GAA Football

Kicking Out: Donegal had nothing left to offer Murphy, not the other way round

Michael Murphy enters the fray as a substitute during Donegal’s narrow win over Derry in the 2021 Ulster SFC. Despite carrying an injury and hardly touching the ball, the game turned in the Tir Chonaill county’s favour thanks to Murphy’s sheer presence on the pitch. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

ON two particular afternoons where the sun is a falsehood and no use to a MacCumhaill Park pitch turning to mud pie, the impact of Michael Murphy was never so strangely evident.

The first was when Donegal were hosting Monaghan in this year's Allianz League. It had been twelve years and one day exactly since Down had gone to Ballybofey and won. No visiting team had won a league game there since.

Monaghan were 1-4 to 0-1 ahead inside 14 minutes and maintained that six-point cushion at the break.

Murphy hadn't been able to start but came hurriedly to the sideline after 27 minutes. It didn't turn the game at all and Monaghan went on to win but for the eight minutes he played in the first half, the whole crowd sat up straighter. The place became more engaged. The players around him ran faster, tackled harder, talked louder.

It was like the headmaster had walked into English class.

The love they had for him was one thing but the reverence and respect of a county were the evidence of greatness walking among us.

Murphy was nursing a knock that day, as had become something of a norm in the final years of his career.

The second occasion was when Derry went to Ballybofey eyeing a surprise last summer. He'd gone off early in Páirc Esler as they hammered Down a fortnight earlier having struggled through the league with it.

His presence in the team that day in Newry was the mark by which he lived. Unless it was in a cast or hanging off, it could be worked with.

Most of that time it was what set the standard and the expectation within Donegal. Times like that his insistence on playing through it could be detrimental but it was just the way he was wired. The next game was the only game.

Derry came two weeks later and Murphy's bad hammer was tied around a seat in the stand for 49 minutes.

Donegal were three down when he decided that there was nothing left other than to go in.

It seemed every red and white jersey had a go as he came on. Shoulders here, a tug there, a word in the ear, as if to say ‘we've been waiting for you'. But over the next 25 minutes Derry became preoccupied with him.

Even though he was barely on quarter-power, the Derry defence were like flies to the light. All that did was open gaps for Niall O'Donnell and Jamie Brennan and Michael Langan. The game turned on Murphy's introduction despite him hardly touching the ball.

When he was in his last year of U21, Murphy weighed sixteen stone and ten pounds. Shoulders the width of the River Swilly that runs behind home, it took a wee bit of time to tighten it all up. You could see it in the face.

Look at a photo of him from 2010. He's got the round-faced schoolboy look. When he led them up the steps of the Hogan Stand two years later, it was as if someone had taken a plain to his jawline.

Jim McGuinness' training chiseled out a frame that complimented his skillset. Over the next 15 years he'd put his body through the ringer.

No matter how hard the Kinesio tape had to work, there were very few days he didn't tog out.

Even when his hamstring seemed to be held together by chewing gum, he spun a rolling ball on a soapy surface up into his hands, beat two men against the sideline and recycled it for Kevin Cassidy to steal the plaudits in 2011.

He just turned 32 in August. ‘All duck or no dinner' was how he described himself in trying to explain his reasons for retirement to the story-breaker Alan Foley.

There was plenty of duck left in Michael Murphy.

No matter who the hero is, the creeping shadows of time will always turn him to villain.

Piers Morgan's vomit-inducing fireside chat with Cristiano Ronaldo is the obvious case in point. Here's the man that can't accept the inevitability of time and feels like the planets ought to align themselves differently just for him.

Even if there are hidden yet legitimate concerns about how the management process both unfolded and ended, you'll never find Michael Murphy on a sofa with Tubridy saying that Paddy Carr and Neil McGee wouldn't be coming around for dinner.

After years of being superhuman, Derry poked at the humanity that bared itself in the Ulster final.

Brendan Rogers' athleticism shone a light that it's hard to turn off.

Rogers' display that day would have meant opposition teams would have begun to perceive him as someone to be targeted, just as Colm Cooper became at the end of his Kerry career after Philly McMahon did basically the same thing to him.

Murphy's mistake, like Cooper's that day, was honesty. He chased. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Michael Murphy to tell Shane O'Donnell or Jamie Brennan to do the running for him.

But Murphy's entire legacy was built on leading from the front. Asking someone else to do his work would be considered an affront.

Age just happens. It has no impact on their credentials when it comes to debating their greatness until you go for too long and you let it.

It happens quicker to six-foot-two, fifteen stone men.

Michael Murphy could have squeezed out another two or three years as a wrecking ball on the edge of the square. But what would be the point?

It never felt like his favourite position and you couldn't blame him.

On the rare occasions that he did play inside for Donegal, the pixelated quality of what little ball they sent in rendered it pointless.

Maybe there was a part of him that would have struggled with the acceptance that aging alters both reality and perception.

But mostly you'd think he'd have struggled with standing at full-forward waiting for a bus that isn't coming.

In Donegal football, handpassing is king. The top four clubs have been the top four clubs for a decade. When St Eunan's, Kilcar, Naomh Conaill and Gaoth Dobhair meet each other, nobody kicks the ball.

Whether the chicken or the egg came first in terms of it being county or club to blame for that, Donegal's refusal to kick the ball is the soil beneath their footballing identity. Different men have tried to plant kicking seeds. McGuinness had some joy but it hasn't taken root in infertile soil.

There is no better handpassing team in the land. But they've become a bit like a barking Alsatian. If it bit you, you'd know about it. And the fear of it biting you ought to put you off. But once you know that it won't then it's just a barking dog.

Michael Murphy bit harder than any Donegal footballer, ever.

In another era, on another team, he had two, maybe three years left.

But there was nothing left for him in a team that refuses to kick the ball.

That's a sadness all of itself.

GAA Football