Michael Murphy: the brightest star in Donegal and the ultimate team player
SEAN McVeigh knew exactly what Michael Murphy was doing, but felt utterly powerless to stop him.
The Donegal captain had been boxed in on the edge of the square.
So he decided to take McVeigh for a walk.
Murphy picked their new location: just in front of the Clones dugouts.
Antrim were just about holding their own in the 2014 Ulster semi-final against Donegal, who would go on to win the provincial title that summer and reach another All-Ireland final.
By moving out to the flank, Murphy unclogged the middle and created a channel for Donegal to mine a couple of goals.
“I just stood there with him in front of the dugouts,” McVeigh recalls.
“What he was doing was leaving a big hole in the middle for [Colm] McFadden and [Odhran] MacNaillais to come in and get scores.
“I just remember thinking: ‘You b*****ks, you’re standing out here…’ There was nothing I could do. I had to stand and mark him, and he was happy to do it. That day he sacrificed himself for his team to win.”
Liam ‘Baker’ Bradley, enjoying his second stint as Antrim manager, had made it a tactical priority to smother the threat of Murphy.
McVeigh tracked Murphy’s every move while Kevin O’Boyle parked himself in front of the big Glenswilly man.
But Murphy still helped mastermind another Donegal victory.
McVeigh, who marked some of the best players throughout his 12-year inter-county career, had the rare privilege of man-marking Murphy at full-forward and midfield on different days.
Last summer, Antrim joint managers Frank Fitzsimons and Gearoid Adams were faced with the same impossible task of trying to limit Murphy’s influence in their Ulster Championship opener in Ballybofey.
McVeigh was again the chosen one.
“When I was marking him in midfield last year, I thought ‘happy days.’ I’d rather see him in midfield than at full-forward.
“I was never the nicest footballer but I always prided myself in being physical and being strong. But I have never met a physically more powerful man.”
Murphy was majestic that day, spraying passes like Pirlo, and leaving McVeigh for dust.
“I found that day harder. He was getting the ball on the run all the time.
“I don’t think he’s that hard to play against from kick-outs and out-breaking him, but it’s his reading of the break and knowing when to run.
“And he doesn’t run straight at you; he runs at an angle and he picks up pace so fast and because he’s running at an angle you can’t get your full force behind him.
“I remember he caught the ball under his own goalpost and he ran out. I ran after him and he was just holding me off.”
On both occasions, McVeigh and Murphy never uttered a word to each another.
“He’s very serious,” McVeigh adds.
“He would chat a lot to the referee, he’d be in the linesman or umpire’s ear, but I’d no communication with him. I don’t think he would react to somebody trying to get under his skin anyway. I can’t ever remember him losing the head.”
A combination of fatherhood and Father Time convinced McVeigh to step away from the inter-county scene at the beginning of this year.
Last Saturday, he sat down with his father to watch Donegal’s Super 8s game with Roscommon on TV.
It was vintage Murphy.
He spent the early stages out at midfield before trotting to the edge of the square where he completely demoralised the Roscommon defence, thumping over five points from play.
Lauding every one of Murphy’s caressed efforts that sailed over Roscommon’s bar, McVeigh said: “There’s the real Michael Murphy.”
“The only other player that gave me more trouble was Enda Muldoon,” the All Saints man says.
“But Murphy has definitely been the trickiest because you can’t switch off with him.
“He’s just phenomenal. Relentless. He’s probably the best player to have played the game in a long, long time. I admire him so much.”
BY the time Chrissy McKaigue saddled up to Murphy in this year’s Ulster semi-final at Celtic Park, Derry were already fire-fighting.
The Slaughtneil man had played against Murphy a few times and was first acquainted with him during their college days.
Murphy was the star performer for St Eunan’s College, Letterkenny and McKaigue was cutting a dash with St Pat’s, Maghera.
“When someone at 15-and-a-half stone can run, jump and kick like he does you know there is probably going to be some days that breaking even is a good result,” McKaigue says.
“His attitude and competiveness is a huge thing for me. You don’t realise that until you play on him.”
Despite his bulk and size, Murphy relies more on guile than anything else.
“He’s a very calculated player and if you’re not thinking, he can destroy you as quickly as any top player. He is without doubt one the most intelligent players I have ever marked.
“His understanding of the game and of others around him is something that many don’t see.
“I know his team-mates and coaches see this, though, and that is why he’s the leader he is for Donegal.”
MICHAEL Murphy graduated to local hero status in Donegal long before he climbed the steps of Hogan in 2012 and unleashed his tone-deaf singing voice on the nation.
Away from the field nobody does affable better than the 28-year-old.
Highly respected Donegal journalist Chris McNulty says: “You could survey 10,000 people in Donegal and they will all tell you the same thing.
“They’ll say: ‘He’s just your consummate professional, an ambassador…’ – it’s a bit tiresome but it is so, so true.”
Murphy, a qualified teacher, runs Michael Murphy Sports & Leisure in the heart of Letterkenny town with Glenswilly team-mate Neil Gallagher.
Since it opened its doors - four years next month – the shop has become a bit of a tourist attraction. GAA people come from far and wide to chat to the All-Ireland winning captain, to get a photograph or an autograph.
“Michael is the type of fella if you met him in a social setting he would stop and talk to you and take an interest in what you’re doing,” says McNulty.
“You get a genuine sense that he gives a shit about how you are. He’ll ask about your family, your kids, your mammy…
A big Liverpool fan, Murphy devours sports books and there’s nothing he doesn’t know about rugby greats Ronan O’Gara and Richie McCaw.
“You could talk to Michael about the World Cup, the Ashes, Rugby because he’s so knowledgeable and engaging.”
Neil Gallagher, Donegal’s All-Ireland winning midfielder in 2012, has never come across a more competitive person.
Two keen golfers, there is no such thing as a friendly round between the pair.
“After about 12 holes, there’d be nothing said about who’s winning or losing – and then, say, one of us was going for a putt and I’d say: ‘Right, that’s me two up.’
“For the next six holes, he would go dead silent,” Gallagher says.
“He’s just wile competitive – very, very competitive, very driven.
“His golf handicap is 12 but if he had got more time at it he’d get it well down. He’s just one of those guys who’s a natural.”
TIMES Square was its usual chaotic self and the Naked Cowboy was strumming his guitar like only the Naked Cowboy can.
Donegal were on a team holiday in New York last Easter and a few of them decided to head to Manhattan’s famous hub.
Maxi Curran recalls: “I’ll never forget walking across Times Square and the noise around the place and all I could hear was a crowd of boys on the far side shouting: ‘There’s Michael Murphy. There’s Michael Murphy.’”
Murphy, Curran and the others just laughed.
Curran first encountered Murphy as an 11-year-old at a summer camp up in Letterkenny and has been involved in numerous teams with him from his minor days.
“Even at that age he was a really well-mannered, unassuming kid,” Curran says.
“You never seen him without a ball and he’s never really changed. He always had this unyielding love of football.”
It certainly wasn’t preordained that Murphy would become one of the best Gaelic footballers of his generation.
As a child, he had problems with his hips which affected the way he walked before having to undergo corrective surgery.
Back then, everything revolved around Glenswilly and the Donegal senior team.
Michael’s father, Mick, coached the underage teams at the club and would often chide the older players like Gallagher that his nine-year-old son could kick balls over the bar better than anyone.
“As it turned out, we saw how talented he was,” Gallagher recalls.
“You know the way you can tell a player, you could just tell with Michael. You’d be down watching him playing minor and he’d be kicking points.”
Murphy quickly became a key member of Sean Clerkin’s Ulster-winning minor team of 2006, beating Antrim in the Croke Park decider.
He partnered Ross Wherity in midfield that summer.
In 2007, St Eunan’s College, Letterkenny captured their second McLarnon Cup and Murphy’s brilliant performances earned him a call-up to the Donegal senior team that same year under Brian McIver.
In 2011, Glenswilly reached the Holy Grail by winning their first-ever senior county championship crown in their 29-year history by edging out St Michael’s in the final.
Murphy played a sublime final, scoring 1-7 of his side’s 1-8 tally.
One play of that 2011 decider stands out for Gallagher.
“I remember we won a free-kick around the middle. I had the ball and was looking up. Murphy made this run and there was another man covering the run, and all I could hear him shout was: ‘Just kick the f***ing ball’, so I kicked it in the direction he was running.
“He won it and from the stand side he swung over an unreal score. He was just in the zone.”
Two years later, the club captured their second county title with Murphy bagging 1-5 in their comfortable win over Killybegs.
Despite Murphy hitting 1-3 in the 2013 Ulster Club final – half of Glenswilly’s tally – Ballinderry proved too strong.
Murphy and co delivered another county championship in 2016 following a dramatic win over favourites Kilcar.
In those three county finals, Murphy was man-of-the-match.
“After games, Murphy doesn’t go and drink six bottles of water,” Gallagher says.
“He knows that you have to enjoy victories too. Those championship wins with Glenswilly, we enjoyed those for a good couple of days after.”
AT county level, Murphy and Jim McGuinness locked horns a few times. As one observer put it: “Jim is a control freak and Michael is a control freak. So they were bound to collide on occasion. Sometimes Michael got it with both barrels from Jim. That said, they had brilliant chemistry.”
Many of McGuinness’s training sessions were absolutely brutal – but backroom team member Maxi Curran says: “It was all necessary from a psychological perspective, not physically. What it brought about among the players was an acceptance that things were different. You were either in or out.”
Neil Gallagher is adamant Donegal would never have won the Sam Maguire in 2012 without the totemic Murphy.
Despite watching him come through the ranks at Glenswilly, Gallagher was only too happy to be led by Murphy who was six years his junior.
“When McGuinness came in at the back end of 2010, Murphy was only finished U21 level at that time and it was totally the right call to make him captain, even though he was so young.
“We’d a core group of boys probably around 28 at the time, and a few older than that, but it was the right call. We wouldn’t have won an All-Ireland without him.
“People outside of the circle or outside of Donegal don’t realise just what he brings to the whole thing.
“He’ll be captain of Donegal until he stops playing because nobody can do what he does – his leadership and the way he conducts himself as captain.”
“The thing about Murphy is, he’s not going to ask you to do something he wouldn’t do himself. When he’s doing it, it makes it easy for us to row in behind him.
Gallagher adds: “I used to love that Armagh team of the ‘Noughties’ growing up and I thought ‘Geezer’ was f***ing brilliant. He was such a leader – and Murphy’s like that too.”
Last weekend, Murphy posted yet another five-star display in Dr Hyde Park.
It was a rare thing to see him on the edge of the square for a prolonged period of the game.
After suffering at the hands of Murphy, Roscommon manager Kevin McStay was asked where he thinks the Donegal captain should play, he replied: “As far away from the goal as possible. If he played full-back I’d be delighted. Has he ever tried goalie?
“He is a once-in-a-generation player… He is the whole package. Donegal should celebrate him because they don’t come along too often.”
With Tyrone rolling into town next Sunday for an All-Ireland semi-final eliminator, it’s unlikely Murphy will station himself on the edge of the square.
“Honestly, I would play him in the middle of the park,” says McNulty.
“It’s like watching Tom Brady with the Patriots – it’s the way he controls the thing.
“He’s like a kid playing a computer game and he has the joystick… He can manage a game so well.”
“Management teams don’t arrive at these decisions willy-nilly. There are hours and hours of analysis and research and painstaking reviews. There’s not a manager in the county that reaches a decision where it’s not heavily thought out. I mean, how many times has Michael Murphy stood inside and been absolutely assaulted?”
But you’ll not hear Michael Murphy complaining. He’ll get on with the job - any job he’s given - with the minimum of fuss.
After games, he wouldn’t walk past a reporter without saying a few words.
The thing with Murphy is he talks quite a lot but is brilliant at saying very little.
“See around Glenswilly and even in the county team he gets as much abuse as any of them,” says Gallagher.
“If he does something wrong, the Glenswilly boys won’t hold back – they don’t think: ‘Aww, it’s Michael Murphy’. And that’s the way Murphy would want it. He’s a great team-mate and a great friend.”
Kevin McStay said Donegal should celebrate a player like him for as long as he’s playing football.
The nation agrees...