of three strikes that sundered old unions.

Yet, to him, life has always come back to the games. To people and loyalties and friendships that will carry to the grave.

Nicky English reckons that he was stitched by Dr Con a small multiple of times during his life as a county hurler. Tipperary and Cork seemed to have some kind of rolling arrangement for National League games through the '80s in which they would entrust medical care to the home team doctor.

As luck would have it, Nicky required facial repairs more often than not on his visits to Cork, helmets at the time still an option resisted by the majority.

Needlework

He was a second-year student in UCC the first time he experienced the pleasure of Con's needlework, having fallen off a bicycle in Wilton. The Doc's bedside manner was always conversational. He would try to anaesthetise the discomfort by drawing into colour any one of the million little vignettes that make up a GAA life.

Once, English remembers running flush into a Michael Doyle backswing in Pairc Ui Chaoimh and reporting to his old friend for repair. Dr Con, he recalls, reckoned that – for Cork hurling teams especially – a small amount of blood-loss sometimes represented a big investment.

The busier he was with his needle after, the more likely that Cork won.

He fell into the job by chance, approached by that cunning old doyen of county board politics, Denis Conroy, one night at Cork greyhound track. It was the summer of '76 and Murphy, at the time a junior doctor in Tralee, was there in the company of a young man called Jimmy Barry-Murphy.

His own father, Weesh, had for years been the resident stadium vet at Wednesday and Saturday evening meetings. A stout GAA figure who played full-back on the county side that won a football All-Ireland in '45, Weesh would posthumously make it onto Cork's 'Team of the Millennium'.

He was chairman of the Munster Council when he died two weeks before the '73 All-Ireland football final, collapsing on his way to a function for the triumphant hurlers of Limerick.

Three years later, then, the approach for Dr Con's services didn't amount to the most formal of invitations.

Cork were due to play Tipp in a Munster hurling championship game at the Gaelic Grounds. Was he, maybe, "thinking of going?" wondered Conroy. It would prove a poor enough game, won by Cork, but prompting Christy Ring – then a selector – to wonder if they might wisely choose to play the next round in Lourdes.

Weesh Murphy's son didn't know it at the time, but he had just been handed a job for life.

For all of Ring's pessimism, that team was embarking upon a journey that would bring three hurling All-Irelands in a row and deposit Dr Con Murphy into the very masonry of Cork GAA.

His work is holistic, his talents broad. Yet, maybe nothing defines him better than a simple ability to read people. Dr Con understands that there is no generic way to treat an injured player because there is no such thing as a generic player. For some, even the faintest injury cripples the competitive faculties. Others might suffer fragile bodies, but their spirits are steel beams.

Recently, Murphy nominated Larry Tompkins as the toughest patient he has had in his care, and Tompkins this week told a tale that went some distance to explaining why.

It was '94 and a fevered county football final between west Cork neighbours Castlehaven and O'Donovan Rossa. One of those primal local meetings so incomprehensible to people peering in from outside. Maybe 30,000 loyalists gathered for a rivalry doused with the sparks of desperation.

Twenty minutes in, Tompkins snapped his collarbone. He would play the remainder of the game "kind of with one arm" before being whipped immediately to Cork University Hospital at the end of an epically charged contest that ended in a draw.

The doctor delegated to tend his injury was neither Irish, nor a particularly keen student of west Cork football. His prognosis was delivered coldly.

"You will be in a sling for three or four weeks and absolutely no physical contact for six months ... "

"Six months?" screeched Tompkins. "The replay is in two weeks!"

Tompkins, of course, made that ludicrous deadline and Castlehaven won. How? By doing what generations of GAA men have always done in a time of crisis. He dialled the number of Dr Con.

"He probably knew my temperament in relation to overcoming pain," smiles Tompkins now. "On the day, he froze the shoulder and I didn't feel anything with it for quite a while. And then he kind of froze it again at half-time.

"Con knew that I would do anything to play, so he'd look at you and make a judgment. Maybe for another guy, he'd say 'Listen, this can't work!' That's where his understanding of people is so crucial, his know-how of players.

"If he said to me 'Listen, there's not a chance in hell', well then I knew there wasn't a hope. But I got through that game and we won. And it was big stuff winning that county final. You'd overcome an awful lot of pain to win something like that. It was a huge game, huge pressure.

"(Niall) Cahalane and myself would often say afterwards that the pressure of playing in that final was as great as that felt in any All-Ireland final."

Mention of Cahalane, a kindred spirit of Tompkins', resurrects a wild story from '93. Cahalane had a broken bone in his leg that was slow to heal and so, one week before the All-Ireland final against Derry, Dr Con gave him a letter to have the injury X-rayed at University Hospital.

The queue in radiography was out the door, so Murphy collected Cahalane and drove him to Togher instead, where his leg was duly X-rayed in a veterinary hospital. The specifics of the problem duly identified, Cahalane played the final in a custom-made cast.

Tompkins believes that Dr Con's brief with Cork county teams has long since out-grown the realm of medical duty. When he was Cork football manager, Murphy's read on a player was something Tompkins routinely sought out and valued. "You get to meet Con and, within hours, you feel like you've known him all your life," says Tompkins.

"He has a huge knowledge built up of players and their mindsets. I've no doubt that the likes of Billy Morgan or Johnny Clifford or Jimmy Barry-Murphy, whoever Cork managers have been across the years – and I'm including myself in that – would ring Con and ask his advice on stuff that's got nothing to do with any medical situation.

"His experience is invaluable. He wouldn't just know the player, he'd know the whole make-up of their families. And there's that old saying 'If you know the mother and father, you'll know the son an awful lot better...'

"I'd always have a memory of him in the dressing-room before a game, going around to every player, subs included, shaking hands, offering encouragement. And it would be a real, whole-hearted hand-shake.

"There'd almost be tears in his eyes and you could see how much it all meant to him."

That emotion has always been transparent. He recalls crying openly while stitching an equally emotional John Horgan after the hurlers' defeat to Galway in '79, a loss both men knew marked the end for a great team.

And the day of the drawn All-Ireland final against Meath in '88, Tompkins recalls Dr Con as being almost "inconsolable". Cork had looked the better team all through and he could sense a massive opportunity spurned. Cahalane was among those moved to throw an arm over the doc's shoulder, reminding him "We're still there ... "

The next day, after Meath had won the replay, the tears were Cahalane's. Tompkins remembers: "This time it was Dr Con trying to console Niall. He often tells the story against himself.

"He says he went to Cahalane, threw an arm over his shoulder and said 'Now you know why I was crying the first day!'"

CONFIDANT

His circle of friends extends far beyond the borders of county. Murphy was one of the main instigators behind a golf day the Cork and Tipp hurlers of the late '80s and early '90s had in recent times and remains a close friend and confidant to many of the great Kerry football team of the '80s.

English recalls speaking to him after the '84 Munster hurling final in Thurles, in which Cork dramatically beat Tipp. Dr Con said that he had noticed English changing his boots shortly before the throw-in. "I just didn't think you were yourself ... " he said.

For English, the comment struck him as remarkably perceptive.

"He reads people very well like that," says Nicky. "What I would say about Con is that he wants Cork to win, but he'd like everybody to play well. And that would be absolutely sincere. When I was manager of Tipp, he would have been very supportive. Obviously, not when we were playing Cork, but any other time he'd send a text or something.

"He's just a great sportsman, someone in whom you could have total trust. He has a great understanding of, I suppose, the insecurities of players. I'd still be in very regular touch with him. If I was in trouble, he'd be the man I'd be ringing I think, straight away. You kind of rely on him."

Dr Con is GP now to virtually every player that has ever been under his care and, in many cases, their children too.

Almost 40 years a Cork volunteer and still radiating that friendly aura of care and authority. Of knowing really.

After Cork brought the Liam MacCarthy Cup home that summer of '76, Ring met him by chance one day in Patrick Street. "Thanks a million Murphy!" said Christy.

He couldn't have known the breadth of time that debt would carry.

Irish Independent

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