Fears Murphy's troubleshooting role is creating more problems than it solves
Published 30/07/2016 | 02:30
If Cork ever needed forewarning of what Donegal captain Michael Murphy could do, they got it early in 2012.
Seconds into their National League clash in Ballybofey, Karl Lacey ran onto a pass in midfield and launched the ball. Murphy out-muscled his marker, turned and banged it to the net. Fourteen seconds gone.
Several months later in the All-Ireland final, Lacey played a ball on the diagonal. Murphy got it in front of marker Kevin Keane, held him off and planted a bullet of a shot past Mayo goalkeeper David Clarke in the third minute.
These plays showcase what Murphy is about. With his accuracy, size and strength along with his developed ability from frees, he is the prototype full-forward.
Since that All-Ireland final, however, Murphy's effectiveness has been called into question.
His scoring contribution has become negligible. In the last four Ulster finals, he has been held scoreless from play. Monaghan's Vinny Corey was his man-marker for three of those finals, and a couple of weeks back the unlikely candidate of Cathal McCarron held Murphy scoreless from play, while getting on the scoresheet himself.
In fact, over four games in his province, Murphy only managed one point from play in total.
It was ten seasons ago that he made his Championship debut, the same summer that Brendan Devenney played his last.
"He was an astonishing talent. I wasn't sure with his size how he would mature when he got to 21, 22 because he was so far evolved," recalls Devenney, "but everything about him was on the money."
Team playmaker in their breakthrough Ulster title in 2011, Michael Hegarty can recall then selector, now manager Rory Gallagher encouraging him to find Murphy with long passes.
"In the Ulster final against Derry, we were good enough favourites," recalls the Kilcar man. "I was playing centre-half forward that day and Rory said, 'when you get the ball, let her rip.' We ended up getting joy from it.
"The goal came from a long ball kicked in when we won the penalty. I had the latitude that when I turned, I could just lorry it 40 or 50 yards. Murphy was causing havoc. Because of those long kicks, we were able to win it at our ease."
Since the All-Ireland win, Murphy's role has become that of troubleshooter. With Colm McFadden's on-field minutes diminishing, the captain's talents from the dead ball are not only indisputable but he has redefined the distances from where a free can be scored.
His ability to force turnovers and play a part in transition from defence to attack are impressive. But it is a lot of hard yards. At 26, you wonder how many more years he can squeeze out of himself in this role.
"Somebody is going to have to make peace with the idea that Donegal are not doing enough to relieve Murphy from out the field," continues Hegarty.
"People are going to have to play him at full-forward and try to work to their strengths, rather than getting him to win possession out the field."
The problem with having a player of Murphy's excellence is working out where his talents are best suited to. Although he watches all of Donegal's games as an analyst, Devenney himself is still not sure, and admits his mind can change mid-championship.
"For the first Monaghan game, I was saying on-air that at this stage, Murphy knows best, the management knows best. He plays where he needs to," explains Devenney.
"He went inside and was such a threat, that I changed my mind. We should put him in there, him and (Paddy) McBrearty would be an unbelievable partnership.
"Then the second game against Monaghan, he was brilliant and played nearly the whole game out around the middle, playing balls through, giving great leadership, really took the game to Monaghan."
The conclusion he reaches a few weeks down the line?
"It depends on the game."
In the Ulster final, Donegal were locked into a game of cat and mouse. A telling moment came when Gallagher stood on the sidelines urging his team to get forward in order to distort the Tyrone defence. Call it age, pressure or simply a hot day, but the zip in their 2012 legs has gone.
Hegarty believes their freedom of expression is suffering.
"It's okay to be cautious, (but) I think it has gone over the top. The players are not expressing themselves at all.
"It's crucifixion of Gaelic football if it is too over the top, if boys are not allowed to play, because there is no enjoyment out of it."
As Donegal prepare for Cork in Croke Park today, they might think back to the same stage last year in their win over Galway. A high ball in towards the goal, Murphy hanging in the air and tipping it down to Ryan McHugh, who finishes to the net. Simplicity. Effectiveness. He still has it all in his locker.
Devenney is cautious about the future, saying: "Looking at the games he has played, he has probably produced the kind of work that most players have by the time they turn 30. He has the miles on the clock."
Gallagher could be the Donegal manager for the next five years and oversee a huge transition. Murphy may or not see his role evolving.
But should Gallagher leave any time soon, the next man would be keen to put his own stamp on things. It would start with Murphy, who would become the permanent point of reference at the edge of the opposition's square.
Play it like that, and Murphy could be around for another half-dozen seasons at least. The way he is being used now, with the effect of injuries accrued around the middle, he might not.