Thursday 21 March 2019

'The strikes were hugely stressful; it was a horrible time in my life'

As the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh opens, Con Murphy shares his memories of Cork GAA

Dr Con Murphy: ‘The majority of people I look after don’t get out on their own terms, they are either dropped or injured so there is a lot to be said for quitting while I’m ahead.’ Photo: Daragh McSweeney
Dr Con Murphy: ‘The majority of people I look after don’t get out on their own terms, they are either dropped or injured so there is a lot to be said for quitting while I’m ahead.’ Photo: Daragh McSweeney

Marie Crowe

In September, 1957, a seven-year-old Con Murphy sat quietly in the Cork dug-out at Croke Park. The final whistle blew in the All-Ireland football final and the young boy watched on as his father Weesh Murphy and his team-mates dealt with losing an All-Ireland final they desperately wanted to win.

It was a devastating loss. They were firm favourites heading into the game and nobody expected them to lose to Louth. The aftermath of that game was the first time that young Con saw grown men cry and the memory has stayed with him. He understood at a very young age just how much the GAA meant to people.

And of course, that young boy dreamed of following in his father's footsteps and pulling on the red jersey. He realised early in life that he would never be good enough to make it as a footballer or hurler. His father knew it too and that was OK. He never pushed him but never held him back either. Little did either of them know that young Con Murphy would grow up to become Dr Con Murphy and he would have more of an effect on Cork GAA than several teams combined.

When Weesh Murphy retired from playing he ascended the ranks of GAA administration. In 1973, at just 54 years of age, tragedy struck when he died suddenly after the All-Ireland hurling final between Limerick and Kilkenny. In his capacity as chairman of the Munster Council, he was on his way to a post-match event for the Limerick hurlers, but he never got there. It was a huge blow for his family and for Cork GAA.

But his love of Gaelic games had been passed on to his son, he had been reared on it and a chance meeting would soon lead him to dedicate his life to it.

Weesh Murphy had been the vet at the Cork dog track and as a result Con had an interest in greyhounds, as did Jimmy Barry Murphy, and with frequent meetings at the track the two young men became firm friends.

Three years after his father passed away, the pair were at the dog track. The Cork hurlers were due to play in the Munster championship against Tipperary the following day. Páirc Uí Chaoimh had opened a week earlier and Con had sat in the stand with his mother. "When the old one opened first we thought we were ye bees knees. It was so modern then but as the years passed it was no longer fit for purpose."

As it turned out it was his last Cork match as a spectator because Denis Conroy, a county board official, was at the track that night and he asked Con to go along to the match and be the team doctor.

"Jimmy was on the hurling panel and I was planning on driving him," recalls Murphy. "So I was going anyway. The hurlers won so I was told I had to come and be the doctor the next day too. I never thought I'd be still at it 41 years later. Jimmy was on the football panel too so I was asked to be the doctor for them a few days later."

During his early years in the role, Murphy sat next to Christy Ring in the dug-out. The legendary hurler was normally a quiet man but he got very nervous before throw-in and this made him talkative, giving Murphy great insights into the game. Con was in awe of Ring even though he had grown up in a house regularly frequented by Cork GAA greats.

In those early days Murphy spent a lot of time in the dug-out, players didn't go down as much and even when they did medics didn't rush in. More often than not they waited for a reaction before reacting. Which is why, on reflection, he thinks he made around ten trips to Croke Park as Cork team doctor before he actually set foot on the pitch. So rare was the appearance of a medic back then that the sight of him running on during the meeting of Cork and Dublin in 1983 warranted Michael O'Hehir mentioning his presence in the commentary.

But a lot has changed since then and Murphy is responsible for some of it himself. In Thurles during the 2000 Munster semi-final against Tipperary, Alan Browne accidentally hit his Cork team-mate Fergal McCormack on the head, resulting in a nasty cut. There was a lot of blood and Murphy had to work quickly to repair the damage as McCormack was worried that he would leave his team short of players.

"The player stayed on the pitch but there was blood everywhere," recalled Murphy. "I said to Martin Breheny after the game that it's a disgrace that there isn't a blood sub rule. He wrote about it and to the GAA's credit they brought in a rule soon after. But the rule needs to be looked at now as there should be a time limit on it. After ten minutes they should call it and players should become official subs."

Murphy has had a bird's-eye view of hurling and football for more than four decades. As well as being involved at inter-county level he's been at the helm of the UCC GAA club for even longer. Watching on from the coalface as the games have evolved has often prompted him to consider ways to improve both codes.

"For one, I'd have no-one on the sideline; I'd have it like the rugby model where everyone is up in the stand bar the medics. We could tidy up our game a lot by putting everyone in the stand.

"I think referees in football have an impossible job between black, yellow and red cards. I would consider the sin-bin option. I would also have a limit on the number of players who could be in one half of the pitch. I don't know how easy that would be to regulate, we could certainly cut out a lot of the issues if not everyone could go behind the ball. And I would make the kick-out travel further and possibly stop passing to the 'keeper.

"In hurling, I would make the sliotar heavier, there's not much wrong with hurling but I'd definitely go back to the old penalty style."

By Murphy's own admission he would never cut it as a manager. He deals well with losing and winning isn't everything to him. He likes to see lads enjoying sport but that's not commonplace anymore. The commitment is huge, the dedication required is fierce and the days of the dual player are well and truly over.

"The amount of training we are doing is unsustainable. We see more injuries now than we ever did. That's down to a couple of things like all the training; we have better diagnostics and pitches.

"I think they will have to look at the different seasons for club and county, it's unsustainable in the present model for the club player. I would like to see more county matches over a short period of time of a meaningful nature. The only way you can cut back on the training is if you have more matches."

Barely a week goes by when Murphy doesn't tell a player that their career is in jeopardy because they have a cruciate injury. They are at epidemic levels now but he was on the beat for six years before he saw his first cruciate injury - and that player was Pat Spillane.

Although Murphy is on the sidelines since getting involved with the Cork teams he has been completely immersed in every facet of GAA in the county and the huge respect he has earned over the years has sometimes had regrettable side effects.

"The strikes were hugely stressful; it was a horrible time in my life. I was somewhere in the middle with both sides. People looked to me to find a solution when I knew there was very little chance of that. It caused an awful lot of pain for a lot of people and it caused me a lot of stress. I knew I wasn't going to be able to solve it and it is still affecting people today. We are coming out the other side of it now but it probably has taken this long, it left a sting alright."

The toughest part of all though, is when he has to say goodbye to players on the panel, lads who have been there for over a decade. The ones he sat next to on the bus, shared life moments with. He has made lasting friends because of his open and welcoming nature. For many he's the first person they call when the going gets tough on and off the pitch. But a certain amount of guilt comes with surviving on the scene for so long and knowing that there is still a place for him but not for the players.

However, the time will come when he has to let it go, say goodbye to the life he's known for 41 years. And even though he brought in his son Colm to help with the hurlers and Aidan Kelleher to assist with the footballers, the idea of finishing up is perplexing to even think about.

"I'd find it hard to let it go, it's a total habit. If I let it go I probably wouldn't go to the matches anymore either, how would I get there? I'm spoiled. I get a police escort to the dressing room. When I have to make my own way it's trickier.

"Sometimes I feel l I should quit while I'm ahead. The majority of people I look after don't get out on their own terms, they are either dropped or injured, so there is a lot to be said for quitting while I'm ahead."

And if does soon find himself back in the stand, it will be to bask in the surrounding of the latest incarnation of the historic stadium, which has taken centre stage this weekend.

"When I went to see the new one I was gobsmacked. It took my breath away and brought back so many memories at the same time. Like when the Dubs came down to play us in a replay in 1983, we thought it was a great idea to bring them to Cork but that didn't work out too well for us.

"I loved going there to watch Clare and Tipp play hurling too, just as a spectator. The atmosphere in the place was electric. I hope that it can still create that same atmosphere. It's hard to beat it when it's full and a game is on.

"I've no doubt that the new stadium will host many great days. The pitch and the grounds are spectacular; everything has been done to perfection. I'm just in awe of the place; a city the size of Cork needed it."

Murphy has given his life to the GAA and has no regrets as he feels it's given him back just as much. Dr Con, as he is known to most, will eventually leave his role on the line but he won't be forgotten because his legacy will be much more than a game.

Sunday Indo Sport

The Throw-In: Dublin's issues, Corofin's greatness and Waterford's quiet development

In association with Allianz

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport