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The day I ran into Michael Murphy

Published 23/08/2012

Ryan McCann found out at early age about the special talent that is Michael Murphy and he has the bruises to prove it. Here, he recalls the havoc the Donegal man wreaked when he came up against him in a schools match... SPORTS journalists are supposed to provide unbiased, measured opinions. But when discussing Donegal captain, Michael Murphy, it is impossible for me to fulfil that role. Let me explain why.

I first came across Michael Murphy in November 2004. It was a wet and blustery November afternoon. I was in Year 11 and on the subs' bench. My school, St Michael's, Lurgan were up against St Eunan's, Letterkenny in the Ulster Herald Cup final.

This is an annual Year 12 tournament and the spirits within our camp were high.

That was until we noticed a giant strolling down the field with the number 11 spread across his enormous back. It was Murphy, or the Murph-Monster, as he'd become affectionately known in our school.

Early in the game, Letterkenny sought to find Murphy with every ball, especially kick-outs. It quickly became apparent that we weren't just dealing with your typical over-sized teenager. His incredible size was matched with incredible ability.

Not long into the game, Letterkenny got a 45 near the sideline. Murphy strolled over towards the ball and set it up. There was a howling crosswind. We assumed he would go short. After all, he was only 14 or 15 years old.

He slotted it over. With ease.

Worse, or better, depending on your perspective, was to follow. A few minutes later, Letterkenny won another 45 near the opposite sideline. It didn't suit a right-footed free-taker. Murphy had the ideal solution. He struck it with his left foot. I can still see the ball floating high between the posts.

It had enough distance to hit the ball-catcher 15 feet behind the goals. If the ball-catcher wasn't there, that ball might still be travelling. The match was over then and there. Murphy stole the show.

The following spring, our Year 11 tournament began and we were drawn against Letterkenny in the first round, unaware Murphy was eligible to play. It was one-man-show. Murphy was unstoppable.

In September 2005, the Herald Cup was up and running again and our much-improved St Michael's team eased through the early stages until once again we were drawn against our old nemesis in the semi-final.

This was to be St Michael's versus Michael Murphy Part III. On this occasion, however, it was third time lucky for the Lurgan boys. We managed to claw a victory and we went on to lift the Ulster title.

A few memories of Murphy still linger from that particular game. Our centre half-back was booked before the first whistle for trying to rattle the big Tir Chonaill man-boy. But Murphy, as on the previous two occasions, was only interested in football.

He was the football equivalent of Roald Dahl's Big Friendly Giant. He would pick players up after bundling them to the ground and slotting over a point. Had it not been for the poor conditions that reduced both teams down to the same dogged level, there's no doubt in my mind Murphy would have kicked more than the 10 points he managed, which was 100 per cent of his team's scores.

The fourth and final time I faced Michael Murphy/St Eunan's, Letterkenny was in the 2007 MacLarnon Cup semi-final.

By that stage, Murphy had added even more bulk to his already formidable frame.

He had obviously undertaken some type of weights programme through his involvement with the Donegal underage setup. He also had a tenacity and aggression about him that he hadn't shown us in the previous three meetings.

He was unmarkable that day. We assigned three county minors the task of stopping him, but to little avail.

At one stage, I remember Murphy galloping towards goal with all three markers hanging onto his jersey. And for some strange reason, which continues to mystify me, I vacated my corner-back berth and went to meet his goal-bound charge.

As the Murphy Express came speeding towards me, I launched myself into him with a full-frontal body-check.

The events which followed are a little hazy. At 5ft 8in, my attempt to stop Michael Murphy at full speed was probably one of the most foolish things I've ever done.

My team-mates have since likened my attempted tackle to a scene from a cartoon. I understand why, because I could certainly hear the little birds tweeting around my head. The 17-year-old powerhouse completely flattened me.

Dazed and confused, I lay on the ground pole-axed. I was still a wobbling mess when I was helped back on my feet and shook back into shape.

After bull-dozing his way over me, Murphy put the ball in the back of the net. His tally that day was 1-8. Thankfully, that's the last time I ever played against Michael.

After our resounding defeats to Letterkenny, our school coaches told us one thing, which has turned out to be true. They urged us not to be disheartened because we had come up against the best young footballer in Ireland.

Leading up to this Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final against Cork, Michael Murphy's Championship form has been scrutinised by various pundits and ex-players. His 10-point Championship tally is apparently a huge source of concern.

Maybe for them it is. A fortnight ago, Michael kicked nine points for Glenswilly in a club game.

I reckon he is only starting to come to the boil. For what it's worth, I am absolutely convinced that he will have a stormer this Sunday, and that he will lead Donegal into this year's All-Ireland final.

But like I say, when it comes to Michael Murphy, I am simply incapable of being objective.