Peter Canavan: Michael Murphy has the edge over Aidan O’Shea in battle of the big men
Donegal talisman just on top in head-to-head with Mayo star across five key categories
There are plenty of distractions for Michael Murphy, but it is never about him, on or off the field.
He shows remarkable maturity and modesty for a young man and is totally centred around winning and getting the best for Donegal.
That’s very appealing from a manager’s point of view and why the players have so much respect for him.
It’s imperative for any leader in a squad to have the respect of the players around you. They look to their leader when things aren’t going well and Murphy is not found wanting in this regard.
A number of examples spring to mind: when Donegal needed to get off to a good start in the 2012 All-Ireland final, Murphy got the goal against Mayo.
Despite struggling against Derry in the Championship last year, he stepped up to the plate with a sideline free. Against Armagh, he inspired the late rally in the quarter-final. He did the same this year with his free-taking against Tyrone in Ballybofey.
If Murphy has the demeanour of a born leader, then Aidan O’Shea would classified as an emerging leader.
While he is more charismatic than Murphy, I find it surprising that he has yet to captain this Mayo team.
O’Shea is extremely dedicated, unselfish and puts in an honest shift every time I have seen him wear the Mayo jersey. He leaves it all on the pitch.
There are times in games when players have to drag their county over the line. He is going to have to show this kind of leadership if Mayo are going to win the ultimate prize.
Has winning an All-Ireland dimmed Murphy’s hunger and will to win? Going on this year, absolutely not. Look at the way he flung himself at a loose ball in the last Donegal attack in the Ulster final.
Appetite can often be measured in turnovers, the amount of tackles made and the willingness to win dirty ball on the floor.
Murphy’s tackle count this season has been high – he doesn’t seem to be unnerved that his tackling technique is not exactly textbook. Generally when he tackles, if he doesn’t get the ball, he gets something.
You could put a question mark over one moment this year, in the last minute of the first half against Monaghan. After giving the ball away, he allowed himself to be overtaken by an opposition player supporting the attack. It led to many believing that he was carrying a knock.
As for O’Shea, he appears ravenous. He looks sharp and wants to be involved in every opportunity regardless of the scoreline.
There appears to be a ruthless streak in him now that I haven’t seen before and there’s no doubt, what’s driving him to become a better footballer is getting his hands on an All-Ireland medal. His pursuit of excellence continues.
We are not comparing like with like here. Murphy has captained his county, won his All-Ireland medal and has enjoyed all the rewards the game can offer.
The competitor in O’Shea makes him hell-bent to acquire all that.
When it comes to skill repertoire, Murphy is right up there with the best in the country.
Be it fielding, ball control, passing by boot or hand, scoring – it’s exemplary.
The range in his kicking ability from the hand or on the ground is only matched by perhaps Bryan Sheehan.
His point from play against Galway highlights his strengths perfectly: the timing of the jump, his hang-time in the air, the catch itself and then the strength and skill as he hit the ground to evade the inrushing defenders and kick a superb score over his shoulder from 35 metres. It was awesome and graceful.
I am now looking forward to him completing his skill-set by kicking a few points today with his left foot!
The same can be said of so many of O’Shea’s plays this year. He too is so confident in possession of the ball, believing that when he has it, no-one can dispossess him.
For such a big man, it is remarkable how good his ball control is.
An area of his game that his has worked on tirelessly is his finishing. That has shown in his goals this summer. He now displays maturity and patience, and his finishing is clinical.
His physique means that he cannot resist taking the ball into the tackle too often. This leads to bad habits. Against the top teams, this could be counter-productive.
He is going to be double-teamed in the remaining games, leaving space for others around him. If he can find them, it will be a weapon for Mayo.
Where Murphy will play depends on the Mayo set-up. He has proven that he can turn games in a flash at full-forward. If he moves out the field, he is easier to man-mark.
For the goal against Mayo in 2012 and the performance last weekend against Galway, the key was the space around him so he could run and jump.
When he went into full-forward against Tyrone, space was denied and he was forced to spend more time around the middle.
However, he is a perfect link-man.
So many teams that have won All-Irelands have someone who breaks up play and is known as a workhorse. Strangely, Donegal’s best player is their workhorse. He slows up the play when it is needed, he fouls when it is required.
O’Shea’s new role leaves it hard to form an opinion on the back of two facile wins. At the start of the year I suggested this move was something Mayo had to do, as they lacked a ball winner.
This gives them a serious attacking option they didn’t have in previous years. It’s a good call but a big call by the management.
O’Shea may be tempted to get out to midfield, especially if Mayo are struggling in that area.
It will be a test of the managerial relationship, what flexibility Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly have given O’Shea to make this decision by himself and how they react when things aren’t going well. Can he be patient to stay in and wait for their period of dominance?
This is about knowing when a team needs you, knowing when a game is going against you. Can you break it up? Can you influence the course that the game is taking?
Murphy can do this. If it means making a rash tackle and getting players involved in a shoving match, he is well able to do that. Or having words with the referee.
It’s not done out of vengeance or bad temper, but with cuteness.
When a game is in the balance and could go either way, players wait for something to happen. On a lot of occasions, that something has been created by Murphy.
You don’t have to go too far back for a brilliant example of his awareness of others, as last weekend he palmed down a ball on a plate for Ryan McHugh’s goal.
Not enough is made of his decision-making. Very seldom do you see him shoot when he should have passed the ball.
It is something O’Shea has to work on. He is still learning it and is capable of matching Murphy in this regard. Perhaps as a whole, the Mayo team has been collectively lacking game sense in recent years.
By taking the ball into the tackle so many times, O’Shea is guilty of it. His redeployment in the Mayo team will give him a greater understanding of what forwards require if he should ever move back out again.
I think he has a good grip of what is required, he just doesn’t have the same influence in a wider sense than Murphy has.
We will be in a better position to judge what he is like at the end of the season as his game sense will be tested to the full in Mayo’s remaining games, if they get past Donegal.