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Old-school Harry furthers his education

THREE days before they beat Fermanagh in the Division 4 league final, the Wicklow footballers held what you might term a typical Harry Murphy training session. It was raw, honest and 32 players hopped to his every instruction.

"They were cutting lumps out of each other," Murphy recalls. "And now every session has to be like that. We're trying to get out of the lower divisions and we need that cut. That night was so intense it showed me everyone was up for the challenge. They all wanted to play at Croke Park, too, of course."

It still took them some time to find their tempo in that league decider even if they ultimately reached a rhythm that the Ulstermen simply couldn't match. In the end, they beat Fermanagh pulling up, giving the county supporters a rare sighting of silverware -- their first since they won the Tommy Murphy Cup in 2007. People had feared a hangover might set in after the Mick O'Dwyer era, but the truth is the opposite has happened.

"Harry's training and approach is absolutely savage and after a slow start to the league we got going," says one player. "His ways are more modern than Micko's. He talks to players too; he'll have the crack with them but you always know where you stand with him. He's dead straight."

Under O'Dwyer, despite the fact that he pushed former teams Kildare and Laois teams hard in the league, Wicklow usually looked on league football as an afterthought. A month of summer success held way more appeal than a sustained spring. That outlook changed instantly upon Murphy's appointment as the Rathnew man quickly identified promotion from Division 4 as his top priority.

"Leighton Glynn has played for his country in two International Rules series, Ciarán Hyland and Tony Hannon are as good as you'll get anywhere in Ireland. We have many other lads way too good for Division 4," the manager says. "That was one of the things I said to the boys when I took over, 'Do you really want to look back on your careers and see nothing but Division 4 football?'"

They endured a nail-biting finale against an improving Clare side to first guarantee promotion and then beat a fancied Fermanagh side in the final.

"That duel with Clare was like a winner-take-all championship game," he admits. "It was a bloody great game to be involved in. They went three points up and we had to fight to the death to take promotion off them. There was a good crowd at Aughrim for it as well. It reminded us that we have some good footballers here and everyone got a massive lift. The challenge now is to take the story further."

Murphy has his side primed for an upset today against a Meath team with some untried talents. They've won their last six games in a row while Meath have lost their last five. It would still be foolish to make Wicklow favourites given their opponents' pedigree, experience and quality, but it's shaping up like a really tight, intense battle in Dr Cullen Park.

"Meath have had a few problems, but we know we're going to be up against it on Sunday; they can really turn it on come championship-time," Murphy warns. "Would the Dubs or Kildare really like to play Meath today? I think deep down they would be worried and the same applies to us. It's only two years ago that they put five goals past Dublin and they put five past Louth last year too. Players like Cian Ward can rattle the back of the net if you take your eye off him for two seconds as well.

"But sure this is why we get involved. It will be a fierce battle. We'll have to play very well to beat them but that's the challenge at our doorstep. I don't pay any heed to all that stuff that happened in the past few weeks over there with Banty and the board. Sure the last few weeks will have given them every chance they need to unite.

"There is no particular pressure on us, but at the same time we want to perform. So maybe the pressure is coming from ourselves. Our boys are on the scent but a lot of things will have to go right for us. I'm only being honest."

While the Wicklow players have grafted hard to put themselves in the frame for an upset, Murphy deserves his crack at the big time too, having served a formidable apprenticeship with his club Rathnew for the past 11 years. In that time he landed seven senior county titles, including a four-in-a-row between 2000 and 2003.

He hadn't given much thought to taking on the Wicklow team, he was more than happy with his club role, although he was wondering if it was time to step aside and let new blood in. Next thing the county board knocked on his door.

"Trevor Doyle's in there now so Rathnew are in good hands," he shrugs. "And, look, it was nice to be asked by Wicklow and I said I'd do it pretty soon after. I don't feel an ounce of extra pressure to tell the truth. I might have an extra phone call a day thanks to ye lads [journalists] but apart from that there is not much difference with the approach I take to inter-county management compared to the club. Maybe the only difference is that I'm nearly always guaranteed 32 lads with Wicklow whereas with the club you'd be lucky to get 22 some nights. But clubs have that problem all over the land. And the travelling, we go all over the county to train. That took a bit of getting used to!

"People wondered what was I at, following in Micko's shoes, but I didn't feel that burden. Sure it's not as if we were winning All-Irelands or Leinster titles. Even if we had some big days we're not up there with the big boys. No, the only pressure I felt was to get out of Division 4. If we want to progress as a county we just needed to climb up the divisions. We've made a start."

Still, losing to Waterford and Fermanagh so early in the season left promotion unlikely. Surely Murphy doubted his team's ability to escape the lower clutches?

"No, we went asleep for the first half and conceded three horrible, soft goals to Waterford and that knocked the stuffing out of us," he admits. "I thought we were really unlucky not to get a point against Fermanagh soon after but we wasted a lot of chances. Was I worried that people would get on my back? No, the board asked me to do a job and I don't care what way management is going in the game, you can't judge a fella or a team on two games. I'm around long enough to know what was happening and what was needed."

That's where his experience stood to him. Two defeats on the spin would set many a manager back but Murphy dusted his men down, shored up the defence and they beat Limerick. They haven't looked back since.

This afternoon, James Stafford's quality will test an experimental Meath midfield; Tony Hannon's free-taking will punish any indisciplined defending; Leighton Glynn is dangerous wherever he roams while the likes of Stephen 'Chester' Kelly have boosted the defence in the weeks following that slump to Waterford.

Murphy is laid-back about Kelly playing hurling for the county too. The dual status doesn't apply to Glynn yet this season, as he's focused on football only, but Murphy says that as long as players prioritise football he has no problem with them also lining out for the hurlers.

"Chester, especially, is a young fit lad who is capable of playing two games in quick succession in a weekend, but long-term I wouldn't be so sure," he says. "But once they give me first call I have no problem. I wouldn't like to stop anyone from hurling either."

With Rathnew, Murphy kept the scene fresh by introducing two to three players every year to push the more seasoned campaigners. He is renowned as great motivator -- under his stewardship the club won titles from 2000 onwards and stayed on the winners' podium in some shape or form until he stepped aside last November.

It's also been encouraging to see Wicklow play so directly and openly, following on from the style that O'Dwyer cultivated. Defensively, they may be too open at times, but there is no way Murphy would stifle his team with a blanket-defence.

"Call me naive if you like," Murphy shrugs, "but I would always try and encourage players to kick the ball. Nothing on the field travels faster than the ball. Various teams play a very defensive form of football and good luck to them; some sides have seen a lot of success because of it. The bottom line is that managers pick their team to win games. Not to make people happy looking on.

"Personally, I'm more old school and I don't think it's great to watch. Although maybe I'll have to like it a bit more if we're to make more progress in the league in the years to come!

"Nah, I have my own ideas and I think people come to matches to watch great kicks and dramatic catches, where the six forwards are in the top half of the field. People will say I'm dreaming, but in an ideal world that's what I'd have."

The players have bought into that vision. Harry Murphy has spent a career ticking boxes. While he's at the helm of Wicklow football progress looks inevitable.

Sunday Indo Sport