Murphy's iron will provide strength to break through
Paul Murphy may not be a giant of a man, but he is a big player
After last year's All-Ireland win the Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice reflected on the challenges posed during their period of transition, the process of blooding players and the risk that went with it.
"I felt I was going to have to bring through a lot young players and just give them the chance and the time to prove themselves; have faith in them, have belief in them and get them to believe in themselves. That would probably be my biggest challenge." It must have been particularly gratifying that one such player should end up being declared man of the match in the final against Donegal.
Paul Murphy didn't come with a silver spoon in his mouth. Overlooked at minor and some development teams, he was a relative late-comer. He wasn't the tallest defender in Kerry, three inches off six feet, but he was introduced in the National League last year and was one of five players who made their Championship debuts against Clare in the Munster semi-final. He capped a confident beginning with a goal, abandoning his post to get on the end of a Kerry move and planting the ball low for a crucial score in a sticky match.
"But they grew and they grew and they grew," said Fitzmaurice of his new players. "You take a fella like Paul Murphy who had never played Kerry minor. I brought him into the under 21 squad the year I was there, you could see he was a special player even if he was not a giant of a man, he played big and he has had an incredible season."
He played big - what a great way of putting it. Murphy embroidered a first-class marshalling job on Donegal's Ryan McHugh, who rode into the final on the back of an outstanding show against Dublin, with a beautiful point in the second half. A score that one of the legends who he had replaced, Tomás Ó Sé, would have been proud to call his own. Murphy took a pass overlapping on the right wing and met the ball beautifully on his right foot, slicing it over the bar for a rousing score.
Nine Kerry footballers started their first All-Ireland senior football final last September. Fitzmaurice had trying days during the League but Murphy delivered a powerful message for the new generation at a time when marquee names were starting to retire or move to the periphery.
He is no longer a player who passes without notice, a serving All Star of whom now more is expected and aware that the second year will, if anything, be tougher than the first. "It was dream stuff," says Murphy now. "Reflecting a bit over the winter it was unbelievable. It was more than anything I could have imagined for the year, but I suppose once we started back from the holiday in January this year and the National League was coming thick and fast then, you're only thinking about 2015 then because if you look backwards you're going to trip up, something is going to happen, somebody's gonna take your place or things like that. Maybe in years to come I'll look back at my first year again and reminisce and look back with great memories, but at this stage it's solely looking forward."
At the start of 2014, his aspirations stretched to achieving some League appearances and nailing a place on the Championship panel. He dipped his feet in the McGrath Cup, made his League debut against Dublin and did enough through the spring to merit a start against Clare in June. Championship was where he'd be judged. "You never get to the stage where you're thinking, 'Jesus I'm flying here now', because somebody's gonna come in then, a corner-forward, and skin you, so you prepare for every game as professionally as you can, but you get more confidence. Now I can sleep before a game, whereas last year I might have been staring at the ceiling for a lot of the night. You get used to the routine. Every game you take on you learn a bit more and take something from it."
Rathmore clubmate Aidan O'Mahony was there, a calming influence and helpful counsel, but when Murphy went on the field he was on his own. Kerry had forwards, even with Colm Cooper ruled out with injury, capable of standing favourably alongside any set in the country. Their backs were a work in progress. Their persistence with two players in their mid-30s was evidence of that but Murphy brought something new and refreshing.
"The fact that you're being picked to play you have to take as a show of confidence in you from the management so you take belief from that. Then in terms of approaching it, you observe how the other lads approach it. They've been there for eight, nine, ten years. So their routines, how they approach it, you pick up little things from them. Coming up to the final last year, I wasn't totally fazed by it. I wouldn't ever be hugely nervous. Thankfully it's a good thing to have, you never get overwhelmed by the whole thing. At the end of the day it's a game of football, it's 30 lads kicking a ball around a field, so you try to break it down with things like that."
There was nothing from his career up to adulthood that marked him out as a certainty. Rathmore have been a senior championship team in Kerry since 2000 without ever seriously threatening to win it. When he first came on the team they played him in attack because they figured he was too light for the defence, where he spent his time underage. "But it didn't last too long and I was thrown back in defence again."
Career setbacks never quenched hope that he would wear the green and gold. His father Donal, the Rathmore club chairman, spoke last year of his son coming home disappointed after being let go from county underage squads after trials. Size, he felt, was working against him.
"I didn't make the minor team. I'd say I was probably seen as too light at the time, and I was you know. I'm still not a big man by any means, but I was small underage and maybe got a growth spurt my last year of minor or something like that, but yeah, I didn't make it for whatever reason. I'd been training with them over the winter, playing a few trial matches and things like that, but sure look, for whatever reason it didn't work out."
He is asked if the rejection hurt. "Absolutely. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't [disappointed]. It'd be a target you'd set for yourself and at the time there was actually three lads from the club, Donal O'Sullivan, Mark Reen and Pádraig McCarthy. They were on the team, so naturally you'd be very jealous. You'd see the lads going off to matches and think 'Jesus I'd love to be going off with them now', but I didn't make it and then it was Leaving Cert time and I threw myself into that. For one reason or another it didn't happen and that was it."
Murphy followed in the footsteps of fellow clubmen Din Joe Crowley, O'Mahony and Tom O'Sullivan in winning an All-Ireland final man-of-the-match award. His father won East Kerry Championships and last year he missed the All Star trip to Boston when the East Kerry final went to a replay.
Football was always part of family life. In 1997 he went to Croke Park for the first time to see Kerry play Cavan in the All-Ireland semi-final. "To be honest the main memory I have of Cavan is just the seat, myself and my brother, it was the old Hogan Stand, we were thrown in one of us over the turnstile and that was the last of that I'd say, that was one of my abiding memories and Mike Frank's goal. The memory is a bit hazy. The whole family were at it."
He equalled Tom O'Sullivan's feat in winning an All-Ireland senior medal without representing the county at minor. He also took over O'Sullivan's man-marking duties for Rathmore. "Tom O'Sullivan would have been our main man marker for a lot of the time, but when Tom stepped away a few years ago - he's actually back now - around that time I was thrown into Tom's shoes in the man marking jobs. At the time I had notions that I wanted to be further out the field and things like that, but in fairness it probably brought me on as a player. If you're able to go, I won't say toe to toe, with lads like Colm (Cooper) and James (O'Donoghue), if you're able to hold your own with them you'll take a bit of confidence from that. They're probably the best forwards in the country, and tougher than what you might face in a lot of inter-county games, so you just take things from that."
He recalls a club championship semi-final in 2011 against Dr Crokes, and the first time he was asked to mark an inter-county player of note. "After 10 or 15 minutes I was moved back on Kieran O'Leary and I had no time to think about it because it was the middle of the game and I was thrown back. Then maybe after that, the following year, I'd have been getting assignments. I was on Gooch (Cooper) a couple of times and James (O'Donoghue), Darran (O'Sullivan) maybe, after that they came pretty thick and fast. A bit too many of them for my liking!"
Today, at 24, he will experience Tyrone in the Championship for the first time. "They're still an excellent football team underneath it all you know, especially with club teams now maybe you might see teams who wouldn't have excellent footballers trying to play a defensive system, whereas you certainly couldn't say that about Tyrone, that they don't have the football. They've excellent players. It's a different challenge and hopefully we'll do enough to get over the line."
Tomás Ó Sé described Murphy's arrival last year as "a breath of fresh air" and someone else remarked recently when Murphy's name was dropped that he "looked 12". But don't be fooled by the looks. He has made it to where he is not on football alone. There is an iron will to match.
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