Sinead Kissane: As a landmark birthday looms, 30 reasons why Michael Murphy is a modern great
Michael Murphy is a generational player for Donegal. He turns 30 on Sunday. Tomorrow, he plays against the county his dad was born in to keep Donegal’s championship alive. The reputation of a player like Murphy’s is impossible to pin down in a 30 for 30. Here’s a shot at it.
1. There’s only one jumping-off point. The first line of Murphy’s All-Ireland-winning speech in September 2012 was said with all the relief and joy of a man calling off a 20-year search. “We have him!” Murphy said about the Sam Maguire.
2. Murphy is Donegal’s second All-Ireland-winning captain after Anthony Molloy in 1992. Two years before he lifted Sam, Murphy had a chance to win the All-Ireland U-21 final with a penalty in stoppage time. His effort crashed off the crossbar. Donegal lost by two points to Dublin. Better days were coming.
3. The third minute or – more precisely – two minutes 25 seconds. That’s how early in the game Murphy scored a goal to jackknife Mayo’s hopes in that ’12 All-Ireland final. Karl Lacey with the high ball in, Murphy pawing off Kevin Keane and kicking the ball past David Clarke. Tone. Set. Match.
4. Murphy was held to 0-4 (0-3f) in Donegal’s 2014 All-Ireland final defeat to Kerry and his overall influence was squeezed after a man-marking crusade by Aidan O’Mahony. “I think he’s gotten even harder to mark now because he goes back into the full-back line. And if you’re looking at your defensive structure you’re saying, ‘Do I follow him down, do I stay back?’” O’Mahony said this week about Murphy on Off the Ball.
5. Donegal No 5 Ryan McHugh and Murphy are Gaelic football’s version of the ’80s TV show ‘Cagney & Lacey’ with their probing and problem-solving in a dynamic partnership that brings out the best in each other. The way they linked up in their draw with Kerry last month was close to telepathic and encourages the idea they are the most influential partnership in the game.
6. It was a six-point winning margin for Donegal in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final win over Dublin. Murphy not only gave a lesson in winning primary possession but also in how to use it wisely. He turned poacher to provider for the goal that put Donegal in front in the 33rd minute – fisting a high ball to Colm McFadden who passed to McHugh who scored a goal.
7. Murphy is a hero to many. Imagine being a hero to Murphy. Around five years ago Murphy rang Brendan Devenney to tell him to watch ‘The Sunday Game’. There was Murphy on it talking about Devenney as his hero. “And that was back when Michael was already the f***in’ man!” Devenney said this week. “The fact that he has called me his hero is, probably, the most humbling thing that anyone has ever said to me.”
8. There’s a photograph of Devenney after Donegal beat Meath in 2002. Devenney is hugging his sister while his other hand is held by a 12-year-old Murphy. “There’s wee innocent Michael, a pure Donegal fan. You fast forward say, six years, from that picture and we’re playing together for Donegal,” Devenney recalls. “The first time he played a wee practice game and I remember him going for a ball and I ran into him. I was a man, 29 or something like that, and he was around 18, and I remember going: ‘Holy f**k’. He was as solid. I couldn’t believe it”.
9. In 2009, Murphy was named Young Footballer of the Year. He has won two All Stars – 2012 and 2014. He’s never won Footballer of the Year.
10. 1-7 (0-4f) was his final tally against Kerry last month. For the penalty, he took the ball off Paddy McBrearty and then had a line of security staff in neon-coloured coats walk behind the goal as he lined up to take it. It was the kind of distraction that would have pro golfers in conniptions. Murphy didn’t flinch.
11. Murphy’s status doesn’t make him immune to criticism. On ‘The Sunday Game’ after Donegal beat Tyrone in the 2015 Ulster Championship (when Murphy kicked the last three points in a 1-13 to 1-10 win), Colm O’Rourke rubbished Joe Brolly’s assertion that Murphy is the “most influential player in Gaelic football given the base that Donegal football came from”. “That’s a really stupid thing to say,” O’Rourke countered.
12. O’Rourke elaborated on his view this summer. “He’s not the most influential footballer of his generation because what is increasingly happening over the last five years is that he has drifted out to midfield and ended up giving and taking short handpasses. Greatness in any player must be dictated. He was marked out of it by Aidan O’Mahony in an All-Ireland final”. What Murphy has also been doing, as Rory Gallagher stated, is sacrificing his own game: “It is very difficult to play when there’s two men on you, when you’re starved of possession, when you’re the whole focus.”
13. This is Murphy’s 13th inter-county season for Donegal. His influence extends to this club, Glenswilly, with whom he won three county senior titles in 2011, ’13 and ’16.
14. The number on Murphy’s back. It far from dictates where Murphy plays. Forward or further out the field, he’s plays where the need is greatest.
15. Donegal have won 10 Ulster football titles in their history. Five have come under Murphy’s watch as captain: 2011, 2012, 2014, 2018 & 2019.
16. Murphy was Ireland captain for two International Rules series in 2013 and 2014.
17. Murphy was 17 when he made his debut for Donegal in a McKenna Cup game.
18. His business, Michael Murphy Sports & Leisure, Letterkenny has been the main sponsor of the Donegal GAA Football Championship since 2016. These deals tend to be mutually beneficial, of course. But how more involved can one guy be with his county?
19. Jim McGuinness was more than just an admirer of Murphy on the pitch. He remembered one night as they walked out of training in DCU. “There was an old man standing there and he saw us and just shouted: ‘Michael Murphy! The Donegal man!’ There was real joy in his voice. Michael nodded to him and we walked on to the cars,” McGuinness said in ‘Until Victory Always’. “And Michael stopped suddenly and said: “I’ll ring you later Jim.’ I knew he was going back to the old man because Michael knew that the man had wanted to speak to him.”
20. Or the time McGuinness said to Murphy about replying to text messages after a championship win. “I asked him if he got many messages like that. He laughed and just said, ‘I do, aye’. He had received over 100 after that game alone. I asked him if he tried to get back to the people who sent them. His face became serious and he said: ‘Aw, I respond to every single one. I couldn’t not’.”
21. It was McGuinness who named Murphy Donegal captain when he was 21.
22. Michael’s dad is from Mayo. Has one man’s move from Mayo to Donegal ever come with such benefits for the county? As his former team-mate, Eamon McGee, tweeted in June: “One of the most important men in Donegal GAA history is the person who stationed Michael Murphy’s dad in a Donegal barracks all them years ago”.
23-28. It is five years since Donegal played in an All-Ireland semi-final. Murphy is playing this season like time is running out.
29. “If you were to create a Donegal footballer,” Devenney continues. “Between skill, attitude and being a sport-star kids could look up, you couldn’t create somebody better than Michael Murphy. It wouldn’t be possible.”
30. Damn right every county wishes they had a Michael Murphy.