In Donegal Michael Murphy is seen, simply, as a godsend

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Glenswilly man speaks to Keith Duggan about reaching the highs and feeling the lows

Seasons change. It's been seven summers and winters since Michael Murphy lifted the Sam Maguire for the first and, so far, the only time in his life. He was 23-years-old that September. Last August, he turned 30, an age of reckoning for anyone and the twilight decade for athletes.

This will be his 14th season playing with Donegal. They know he cannot keep playing forever. Somehow, nine years have slipped by since the intense wildfire started by Jim McGuinness lifted Donegal out of the recession and into the dream-time, in mood if not in fact. But McGuinness has been gone from the Donegal dressing room for five years now, longer than ever he spent in it as senior manager and Murphy is now the figurehead of a greatly changed team.

Of the 10 Ulster championships Donegal have won, he has been captain for five of those days. This year, they chase a third in succession. But Murphy has not played in an All-Ireland final – or semi-final – with Donegal since 2014.

His combination of physical stature and power, of high fielding and score-taking excellence and velvet close control skill make him a virtuoso in his sport.

"Probably, if I'm honest, the most influential player I have ever seen over any team in the last three decades," acknowledged Sean Cavanagh, one of his thorniest on-field rivals, last summer.

Such overt praise stands out because it has been sparing. He’s been nominated for Player of the Year just once and has never won that accolade. There’s been a reluctance to ask the obvious question: what other Gaelic footballer, in any era, has been able to do as many things as well as Murphy? Or think of it this way: if Michael Murphy had grown up in his father’s county, then how many All-Irelands would Mayo have won over the last decade? Spin that bottle.

It’s the wintriest of Tuesdays in Letterkenny. You see his sports and leisure store when you hit the roundabout near the bus station. There’s a life-size cut-out of Murphy in the foyer of the Mount Errigal hotel, which he doesn’t notice when he enters: there are very few towns in the county without some blown up image of him.

Across Donegal, he is regarded, simply, as a godsend. So you’ve come to Murphy to ask him where he is at after spending half of his life so far as a kind of emblem for Donegal as a county. You’ve come to ask him what he has learned. And he drinks his coffee and sits back in the settee and thinks about this. And then he laughs quietly at himself.

“That I don’t know everything,” he says. “That was a great dawning for me! The more I go on, the more I realise: I don’t have a clue. You don’t have a notion of a lot of things. You thought you knew the world but now this younger generation make you see, feck it, there is so much more out there.”

***

Probably the best way of understanding Michael Murphy is to take the short drive out to Glenswilly, which is as intensely country as Letterkenny is towny. The place is as it sounds: a glen, a lush hollow set low and close made up of a network of back roads and townlands that revolve around the whitewashed church and the clubhouse and require local knowledge.

“It has a uniqueness,” Murphy admits. “It feels far, far further than five minutes outside the town. Glenswilly was massive for me growing up. To me, it couldn’t have been any better.”

He’s an only child. His father Mick is a guard who is from near Bonniconlon. His mother Mary is from Bridgend, on the Derry border. “I’d a few cousins there and there was such a big gang in Glenswilly too so there was never any sense of loneliness at not having brothers and sisters. There was enough around.”

The place has always been his refuge. His father coached local teams as well as county development squads so he grew up either coming from or going to football pitches. He was a cheerful, laid-back and confident youngster and inwardly obsessed with getting to play for Donegal. When he was a boy he sat beside Anthony Molloy, the 1992 All-Ireland winning captain, the original, for a photograph that acquired a prophetic power. Murphy is grinning and chubby-faced and there’s a shine in his eyes.

He hung around the Donegal under-16 boys his father coached; players like Karl Lacey and Eamon McGee that he would later lead as captain. And he was a phenomenal athlete and a prodigy as a footballer. “I was the same as any other player. I was only average on it,” he insists now but there’s a small army of eye witnesses who would disagree. He played senior football for Glenswilly at 15 and he was 17 when he played his first senior championship game for Donegal. But Glenswilly remains the place where people know him for who he is rather than what he has done.

“It’s slagging central,” he says. “As much of a cut they can take out of me, they will. About me performance at the weekend or the receding hairline . . . about anything. That’s it. And that is what makes it, hey. You will be taken the same way as the day you first came into the dressing room. That’s the way I’ll know it and that’s the way I’ll love it for evermore, Amen.”

Eamon always would say to me: you don't realise how selfish we are playing for Donegal

Last summer, Glenswilly briefly became the focus of national attention when another renowned sportsman from the community, Manus Kelly, was killed while competing during the closing stage of the Donegal international rally. The tragedy occurred just an hour before Donegal beat Cavan in the Ulster final in Clones. Word had reached the stands and terraces but did not filter onto the pitch: Murphy had delivered his victory speech and carried out his television interviews when he was told by his father in the dressing room.

Kelly’s death jolted Murphy and his peers in a profound way. Because of his reputation as a rally driver, the funeral service was at once international and intensely local. Many thousands attended the wake. The Glenswilly GAA club organised the logistics of facilitating the thousands of sympathisers who visited during those two days of a true June heat wave. It was a phenomenal reflection of the closeness of their community and from the perspective of six months, Murphy can see that the strangeness of that time prompted them into the kinds of conversations they wouldn’t normally have.

“I think it was probably the first time . . . I’m obviously good friends with big Neil (Gallagher) and I’d keep in touch with Eamon McGee. And Eamon always would say to me: you don’t realise how selfish we are playing for Donegal. Everything in your family and friends’ life is built around your pursuit, your schedule. And I could never get what he was saying. It’s not affecting anyone else! It’s just me. But everything that happened over those two weeks, I felt I could understand all that a bit more.

“For us, in Donegal, Ulster final day has always been a measure of how our season is going. For me it goes back to so many disappointments. And we love winning Ulster. It is always brilliant. And it is still the best feeling, the same as 2011. And we got the news about Manus that day in Clones. And all of that just drained. It just stopped. I just wanted to go home. You always enjoyed the night in Donegal Town of an Ulster final. But I wasn’t at it. I was back in the car and straight home.

“Monday was quiet but on Tuesday, it was hands on. You got a call: where are you at? We need help. And you just rattled into it. It was just our way. A lot was made about what the club did around Manus but probably for us, it was our way of dealing with it. You didn’t want to be exposing your emotions of how sad everyone was and how sad you were. Manus’s family is massively connected with loads of families around Glenswilly. We had Donegal training that night and I remember it was the first night in 13 years that I said to myself, I am just not up for this. I am not up for it here. I went. And I did it . . . it’s your responsibility to do that.

“But I was straight back down the road to be part of that at home. It was . . . the first for us. The Manus I knew . . . he was the brother of the boys and a big supporter of Glenswilly. We were very, very proud of him with the rallying and the business stuff was coming together. But the Manus down at training was the person I really responded to.

“Like, I’d be friendly with all his brothers and Caolan was in the same class as me the whole way up. Really, really close friends in national school . . . birthday parties would have been first into the house and him down with us. So you grew up with the whole family. And you know, we move on a small bit. But for Bernie and the family, they are still living it and closing the door on it. They are dealing with their first Christmas with it.

“And you do say it – I’d be speaking to Caolan and Leon and I’d say just anytime you want to chat, just give a shout. And you do genuinely mean that and I think they understand that. I remember saying to Neil that we probably spoke about these things more in those few weeks than you would ever have dreamt of speaking about them. Like Neil is the cornerstone of the area. He showed the way for me and for the club as to how you play for Donegal. And big Neil . . . he was . . . just very, very sad.”

Through late summer, the local pitch drew huge numbers of local people watching underage games. Anytime there was a game on, it was as though the whole parish made its way down to watch youngsters lost in joy.

“I’d like to think I get to a fair few of those games anyway. But I don’t think anyone in the club missed one game for those few weeks. It was just: watch the game and cheer on the young ones. But there was a deeper meaning to it. Maybe you didn’t want to say that. But everybody knew it.”

***

In the maelstrom of the McGuinness era, he didn’t have much time to think about the shape-shifting and reinvention that was happening all around him. From the low of that Crossmaglen defeat on that hot day, Donegal came exploding out of the darkness the next winter, winning their first Ulster title in 19 years in 2011 and then the All-Ireland title a year later.

Essentially we were winning games by being consistently better than the opposition. To be called herds of sheep for doing that was a bit strange

The team contained several classy players whose light had been hidden under a bushel. The system was about the collective but within its framework, Murphy was a gargantuan figure. He knew of course that the ultra-defensive style of 2011 and Donegal’s newly abrasive approach left the establishment unsettled. Because the weeks just tumbled into one another, he never dwelt on what was being said about Donegal but it did rankle.

“What was said about the way we played, no. About the way we played, no, About the way we were disrespected for putting our heads above the parapet – some of the ways we were labeled ... that bothered me. It was probably difficult. Looking back I can understand where people were coming but it was disrespectful to what we were trying to do back then. Essentially we were winning games by being consistently better than the opposition. To be called herds of sheep for doing that was a bit strange.”

In retrospect, Donegal got their act together at a crucial time in the evolution of Gaelic football. After that under-21 final against Dublin, he could see that the city team was freighted with ambition. He was and remains good friends with Paul Flynn and after Dublin edged out Donegal in the notorious (and enthralling) semi-final of 0-8 to 0-6, something changed within them. They were on the road to becoming the cold, imperious team that would define the decade. They would lose just two championship games in the decade; the All-Ireland semi-final of 2012 to Mayo and, in 2014, when Donegal defied all expectations to blitz them with a 3-14 score line that left Croke Park smouldering. Dublin have not lost a championship game since.

“You knew they would be good,” Murphy says now. “Would you say they’d win five? Probably not. And now you don’t subscribe to the idea that every year is different and you are going to come with something. You have to believe. You have to be edging towards something. And I’d say those Dublin lads, individually, think there is more than them.”

He nods at the idea that old games or fragments of old games can drift across his mind at any moment of the day.

“Awh Jesus aye, they’d be a daily thing. They would always pop in. You could be chatting someone or going to training and some wee moment will pop in. There will always be fragments.”

The one that visits him most is the All-Ireland final of 2014, a cagey, tactical affair when Kerry set up to mirror Donegal, successfully bamboozled them and won an All-Ireland that never really flared. Murphy was man-marked by Aidan O’Mahony, who stuck grimly and gamely to his task. But it was the weird sense of the team never been in control of the day that agitated Murphy rather than his immediate opponent. “Any time then– and now – you play full forward you are going to have a dedicated marker. But we were always chasing that game. I remember Neil coming up at one stage and saying, right boys we aren’t f*****g at this ... but keep going. It wasn’t a case of downing tools.”

They came within a scrambled late goal effort – Colm McFadden’s despairing flick skipped against the post – of claiming a draw they scarcely deserved. And then it was over. And then McGuinness left. On many, many nights since, they’ll fall into conversation about what happened – or rather, didn’t happen – that afternoon.

Donegal was the moon to me. This is where I am, where I am playing

“It is no disrespect to Kerry: they were the better team that day. But we just weren’t at the level we wanted to be at. We often speak about what it was ... you know we were flat 10 days coming into that. But we were flat coming into other games as well. Potentially the euphoria of the Dublin game. But I think all factors are still open because we can’t pinpoint it. We all played a very average game and a lot of us not up to scratch at all. And it grates, you know.”

Meanwhile time, that old goon, does its thing. A few years ago, he had a chance to spend a week in Clermont with the French rugby team for a sports documentary to experience the professional life for a week. When he was a teenager, he’d attracted the attention of several Australian Rules clubs. “At the time it never really entered by head. Donegal was the moon to me. This is where I am, where I am playing.” But he was curious to know how the professional sports life might have felt. The facilities were, well, opulent, and he was made feel hugely welcome. They brought him into first team training on the week of a European match. “Which was crazy ... I dunno if some of the French rugby players came into the Donegal dressing room between national league games, what would I have been like! But Clermont’s lovely and I really liked the side of working every day just to get better. That appeals to me.” Still, though, he’s not sure if the professional life – the contracts and the mercenary element would have worked for him. “It’s one of the things I’m always trying to process with professional sport. How do they not look at this as a job? You know?”

Meanwhile, over the past few seasons, the elite Gaelic football teams have stretched the limits of amateurism. Dublin have become the great quest for all teams, the mythical whale that haunts all imaginations. Five summers unbeaten. And counting. Donegal’s reformation under Declan Bonner, playing a game of lightning pace and exciting attack made them an outside fancy for a good run last summer. But they were felled on a soaked, epic evening in Castlebar which abruptly ended their summer.

“We need to get there to try and play them first! It’s a difficult one for us to navigate. But in how Dublin play the game– their individuals play, the way their defenders mark, their forwards play both ways, their midfielders play both ways: it is a good bench mark for teams.”

Maybe Dublin’s ascendancy has forced a general quickening of the pace or maybe it would have happened anyway. The tradition of the league sort of slumbering into life over the first few rounds is finished. Its a far cry from the league that Murphy played 13 years ago. “I think since around 2016 or so, the leagues have taken off and it’s a hundred miles an hour. And I do feel that’s to do with the younger lads – the power and speed and the way they live their lives. There is no sort of down time for them. It is just the way they live – they are content in doing that. I remember in Rory’s first year I took the off-season off. Four months. And I never forgave myself because I felt I was playing catch up all year. Everyone telling me, ah that’s great take a break. And then,” he says laughing, “you spend the year chasing fitness and speed.”

***

There are nights at training now when he will line up alongside one of the young fliers – Eoghan Ban Gallagher or Jamie Brennan, say – and try to match them in sprints. He knows he’s doomed. “I was never recognised for my speed but you would always be able to hold yer ground through pure thickness over 10 or 20 metres,” he says laughing.

“But naw. These boys? Naw.”

Donegal football has been his obsession since childhood but for a while he found himself struggling to recognise his own world. It is still disconcerting to look around the dressing room without seeing Toye or big Neil or Kavanagh where they’d sat for years. The atmosphere became different. It disoriented him. Every so often he will idly wonder about how his football life would have been had McGuinness not happened.

“It’s something I think about quite often.” Because he can easily place himself back in that broiling day in 2010 when Donegal had been reduced to a rabble by Armagh in Crossmaglen. They’d played like a ghost team. “There was an emptiness” he says of the feeling.

“Just: gone from the championship. Again. We weren’t true to ourselves.” He hated the hollowness and hated also the sense that they had failed John Joe Doherty, the manager, who resigned after that day.

“We were all hurt but he probably took the brunt of it. And John Joe: I have never come across a man as dedicated or passionate for Donegal. I remember times in Castlefin and the team was going through some wile bad spells and John Joe would keep on fronting up and leading us. I still remember some calls and pleas from that man I haven’t heard the like of since.”

We were very fortunate to get Jim McGuinness who had a vision of how things should be done

By then, he had already spent a season under Jim McGuinness with the Donegal under-21 team. They reached and lost a pulsating All-Ireland final against Jim Gavin’s Dublin which revolved around a ferocious Murphy penalty which struck the crossbar. Before that year, his ambition to win an All-Ireland senior title with Donegal was, he concedes, “a vague dream.” At International Rules camps he would subtly quiz the Armagh and Tyrone players and observe the routines of perfectionists like Cork’s Graham Canty going through their daily rituals, always learning, always asking one question. How?

“How do you get to where you need to be? And you see these boys doing this and that. And you imagine this is what you need to be doing. And, look, we were very fortunate to get Jim McGuinness who had a vision of how things should be done. And it was a vision that was very similar to what my thoughts were.”

The pair clicked. They shared a belief about what was needed in Donegal: no limits, no barriers. A white page. It blended cold pragmatism with a near spiritual sense of mission. The result was startling and, for Murphy and his team mates, life changing. Those furious four years meant that when Murphy came through the other side, he was convinced that the same methodology was the only way.

He had, he is beginning to see now, become rigid in his drive and perception of what was right. One by one, the old voices disappeared. Rory Gallagher and then Declan Bonner became the managers. And too often Murphy found himself agitated and fretting about everyone. He’d see the new crew coming in and he’d wonder. He couldn’t detect the same burning want from them that he felt for Donegal. They seemed lost in phone-land. They seemed too chilled. He was captain so he worried for them. “Are they focused? How are they going. I’d be freaking out” he remembers.

And he wasn’t enjoying his football as much, wasn’t happy with how he was playing. It took him a couple of seasons to realise where the problem lay.

“For me there was probably a change about three years ago. Through speaking with a few people, there was a need to get myself right. I got that then . . . that I am soon going to alienate myself here. I am going to become just this sulky man if I don’t start treating people as individuals here. That this is a different generation of players. And you need to figure out how to build and chat and communicate. I thought I knew the formula up until then and that this formula will carry everyone. But you do need to adapt and tweak it.

“You know, the phone in the dressing room – snapchat or whatever is going on. Do you get freaked out about it or do you roll with it? Do you rebel and keep giving out about it? Then you ask: why am I giving out about it anyway? Do I realise how things have to be? They know every bit as much as me about the way it should be. So it took me a while to realise . . . f**kin hell, I don’t have a notion of things. There is so much more out there to grasp and learn.”

That simple realisation cleared a fog in his mind. Sometimes at training or even in games he finds himself almost standing back to admire where the new generation is taking Gaelic football.

A player has 10 years of a county career if he is very, very lucky

“It is magic what they are bringing. The generation of 20 to 25-year-olds are in a different stratosphere in terms of skill level. I know the game gets a hard time in terms of complaints that the skill is going out of the game and it is all tactics. For me, some of the games over the past four or five years have been incredible.”

Donegal, too, have undergone a metamorphosis in playing style in the past two years. Murphy is thriving again, giving a series of colossal displays last summer. On Wednesday, he coached Letterkenny IT in the semi-final of the Sigerson Cup in what was the college’s first ever appearance in the competition.

This evening, Mayo visit Donegal for the start of the National League winter carnival: the bumper crowd; the stark cold, the lights, the excitement. Murphy still has a close connection with Mayo but he’s unrepentant about the fact that he is pure Donegal. “I think I’ve a fair few of the relatives converted at this stage,” he laughs.

In some ways, he is on borrowed time. “A player has 10 years of a county career if he is very, very lucky,” he acknowledges. But because he started when he was still a boy, there’s been a perpetual element to his career with Donegal. It’s an illusion, of course. And there at evenings, under the raw sky, when he will catch a few words with Neil McGee, another of the holdouts from the old days.

The pair of them will chat and suck in the cold Atlantic air and compare the ferocity of these sessions with the purges under McGuinness on the sand dunes in Dunfanaghy back in 2011, when they were shedding their skins. They reckon that the training is just as demanding now: it was just that they were coming from a different world. Except now they are men in their 30s. They can say without fear that it has flown by. Football mortality beckons. And Michael Murphy is still turning over in his mind where this Donegal thing is taking him.

“I honestly don’t know what my thoughts are,” he says. “I am trying to figure that out. You know . . . you hit the 30 mark in August. When I was coming up to that, I was probably thinking: right, 30 now. How do these years work out? What do you do here? And it was: keep going. The body is healthy. Let’s keep competing and playing. Saying to myself as long as I can keep committing to what I believe is needed to prepare to be a footballer for Donegal, as long as I can keep to that schedule and be hungry enough and then actually perform on a weekend . . . if I can tick those three off, then: just keep going.”

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