John Murphy: the man who made an immeasurable mark on Down
IT’S been almost three hours and still the conversation flows up and down the table like a tennis rally. Staff at the Maghera Inn collect cutlery and glasses around the one group that remains seated next to the wall as afternoon slowly creeps towards evening.
For the men who delivered Sam Maguire to Down in 1968, this is a tradition, to meet up at least once every couple of months. Whoever is available comes along for some lunch and a chat, knowing full well best laid plans for the day will almost certainly go out the window.
On this particular afternoon in September 2018 - 50 years on from their momentous All-Ireland final victory over Kerry - the tightness of the bond that still exists is clear to see.
As stories are shared, the different personalities come to the fore. Mickey Cole and Peter Rooney lead the slagging and the craic, though others need little encouragement to join in. Text messages are mischievously revisited, with necks craned over shoulders for a look, usually resulting in raucous laughter.
Sean O’Neill speaks with statesmanlike clarity when reliving those glory days, every detail recounted with forensic precision. Colm McAlarney, similar to those expertly-timed bursts he would make from midfield, waits patiently for his moment and then he’s away, burrowing down into a magical rabbit hole of memories.
Dickie Murphy, Dan McCartan and James Milligan chip in, adding colour and context. And then there’s John Murphy, the Newry Shamrocks maestro who scored the second goal as the Kingdom was stormed that fateful day.
In the middle of it all he sits, arms folded, wearing a wide smile, lapping everything up. When the volume cranks up at the far end of the table, his shoulders shake as that smile turns into a rumbling low chuckle. It’s the kind of laugh you don’t forget.
When duty calls and it’s time to go, he stands up and says his farewells, but not before addressing the group as a rare moment of silence descends.
“This, us here today, is a reflection of what it was like in those days. We were a team, we looked after one another.
“There’s a bond there.”
John Murphy passed away on Wednesday night following a short illness, but for everybody associated with the GAA in Down there remains a bond that will never be broken.
Hero of ’68, and Pete McGrath’s right hand man as the Mournemen returned to the throne in 1991 and ’94 - few have made such a mark spanning generations.
Yet it is the simple moments, as well as those played out on the biggest stage, that remain crystallised for a group of men in mourning today as their team-mate and friend is laid to rest.
“You couldn’t help but enjoy John’s company,” said Peter Rooney.
“He had that infectious sort of a personality, and on the field his contribution to our success in 1968 was immeasurable. An exceptional player, an exceptional man, and somebody who gave so much to Down GAA.
“We’re all totally devastated. The last text I got from John was on the 26th of April. I hadn’t heard from him in a while, but I used to text him every week, oul jokes or whatever. And this one came back from him and just said ‘still kickin’.
“He made a big impact on all of us; it’s a tight group we have, the ’68 team, and he was a massive part of that. It won’t be the same without him, and all of our sympathies go to his wife Veronica and the whole family.”
A bad car accident brought a premature end to John Murphy’s playing days, yet his knowledge of the game and diplomacy saw him become a valuable member of Sean Smith’s Down management team, before joining forces with Pete McGrath in 1989.
The pair had donned the red and black together during the early 1970s - indeed McGrath was among the thousands crammed into Croke Park for the 68 final, where his brother Hilary was one of the Down panel.
On the line they worked in tandem, and the glory days that followed still warm the soul as the Mournemen returned to the throne in 1991 and ’94.
“John was just a marvellous man; he was with me right through, and he was someone you could trust implicitly.
“John was highly respected by the players because he had won an All-Ireland medal, which none of them had done at that time, and when situations had to be discussed, or if any issues arose, his view would always be objective and unemotional. That was invaluable.
“He was a great communicator – the fact I was a teacher dealing with students, that can obviously rub off in how you deal with players. John was an accountant with Newry and Mourne Council; he was dealing with adults, so where at times I could be a bit brusque with players, John would pull me up and I think you’re going the wrong way about this.
“That dynamic in a management team is very important – you have to challenge each other but you still have to be comfortable with each other. John always brought a sense of perspective, and he always acted in the best interests of the team. There were never any hidden agendas.”
After 13 years, the end eventually came after Championship defeat to Longford in 2002. And when it did, little needed said between two men who knew each other inside out.
“I was actually thinking about that this morning. I turned to him on the line and said ‘is that it John?’ and he replied ‘I think it is Pete’. That was all that needed said.
“Honestly, I couldn’t begin to quantify the depth of the contribution he made, in so many different ways. Above all else, he was great company, a hugely infectious character, and he will be badly, badly missed - as a friend first and foremost to so many people.”
John Murphy’s funeral cortege will arrive at Páirc Esler at 1.30pm for a short tribute to his dedication to Newry Shamrocks and Down GAA as the county mourns the loss of one of its favourite sons.
“Men like John Murphy helped to make Down the proud GAA county that it is today,” read a statement from the county board.
“He was a great ambassador for Down, he was a man who loved his football, his county, his club and most of all he loved his family. On behalf of the Gaels of Down, we say thank you for the wonderful days you gave us.
“Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.”