Murphy not afraid to shoot from the hip
Fulham's pass master reveals his deep respect for Paul Scholes and cold contempt for Capello's England, writes Barney Ronay
There are certain assumptions that are tempting to make -- and many have -- about Danny Murphy: Fulham captain, Liverpool fan and in recent seasons a renascent force as one of the Premier League's more studied English meddlers.
Chief among these assumptions are that he hates Manchester United (fuelled by unsuccessful teenage trials at Old Trafford, as mentioned on his Wikipedia page and elsewhere); and also that United hate him right back just as vehemently.
It only takes a few moments in Murphy's company ahead of Manchester United's visit this afternoon to Craven Cottage to establish that, in fact, none of this is close to being true. As a teenager Murphy "went round a lot of clubs" but never United. The last time he saw Alex Ferguson ("a lovely, lovely man") they had a long and friendly chat about football; and currently his favourite topic of conversation is the enduring excellence of United's most luxuriously high-spec midfielder, Paul Scholes, not to mention the United man's ongoing mistreatment by successive England managers, including Fabio Capello.
Were he a slightly less lovely man Ferguson would be justified in feeling just a tiny bit irked by the sight of Murphy, who has been a persistent thorn on the pitch. As a Liverpool player he scored the winning goal in 1-0 victories at Old Trafford three times in four seasons between 2000 and 2004. Over the past two seasons he has been at it again, scoring the opening goals in Fulham's refreshingly vibrant 2-0 and 3-0 defeats of the then champions at Craven Cottage.
With Murphy, Chester born but a Liverpool fan since the age of eight when he started going to Anfield with his father, there has always been a suspicion of inspired partisan mischief around such elevated deeds. "It's just a coincidence," he says now, dismissing the issue outright and getting straight back to the main business of a passionate and detailed homage to the gifts of his opposite number this afternoon, gifts already showcased compellingly in United's swatting aside of Newcastle at Old Trafford on Monday night.
"Paul Scholes is just such a talent. He's a genuinely nice man, really unassuming. But when a game's on a knife edge and you need someone in midfield to get hold of it and make things happen in a 70,000-80,000 people hostile environment, who would you want more than him?"
Murphy is something of a connoisseur of the attacking-midfielder-turned deep-lying-prompter role, having spent his 13-year, four-club top-flight career performing a kind of Scholes-understudy role, a peripatetic shadow version of the Premier League's most revered English playmaker. There are similarities between the two players: both were occasionally deployed as a second striker in their youth before retreating into a more reserved central position; both remain artful and precise, always groping for the gently teased killer pass.
There are also obvious differences, and not just in terms of depth and scope of achievement. While Scholes stands alone as the most awkwardly taciturn superstar footballer of the modern era, off the field Murphy is brimful with vinegary opinion and almost alarmingly eloquent, not least when it comes to expressing some criticisms of England's summer World Cup campaign.
"We could have built a team around Scholes. He does a very similar thing to what Xavi does for Barcelona and Spain. They're not exactly the same. Scholes has probably got better long-range passing than Xavi. But every time Manchester United are playing well he's on the ball. He could have made a big difference for England in that role."
It is a vision undimmed by the fact that Scholes entered a self-imposed exile from international football six years and three major tournaments ago. "England made their own bed in that respect. They started playing him on the left and messing him about and he probably thought, 'can I really contribute from here, do I want to be left out of the team when England start experimenting?'
"I didn't blame him for making that decision and I also didn't blame him for not coming back in for the World Cup. Capello's assistant rang him a few days before. You don't treat Paul Scholes like that. It's a complete lack of respect."
At 33 Murphy presumably feels his own midfield talents are some way off being recognised by the current manager (the last of his nine caps came in November 2003) and he is equally scathing of England's tactical set-up during their dismal four-match stay in South Africa.
"If you play 4-4-2 on that stage against the better teams you're going to struggle," he says with the shop-talk fluency of a man who still speaks regularly to his first manager, Dario Gradi, the track-suited tactical doyen of Crewe Alexandra. "It's all very well saying we played it in qualifying. Playing average teams you can play what formation you like, every one of your players on the pitch is better than their players. But you look at teams who have done well in major tournaments and how they played. You can call it 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1. One thing's for sure: it's not 4-4-2, is it?"
It was time spent enjoying Roy Hodgson's variations on these more fluid midfield shapes that brought the best out of Murphy during his late-career bloom of the last three Premier League seasons, a period that included his Fulham-folklore headed goal in the last match of the 2007-08 season, a victory that prevented relegation from the Premier League.
Hodgson's departure for Liverpool has prompted a certain amount of wistful talk of a potential late-career return to Anfield for a player who remains a crowd favourite, perhaps as much for his own unapologetic fandom as his successes during a seven-year spell at the club that reached a high water mark with 47 appearances and 10 goals during the 2000-01 season, when Liverpool won the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup.
If this seems unlikely, Hodgson's departure has raised other more immediate questions. Today's game is only Fulham's second under Mark Hughes, but Murphy believes the new manager will continue to adopt the kind of patient, passing game that has also allowed fellow mercurial semi-veteran talents Damien Duff and Zoltan Gera to shine.
"We won't change in that respect. He [Hughes] wants us to play. He certainly doesn't want us going out there and whacking it. Off the ball maybe we're trying to win it a bit higher up the pitch, maybe take a few more risks. With Roy we tended to drop off more and fill in the gaps. It might make us a little bit vulnerable but it might make us score more goals, too."
Not that Fulham fans will be expecting anything too adventurous this afternoon, as Murphy admits: "You've got to play to your absolute maximum and hope they have an off day. But we're no mugs. We can dig in and fight and make ourselves hard to beat. We'll go out there and give it a damn good go."
Fulham fans -- and maybe even, in spite of it all, Liverpool ones too -- would expect nothing less.