Sunday 17 November 2019

'That sense of satisfaction, that you could give your mother and father that level of joy' - Hurling has given Eoin Murphy so much

 

Eoin Murphy: ‘I can’t wait for the next couple of years. Even if you take the minor team from this year, a lot of fabulous hurlers, they will develop in the next couple of years and be pushing us for positions.’ Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Eoin Murphy: ‘I can’t wait for the next couple of years. Even if you take the minor team from this year, a lot of fabulous hurlers, they will develop in the next couple of years and be pushing us for positions.’ Photo: Dylan Vaughan

Dermot Crowe

It is through his time with Kilkenny that you'll best know Eoin Murphy and through Glenmore that he might say he best knows himself. More than once a long conversation loops back around to home and the environment that shaped him. Early memories. Family. Wonderful days. And some dark ones when hurling provided an anchor, something that you could cling to, that made perfect sense, that you could trust and understand.

To many, Murphy is the best in the game at what he does and the field is not short of gifted goal men. Due to a relatively short inter-county career, and Kilkenny's star dimming a little, he may not be as widely appreciated as he should. To some, his biggest admirers, it is entirely reasonable to mention him in the same breath as Noel Skehan and Ollie Walsh, giants in the county's goalkeeping tradition.

Eoin Murphy in action. Photo: Sportsfile
Eoin Murphy in action. Photo: Sportsfile

The opportunity to meet comes at the launch of the National Club Poc Fada Championship, which will take place on October 27 at what the organisers describe as the "mythical home of hurling" - the Hill of Tara. It will be staged over a 5.1km course ending at the host club, Kilmessan. Last year and the one before Murphy took part with his brother Alan. This year he has agreed to launch it, with club commitments preventing him from participating.

Glenmore is where he will probably return, eventually, to settle and where he makes regular trips on the day before county games to walk the family's two dogs around the local fields and hills in a pre-match ritual. Yesterday, he played in an intermediate quarter-final defeat to Graigue-Ballycallan. He has spent the vast majority of his club days hurling out the field.

The club is woven into a tapestry of life and family. His father Paddy is chairman, a former player, and his mother, Bridget, a Duggan from Carrickshock, chairperson of the camogie section and sister-in-law of Richie Power senior. All five sons are involved on the hurling team. His uncle Tom is their hurley maker. Born in 1990, Murphy is old enough to remember the last prosperous days Glenmore enjoyed before a slow spiral into recession, relegated to junior hurling having been All-Ireland senior club champions in their prime.

For all those fluctuations, hurling was always a constant in their lives. On one special night in September 2014, three of the family were all under the one roof awaiting All-Ireland finals the next day, Alan and Shane in the All-Ireland minor against Limerick, and Eoin in the senior match against Tipperary. The older brother's selection came as a surprise. David Herity was first choice for the Leinster final and All-Ireland semi-final but lost his place for the final.

Murphy had by then been part of the Kilkenny senior panel since 2011. He was a sub for the All-Ireland finals of 2011 and '12, took Herity's place in 2013, before losing it ahead of the Leinster final the following year. He doesn't think he was playing poorly but feels Herity, to whom he is lavish in his appreciation, flourished in training. Come the All-Ireland semi-final, Herity was still in goal.

On the Friday night the Kilkenny senior team to play Tipperary was announced with Herity dropped, Murphy reinstated. The next day his brother James was flying in from Australia and he was due to collect him at the airport. After the team was named, his father went to Dublin instead. That Saturday night they were all in the house, his only sister as well, from what he can remember.

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"Yeah, gas the way it worked out," he says, "because I didn't find out until the Friday beforehand, genuinely had no inkling at all. I was flying it in training, I was happy with how it had gone. I knew I had put myself in a very good position to be thought of. Look Herro (Herity) at the time was struggling with an injury. And to be honest I didn't realise how badly he was struggling with it. Even after receiving such devastating news he was unbelievable to me in terms of anything I needed."

This was Murphy's first All-Ireland senior final, having won one as goalkeeper at minor in 2008. "There was great excitement around and the two young lads were getting their gear bags and heading off and I was heading off as well. It was just a brilliant time for the family. It was a really proud moment for the parents as well.

"There was great excitement for James coming home. When they told me I was playing I couldn't wait to get on to the field, I felt ready, but then I couldn't wait to see James as well. We hadn't seen him in maybe 18 months at that stage. He is back home now and hurling with us. We are a close-knit family. My dad's two brothers live next door to us."

On the morning of the game he says his parents were probably the worst affected. "Mam is a bit of a panicker. Like they were staying up at the banquet so she was getting her bits ready. She fusses over everything. She fusses over us still. Making sure we have this packed or that packed. Just you know, I suppose your proper Irish mother. It was gas looking at her the next morning, she was 100 miles an hour going around the house. So we were nearly glad to see herself and dad go off early so we could get a bit of peace and quiet. They're brilliant, they keep everything together."

* * * * *

Goalkeeping hasn't a luminous place in Kilkenny's recent hurling tradition. During the last decade, when they won seven All-Irelands, the only goalkeeping All-Star was PJ Ryan in 2009. Ryan was the first since Michael Walsh in 1993. And since Ryan there has only been one more, Murphy in 2014, robust arguments for him deserving another in 2016 notwithstanding. He won a second All-Ireland medal on the field of play in 2015, but the last two years have seen Kilkenny fail to make the last day, falling this year in the quarter-finals and last year in the qualifiers.

He is perky when their future prospects are raised, when asked if the glass is half-full. "We have progressed a number of players there who are trading for positions for the next couple of years. We pushed Limerick to the pin of their collar (in the quarter-final) and I feel we didn't play our best that day. And our first day out against Galway we could have won a Leinster final. But yes, definitely glass half-full.

You see improvement? "Definitely. I can't wait for the next couple of years. Even if you take the minor team from this year, a lot of fabulous hurlers, they will obviously physically develop in the next couple of years and be pushing us for positions."

Of the Kilkenny goalkeepers of recent vintage, it is doubtful that any has been as busy or called upon as much in emergencies as Murphy. He remembers the first phone call from Brian Cody inviting him on to the panel, while he was a student sharing a house in Dublin. "I thought it was a piss-take. We had Home and Away on in the background so I went into a quiet room and then I realised who it was and I suppose the shock set in then. When he spoke the first time he said, 'Look, it's Brian Cody here and are you ok to talk there?'"

Given his versatility, there was nothing definite about where they were planning to use him. PJ Ryan and Herity were in frontline contention for goal so he had to take his place in the queue. In a league match in Cork in 2012 he was picked at right corner-forward but struggled to make an impact and was taken off early in the second half.

"I don't remember too much about the game except I was on Brian Murphy, like he would have been one of the top corner-backs at the time. I got one ball in the first half - I thought I was after losing him to take a shot at goal and he came from nowhere and blocked me and it was just . . . it made me open my eyes; the game was so much faster, you don't even have that split-second."

Heading into 2012, Ryan retired, leaving Murphy as the clear rival to Herity. His immediate impressions of joining the county training panel were lasting ones. "I suppose the standard of training, how players approached training, everything, was 100 per cent. It was done to the absolute best. The intensity obviously then was through the roof. I would have been on the Hill in 2010 looking at Tipp beating them. These guys would have been my heroes. Still are, like. But you know when those guys were coming up and introducing themselves, giving a bit of a pat on the back, that settles you in. It's a bit nervy for a youngster coming into a panel for the first time."

It helped that he travelled from Dublin to training with some established players who eased him in: Herity, Cha Fitzpatrick, and Paddy and Richie Hogan. Herity had the biggest influence on him though.

"I have no issue saying this. David Herity for a number of years was the best club goalkeeper in Kilkenny, just PJ Ryan was performing at such a level it was very hard for him to break into that team. He would certainly have opened my eyes as to how to approach training properly. How to look after yourself properly. And how to prepare for training. You know, training is in some ways nearly as important as matches because if you're not performing at training you can't expect to be picked for games. Obviously there is that bit of tension as well in how you approach games and how he approached that was phenomenal and I couldn't speak highly enough of him.

"He genuinely taught me everything I know about where I should be positioned. About where I should be telling a defender to be. We spent a lot of time with each other, be it the gym, to out on the pitch an hour before training doing goalkeeping drills. We did have a very close relationship."

He speaks of Herity as a "massive competitor" and a "perfectionist" and he is soon talking of goalkeeping and how he evaluates what is important, even if it might not attract the same attention as the more flamboyant aspects. "You can be the best goalkeeper in the world, depending on how you organise and help cut out scenarios. Or how you read the game yourself, getting off the line that bit quicker. If you are positioned well you can get to most shots. Obviously within reason."

Which brings us to Nickie Quaid's save in this year's All-Ireland semi-final against Cork. Quaid is a rival for the All-Star position this year and shares a similarity with Murphy in playing outfield for his club. "Even a touch of his outfield awareness came into his approach to block him," Murphy says of the save Quaid made on Seamus Harnedy. "He set up his feet so quickly and put himself in a position to get there. Maybe it was a bad ball across, it was probably a bit too high, but it was a great touch from Harnedy - because he did the exact right thing taking Nickie Quaid out of the situation, taking a step aside, because there was no other Limerick player going to get to him. If you look back, Nickie Quaid got his feet set so quickly that even before the ball left from Harnedy's hand he had taken two quick steps and he knew exactly what he was going to do. That awareness of where he was going to get his feet, get his hurl, that co-ordination, that was something that . . . you do have some of that naturally, but you practise that as well in training and you practise that positioning, that awareness of where the goal is and getting your body set right."

Quaid said recently that he would do something like this in outfield positions with none of the fuss. "You might do that out the field five or six times in a game," admits Murphy. "(But) the magnitude of that situation was huge. Because if Cork got the goal, it was curtains. It won the game for Limerick."

This leads him on to a brief salute to Dónal Óg Cusack. "He probably didn't get enough plaudits for positioning in the goal, (he) rarely had to make an outstanding save, but his ability to organise things in front of him was phenomenal. Every shot that was taken, he was within a hurl's reach of it. As a 'keeper you need to get that positioning right. If you have to make that phenomenal save, all well and good, but you should always be within a hurl's reach of each shot. Within reason."

* * * * *

Glenmore. Eoin Murphy wasn't yet one year old when big Christy Heffernan booted a goal that helped his club win the All-Ireland club final in 1991. The rise was meteoric. Eleven years earlier they were a junior hurling club. Over 13 years they won five senior county championships, the last in 1999, and two Leinster titles. But in 2005, when Murphy was in to his teens, he watched his idol Willie O'Connor play his last match. In that game there was no room for sentiment; they were relegated to intermediate when losing to Fenians.

"I was born in 1990 and I suppose when I was growing up Glenmore would have been the team of the '90s; would have played in county finals regularly and top-class names, the O'Connors, Liam Walsh, the Heffernans and even the Mullallys more recently. I always wanted be a hurler. My own parents' involvement in the club as well (was a factor). I'm a Glenmore person hurling for Kilkenny. That will always be the way because of my involvement from such a young age with the club. It's the life and blood of the whole family.

"We got relegated to junior in 2014, a low ebb for the club I suppose. You know it was probably the wake-up call that we needed. We got promoted the year after and we have been performing reasonably enough in intermediate. Any of the 12 teams in intermediate could beat any of the other teams at any time. This is our fourth year back up.

"I remember Willie captaining Kilkenny in 2000 (to win the All-Ireland). Willie was my favourite hurler of all time. I used to go down to club training in Glenmore just to look at him. Just to look at him hurl. He was something else. Their home house isn't too far, about a mile from our place.

"There were some savage men in Glenmore. Titch Phelan was another one. 1997-'98-'99 were his last years, I vaguely remember some of those games. And again just being in awe of this giant of a man. Those guys, and my mother and father, gave me the love of the GAA."

And in 2000, when he was a boy, Willie O'Connor brought the Liam MacCarthy Cup to the deep south, to Glenmore. "When the homecoming came on Tuesday night they got - I don't even think it was a bus, I think it was a tractor and trailer (laughs) - down through the village. We followed it a couple of miles, the whole way down, bonfires lighting, and a massive party in the village then - I remember that to this day. And then when those boys came in to our school, maybe it was the Tuesday, and I remember looking up at these guys in awe."

The day they called to the national school in Glenmore would be recalled 14 years later in a beautiful circular narrative. A few days before the All-Ireland final replay, his cousin Lisa was clearing the attic when she found a photograph of that school visit, in which Murphy is captured as a boy along with Henry Shefflin. Murphy took a picture on his phone and said no more. When they defeated Tipperary, and Shefflin had won his record tenth medal, he produced the shot in the dressing room.

"We were saying hopefully he will win his tenth and I will be on the field afterwards. And it did actually happen and this fella was my hero for 11 years till I got the chance to play with him and he is still a hero but you can't let him know that obviously.

"And afterwards I showed him the photo and I said I am going tweeting this and he said 'alright'. I think I went up and was singing the 'Rose of Mooncoin' (laughs) when the boys were coming in. And I was heading back sheepishly, head down, I would have been only ten years old at that time. And Henry is this towering figure in the background. That was the photo. And it would also have been a sense of, 'Jeez, you know what, I put in all this hard work to be in this position where I am playing with him. So enjoy it as well'".

* * * * *

Around two-and-a-half years ago Glenmore won the junior All-Ireland title. This, given his roots and family ties, had to be one of those days he cherishes. But it was also a difficult time for the parish. Not long after they won the county final a young local man took his own life, and his brother was on the team. Around two-thirds of the panel played with him at underage level.

"In a way it galvanised us," says Murphy. "This was the week before our Leinster quarter-final. The family in question are great club people. They sponsor us. They're the best in the world. And they relied on the club for support. We were like a little family after that. We have been through tough times since. We didn't hurl our best in the Leinster Championship or All-Ireland series but we just ground things out and we took massive satisfaction from that. I think the run helped everyone to have that bit of normality. It helped things move on a small bit . . . I am not saying you ever forget."

How did the player who lost his brother cope? "Well, he has 35 other brothers now he can depend on," says Murphy, "or however many is on the panel, that is the way we looked at it. We are constantly looking out for each other. It's odd that something like that has to bond you. But we are a stronger group because of that."

* * * * *

It's family, really, when you distil everything. It is more than a game, and it is a magical game no doubt, but it is the lives around it that make it what it is. "It is," he nods. "The medals are something I will show my grandkids in years to come. I think that couple of minutes afterwards, where you get to meet your parents, your family, that is something that will stick with you. You just take great satisfaction in that they were part of that whole process."

He is thinking of the time they spent together after he won with Kilkenny in 2014. His brother, James, had gone back to Sydney by then, unable to stay around for the replay. "My father I suppose is your stereotypical Irish dad, never shows too much emotion, but he will let us know in those situations that he is very proud of us. It was an emotional time when I grabbed him. My mother as well, she's the exact same, and the two of them, seeing them emotional and teary-eyed got me emotional.

"And that sense of satisfaction too that you could give your parents that level of joy. But it's not just me, it's all of my siblings as well. It's not like we are depending on hurling achievements for them to say how proud they are of us. They put me through college. They brought me everywhere I asked to go."

And here you are, full circle, a grown man, letting hurling take you to places where the words aren't necessary. Do you remember the start, the earliest memories of being with your parents?

"Vividly - 1997. I remember the (Leinster) final. Billy Byrne broke my heart. I remember roaring and bawling in the Cusack Stand after he kicked the ball into the net. After throwing the ball on to the ground, he bounced the ball on the ground when he lost his hurl. I remember that. My dad I think ended up carrying me out on his back, tried to console me but there wasn't much use, I was too distraught after seeing the Kilkenny team bet. I can remember a number of club games. And 1995 would have been one of those moments, where we won the county championship and even being so young you sensed that this was something special for such a small group of people."

* * * * *

But he is looking ahead. "I feel I am not finished yet, I have a few more years in me and I feel I am only getting better as well," he says, having reached 28. "Physically, this year I feel I was in the best shape I was ever in. Just going into games, my feet were . . . I felt like I wasn't even walking on the ground. It's hard to explain but just you knew you were in the best possible shape and mindset and I am constantly improving on all those aspects. I'm looking forward to next year. I can't wait."

There haven't been too many mistakes but it in interesting to see how he deals with those blemishes when they occur. When they met Clare in the league earlier in the year he dropped a ball into the goal. "But I couldn't wait for the next ball to come in because it was like, 'Right, that's gone, that is not going to happen again.' I couldn't wait for the ball to come back in so I could get it in my hands."

To exonerate yourself? "Yeah, well just to show it didn't bother me."

It didn't put you off? "No. Because that happened, would it be 15 minutes into the game? That evening I did a bit of recovery but I was out the next morning hitting a ball off the wall, trying to get it to rebound off the wall high and just making sure it won't happen again.

"Everyone makes mistakes, it's how you react to them. The next night in training, I don't know how it went, but I know I definitely didn't drop a ball into the goal. League can be a bit different. You are a bit more fine-tuned in championship with the amount of hurling you're doing, and the amount of preparation on the field rather than your hard slog of winter training. I wouldn't use that as an excuse, it shouldn't have happened but it doesn't affect me.

"It's about believing in your own ability as well. 'Cos the next game we played, I think it was Waterford in Walsh Park, I had two high balls coming in - they were more pressurised than the Clare situation where there were players coming in and tackling me, and I came out, caught both cleanly, and came away with them. So from that point of view it didn't affect me at all. And that comes again from the approach to training and constantly practising and fine-tuning things."

* * * * *

If the mistakes, rare as they are, don't have any emotional impact, what about the dazzling saves? He has a long catalogue of captivating reflex stops to choose from. Do you remain equally stoic when you pull off one of those?

"Well, a forward celebrates when he gets a score (laughs), I think there has to be a bit of leeway for 'keepers in that regard. You do feel a buzz. Like when you are in a game you never feel the bang. People say, oh you're sore when you get a bang, you're not really like, you don't feel it, your adrenaline is running so high. Now afterwards you might. But in the match, you might block it with your body - it might only happen once in every three games.

Bravery comes into it? "Oh definitely. A bit of bravery along with a touch of madness. Whatever you want to call it. There has to be bravery there. The guys out the field are brave as well. Myself and Darren Brennan (sub goalkeeper) practise those drills in training. You put in the hours beforehand."

And the saves that gave him the most satisfaction - of course the point-saving catch against Waterford in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2016 ranks high. But he derives most satisfaction from a selection of important stops over the All-Ireland final and replay against Tipp two years before. In one he denied Seamus Callanan a goal.

"I was coming out to meet him and he threw a shimmy and completely threw me off. I was gone one way to get a block in with my hurl but he had gone the other way so I literally jumped across with my body and sort of half got a block in with my head and the ball spilled out. A goal at the time would have changed the whole match. They would have had all the momentum. That was probably one of my favourite saves."

Another save from Bonner Maher comes to mind. "He was put through on goal and I came out and I flicked it away, probably not to the same style as Nickie Quaid but it wasn't a save, it was more of a block, whatever way you want to categorise it. But that was vitally important. But there were a number of other, not spectacular but vital saves, getting out, getting my positioning right, getting those blocks in. But I look back on those two games with great fondness, my first All-Ireland won on the field of play."

The hours pass, the evening light turning to dark, and we have run over-time; the conversation has whizzed by. He is needed someplace else. And so off he darts, vowing that the best may be yet to come. Glenmore can be proud of Eoin Murphy. Not just for rearing a great hurler, but an impressive good-natured man as well.

The Poc Fada entry fee per club team of two is €150 and is open to all junior, intermediate and senior hurling and camogie clubs. Contact Conor Martin at nationalclubpocfada@gmail.com

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