GAA Football

'Professional soccer is a different culture - you listen up and you learn very quickly': Ciaran Murray's journey from Monaghan Allstar to Republic of Ireland physio

Thirty years ago Ciaran Murray was the man leading the Farney charge against Tyrone but, after injury cut his career short at just 27, the Clones man became a key component of the Republic of Ireland medical team. He tells Neil Loughran about a journey that has taken him from the steps of St Tiernach's Park to Saipan…

Ciaran Murray, pictured at squad training with Robbie Keane, has been a physio for the Republic of Ireland team since 1996. Picture by Sportsfile

MONAGHAN versus Tyrone - Colin Walshe captains the Farneymen at Healy Park tomorrow but 30 years ago it was Ciaran Murray who led them into battle with the Red Hands at the height, rather than the start, of summer.

A classy, athletic centre-back Murray – like many of that Monaghan team - was just about at the peak of his powers by the time July 17, 1988 rolled around. Tyrone, All-Ireland finalists two years previous, were fancied but Sean McCague’s men had other ideas.

An early goal from the irrepressible Eugene ‘Nudie’ Hughes, capitalising on a blunder by Tyrone ‘keeper Aidan Skelton, set them on the road to a two-point victory in Clones.

Timeless pictures from the day show Murray surfing a sea of blue, the Anglo-Celt Cup safely in his grasp.

For a man reared a stone’s throw from St Tiernach’s Park those are magic memories, and he would dearly love to be among the travelling hordes in Omagh tomorrow hoping for a repeat result.

But duty calls.

Since 1996 Murray has been the Republic of Ireland’s physiotherapist, initially as part of Mick McCarthy’s backroom team before working under Brian Kerr, Steve Staunton, Giovanni Trapattoni and, nowadays, Martin O’Neill.

When there has been occasional upheaval on or off the pitch, Murray has been one of the few constants.

He was at Lansdowne Road when Jason McAteer downed the Dutch, in Saipan when all hell broke loose, caught on camera jumping for joy any time Irish eyes were smiling.

And tomorrow, instead of getting in the car and heading due north, he will be on the sideline at Celtic Park in Glasgow as the city’s Hooped heroes celebrate the testimonial of captain Scott Brown.

News of the fixture clash was greeted with a rueful smile.

“I was at the National League game when Monaghan beat Tyrone in Castleblayney. There was some great kicking that night from Fintan Kelly, Rory Beggan, Conor McManus when he came on.

“I’d love to be at the game but when you live in the professional soccer world, that’s the world you’re living in for no matter how long you’re away.

“That’s your job so it’s the main priority.”

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Ciaran Murray hoists aloft the Anglo-Celt Cup after Monaghan's 1988 Ulster final victory over Tyrone. Picture by Conor Greenan

MEMORIES of summer Sundays through the Seventies remain vivid in Ciaran Murray’s mind. He can remember the sights, sounds and smells as year on year cars piled into his town, one after another, on Ulster final day.

Young children sat perched in the boots of cars pulled up on grass verges and footpaths, legs dangling over the edge. Mothers and fathers organised lunches before beginning their trek, scaling the steep hill en route to the field of dreams.

Every time the streets gave way to a sea of colour. The red and black of Down. Donegal’s green and gold. The saffron of Antrim. The orange of Armagh and the red and white of Derry and Tyrone.

But never, it seemed, the blue and white of Monaghan.

It was 1952 when the Farney County had last reached a provincial decider, and another 14 years since they actually won one. Playing the role of genial hosts every summer by now appeared some kind of cruel joke.

Johnny Murray, a proud Erneman and stalwart of the great Roslea teams of the Fifties, had made the short hop across the border to Clones after taking over the Tower Bar at the bottom of Fermanagh Street.

Through the years it saw no shortage of celebrations and sorrows drowned, before in 1979 came the mother of all parties when Monaghan, for so long in the wilderness, ended their 41-year wait for the Anglo-Celt.

Ciaran Murray was on the terrace watching proudly, the enormity of the occasion not lost on the young man and his brothers Aidan and Brendan who dreamed of following suit.

“As kids, obviously we loved going up to the pitch, and going to all the big games.

“Because we had the pub, Ulster Championship games in Clones meant a busy day. Then we were fortunate enough to actually find ourselves playing in Ulster finals…”

All three siblings featured as Derry were brushed aside in the 1985 final, the same year Monaghan were crowned National League champions. With most of the stalwarts of ’79 still in situ, allied to new blood thrown into the mix, a first All-Ireland Championship was in their sights.

Mick O’Dwyer’s Kerry followed their own well-worn script though, edging them out after a replay, although an Allstar award softened the blow somewhat for Murray.

Fallow years followed until, in 1988, Monaghan found themselves back in the Ulster final. This time Murray was captain, a proud day for friends, family and club as he walked the Farneymen behind the band on sod and surroundings familiar to the feel.

“We had a very good five or six year period in the mid-’80s,” said Murray, who represented Ireland in the International Rules tests against Australia in 1986 and 1987, and was later named in the GAA’s ‘Team of the Eighties’.

“The Monaghan team that won Ulster in 1979, you still had a good few of those players left, the likes of Hugo Clerkin, Gerry McCarville, ‘Nudie’, Paddy Linden… big players, strong leaders and personalities. Fellas who knew what was required.

“Those Ulster final days were great. When you’re there, you just think about the game and how much you want to win. You realise those opportunities don’t come along very often because it’s so difficult to get to Ulster finals.

“There’s a fear of losing as well, and it was very special for family and friends. Clones is a small town, everybody supports the club, everybody knows each other so it’s special for everybody.”

The festivities went on into the early hours at the Tower Bar and at every pub in town. Victory was sweet but soon talk turned to another All-Ireland semi-final, and another date with the reigning Munster champions.

This time it was Cork in the opposite corner and, unfortunately for Monaghan, hope would not even extend into a second date as they were ruthlessly swept aside, going down by 11.

“Eamon Murphy was missing, Kevin Carragher… big physical players for us. They got a goal at the start of the second half when my brother Brendan was in possession and he got an elbow to the cheekbone, fractured the cheekbone, he dropped the ball, naturally, and it led to a goal…

“But look, we certainly didn’t do as well on the day as we were capable of doing. It was disappointing because once you get to an All-Ireland final, you have a chance. That’s the way it works - look at Down in ’91.

“Back then there was no back door. You got your chance and you had to take it. It would’ve been great to have got there, but that’s sport.

“Everything has to go right for you on days like that and it just didn’t happen for us.”

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CIARAN Murray was just 27 when a succession of knee injuries forced him to hang up his boots in the spring of 1990. Yet rather than dwell on lost years, he had already embarked upon a new professional pathway long before the curtain came down.

Working as a primary school teacher in Dublin was the perfect job during his playing days but in 1988, just a couple of months after his crowning glory on the field, Murray began a four-year physiotherapy degree at Trinity University.

After moving to Dundalk, where he started his own practice, Murray was asked to help out with the Republic of Ireland U21s in 1994 – the same year as the World Cup in America.

And it was there, where Ray Houghton’s winner against Italy provided the abiding memory from a sweat-soaked tournament, that the FAI realised they needed more medical staff to deal with the ever-increasing pool of players at their disposal.

“The world of sports medicine has changed a lot since then, and that is an understatement,” says Murray when recalling the break that brought him into the world of international soccer.

“They’d a very good physiotherapist there, Mick Byrne, who I became very good friends with but you had more players, a lot more work to be done, so they needed an additional member of staff.

“I happened to be at a conference around that time when I met the team doctor at the time, Martin Walsh, and it went from there…”

The Jack Charlton era had just ended but, under Mick McCarthy, the promise of more exciting times lay ahead.

However, his first major international tournament experience just happened to coincide with a landmark moment in Irish sport.

Ireland travelled to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan with quiet optimism. The national mood was good.

Men like Shay Given, Gary Kelly, Steve Staunton and Jason McAteer were solid Premier League performers, while young guns Damien Duff and Robbie Keane were potential world beaters on their day.

In Roy Keane, McCarthy’s side boasted an all-action midfielder with few equals. The Cork man was Ireland’s beating heart; a leader like no other.

And despite the stardust sprinkled by the two kids roaming around up top, the one man the boys in green simply could not do without was Keane.

Yet this was the situation they found themselves in on the eve of the World Cup following a huge bust-up between Keane and McCarthy, played out on the front and back pages.

Saipan remains a scar on the skin of Irish football even now, and Murray admits the incident was unfortunate for all concerned – player, manager, squad and supporters.

“Look, I don’t say too much about it because it’s already been said and written, but it was just… there were no winners.

“It was very difficult for everybody. It was a pity. Nobody wants to see that kind of conflict at such a stage going into a World Cup finals but, you know, when you’ve got big, strong personalities, it happens.

“You just have to get on with it then, and thankfully the team did really well.”

Keane is now Martin O’Neill’s assistant, so has Saipan ever come up in conversation?

“Not really,” says Murray, before adding, “it wasn’t our business to be dragging it up, that’s for sure.”

Keane departed the tiny island on May 20 ¬- never to return - and 16 days later his namesake, Robbie, was sending the Irish fans in Ibaraki into delirium with his last-gasp leveller against eventual World Cup finalists Germany.

Murray was caught on camera in full flow before the ball had even rippled Oliver Kahn’s net, wildly embracing a wild-eyed McCarthy seconds later as Keane cart-wheeled away.

“I trusted it was going in a split second before everybody else,” he laughs.

“Mick wanted to make sure it was going in and I was sure it was going in!”

In the years between Murray has become as much a part of the furniture as anyone, and he believes his own playing days have been of benefit to his professional career.

“Being around players, being around dressing rooms, being used to that whole environment is a big help.

“But look, professional soccer is a different culture - you listen up and you learn very quickly. The game has changed and continues to change.

“The fitness levels, the intensity of the game, the speed of the players. They’re stronger, fitter, faster. The world they’re playing in has changed as well in that back then there were hardly any foreign players in the English league. It has dramatically changed.

“They’re no different than my kids, who are both 20. They’re different than we were when we were 20, every generation is going to be different.

“There were no mobile phones, no social media, not as much gambling, that aspect of young people’s culture has changed across the board, not just in football.

“They all come from families, the friends they grew up with, and they generally keep them grounded. It’s amazing actually how down to earth and disciplined such a high percentage of the players are considering the money and the temptation.”

Robbie Keane fires home the Republic of Ireland's last-gasp equaliser against Germany at the 2002 World Cup - a draw that kept their hopes of progressing from Group E alive. Picture by PA

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IT’S July 21, 2013 and the boys are back in town, walking the perimeter of the pitch at St Tiernach’s Park, drinking in the atmosphere, suits instead of shirts this time around, slacks not shorts.

As they revelled in the Ulster Championship win of 1988, none of the Monaghan players could have imagined it would be 25 years before Farney hands would clasp the famous cup once again.

Jim McGuinness’s Donegal were reigning All-Ireland champions and raging hot favourites, but fate fancied Monaghan. Finally, fittingly on that day of all days, the spell was broken.

“The Ulster Council had asked us along. We had been there in 2010 too, 25 years from the 1985 win, and that day Monaghan lost to Tyrone. So there was probably a bit of nervousness about this one.

“It wasn’t going to be great to be there and see Monaghan lose, so to win the senior final and the minor final on the day was just tremendous. It made the day for all of us.”

Despite being immersed in a different world Murray keeps an ear close to the ground, and believes the GAA’s amateur players are closing the gap to their professional counterparts.

“I don’t know what goes on in an inter-county training environment now because I haven’t been around it but I know from listening in and reading and watching, the level of training, the team support staff, all your stat sports analysis, it is – in terms of the training load and demands of the game – it’s up there with it [professional soccer].

“We’re talking about 30 years since Monaghan beat Tyrone in the Ulster final, a lot has changed. Soccer has changed, and Gaelic football has certainly changed.”

The latest instalment of the rivalry is almost upon us and while he would love to see Monaghan set up a semi-final clash with Armagh or Fermanagh, Murray knows how fine the margins are better than most.

“It will be a very tight game.

“Monaghan finished the National League very well, I was at the game when they beat Dublin, and that’s a huge boost for confidence.

“I’m hoping for Monaghan and I do believe they’re capable of winning.”

And there’ll be a very happy Farneyman at Celtic Park tomorrow afternoon if they do.

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