Martin Breheny: Why is Murphy not used as a deadly finisher?
Published 01/08/2015 | 02:30
So what would you do if you were taking charge of Donegal for this evening's All-Ireland qualifier clash with Galway in Croke Park?
Here's my plan. I would put Michael Murphy so close to the Galway goal that his only concern would be to avoid running into the square ahead of the ball.
I would instruct my outfield players to conduct an aerial bombardment, bringing Murphy into a fielding duel against Galway full-back Finian Hanley, with the Donegal corner-forwards sniping around the fringes.
If the first few waves of attack yielded little, I would give the plan more time. Under no circumstances would Murphy venture out the field for the first 20 minutes at least. And, even then, only if were absolutely necessary.
Modern-day tactical sophisticates will, no doubt, scoff at such an old-fashioned concept.
They will talk of traction and turnovers, of running off the shoulder, crossing the gain line and various other phrases, mostly picked up from rugby commentaries.
So, to suggest that Murphy might play in a traditional full-forward role is to risk ridicule, especially since Donegal have done so well over the last four years with him playing a roving role, which frequently takes him deep into defence.
So deep, in fact, that in the first round of this year's Ulster Championship against Tyrone, Justin McMahon, whose brief was to be no more than a foot away from Murphy all day, scored a point when his pursuit of the Donegal captain took him within 20 metres of their goal.
Murphy didn't score from open play against Tyrone, Armagh or Monaghan in this year's Ulster Championship, leaving his two points against Derry as his total return from four games.
He scored 0-5 from open play in six championship games last year and 0-4 from five games in 2013. That's a total of 0-11 in 15 games (a point every 96 minutes) over three seasons, a poor return for a player of his calibre. Overall, his average strike rate from play is marginally more than a point per game.
But then, he spends so much time well away from the scoring zone, contributing to the rest of the game plan, that it's scarcely surprising his returns are so low.
That raises the questions as to why Donegal have their fastest driver changing tyres in the pit lane when he should be speeding out on the track.
In his column in this paper a few weeks ago, Peter Canavan described Murphy "as the most complete footballer in the game at the minute in terms of versatility, leadership, work rate off the ball, his use of possession and his scoring ability."
All of which may well be true, but his scoring ability is not yielding high dividends because Murphy spends much of his time so far away from the opposition goal.
And since Donegal scored the low combined total of 1-19 against Derry and Monaghan in their last two games, it would appear to be time for a review of how they use him.
It wasn't until the late stages of the Ulster final that Murphy moved close to the Monaghan goal.
And while he didn't get many opportunities, he still presented a different type of threat to when he was slaving out the field, where Vinny Corey was a constant - and highly effective - marker.
The Donegal squad that won the 1990 Ulster final, most of whom were aboard two years later for the All-Ireland triumph, were guests at the Ulster final, enabling them to sit together as a group.
Tony Boyle, their outstanding full-forward, enjoyed the very interesting experience, albeit a frustrating one as Donegal found it increasingly difficult to create scores.
"A few of us were saying at one stage that we'd love to see Donegal line up in the old-fashioned way - even for 10 minutes - just to see how it would go. That's the last thing opposition expect from Donegal so they would get a surprise if they had to deal with it," said Boyle.
He has always believed that Murphy's best position is at full-forward but accepts that because the Glenswilly man is so versatile, other demands are placed on him.
"Michael is such a colossus of a player that he's very valuable everywhere, but it's a pity that he can't be used close to the opposition goal. That's where they don't want to see him, because they know he's so good," said Boyle.
The 1992 All-Star has an interesting theory on why alternating Murphy between full-forward and further out is so demanding on him.
"Full-forward is a specialist position. You've got to be constantly alive and alert to what's going on, concentrating all the time on the next chance that might come your way. Michael is brilliant at that when he's left in there but switching between full-forward, midfield and even back into defence is asking an awful lot of him.
"You can't be an out-and-out full-forward one minute, be under a kick-out the next minute and be getting in tackles 70 yards from your own goal the next minute.
"Michael is such a gifted player that he does it well, but I'd like to see him spend less time away the opposition goal," said Boyle.
Murphy carried a slight injury into the Ulster final, which probably impacted on his performance and it now remains to be seen if he has returned to full power and, equally intriguingly, if Rory Gallagher opts to use him in a more traditional full-forward role.
Donegal supporters expected Murphy to play close to the Kerry goal in last year's All-Ireland final, taking on Aidan O'Mahony, but that didn't happen to any great degree until late on.
Now, Donegal return to Croke Park to face an improving Galway side, so Gallagher will have to decide on whether he uses Murphy as a specialist full-forward for longer periods than has been the case up to now.
It's a big call for Donegal as they attempt to re-float their season. Cork and Westmeath, the beaten Munster and Leinster finalists, were both eliminated in the fourth-round qualifiers, underlining how difficult it can be to recover from a provincial final defeat.
Donegal experienced it two years ago and while they nudged past Laois, it was a temporary reprieve before they were well beaten by Mayo.
Boyle believes that the two-week break has given Donegal a chance to re-focus and that if they get their game working properly, they will reach the quarter-final for a fifth successive year.
"You wouldn't know what to expect from Galway. They're definitely improving but when you look back at the Ulster final, you'd have to say that only three or four of the Donegal lads played anywhere nearly as well as they can.
" And yet, they only came up a point short after shooting 16 wides. Karl Lacey is a huge loss, but I still think they have enough to win this one and get right back in the All-Ireland race," said Boyle.
Whatever the game plan, Murphy will be a key man, just as he has been for so long. It's difficult to believe that he is still only 25 years old (he will be 26 on Tuesday), having packed in so much for club, county, province and country over the last eight years.
Age: 25 (26 next Tuesday)
C'ship Debut: 2007 (v Leitrim)
C'ship Games: 41
Total scores: 6-129
Open play: 3-33
Placed balls: 3-96
All-Ireland SF titles: 1 (2012)
Ulster SF titles: 3 (2011, '12, '14)
All-Stars: 2 (2012 & 2014)
Donegal captain: 2011-12-13-14-15 Murphy (then 21 years old) was appointed Donegal captain by Jim McGuinness when he took over as manager in late 2010.
He has held the responsibility since then, during which Donegal have enjoyed the most successful period in the county's history.
In addition to winning an All-Ireland and three Ulster finals, they reached five successive provincial deciders, four under McGuinness and under new manager Rory Gallagher.
It leaves Donegal with an impressive record of 16 wins and two defeats from 18 games in the last five Ulster Championships.
Murphy made his debut with the Irish International Rules team in 2010 and was appointed captain for the 2013 series, when Ireland beat Australia.
He was captain again last year when they lost a one-off Test in Perth.