MacRory Cup: Juggling act always worth it from the early days for Michael Murphy

Donegal captain enjoyed a ‘fairytale’ final year playing with St Eunan’s, Letterkenny

He's come a long way in eight years - but Michael Murphy still remembers running up the sand dunes in Dunfanaghy, together with his St Eunan's College teammates, as if it were yesterday as they prepared to try and upset the odds in the cauldron of the MacRory Cup.

In 2008, despite it being the squad’s first year to ever compete in an ‘A’ tier competition, Murphy led his team on an unlikely journey to the semi-finals. Even more remarkable though, the now Donegal captain then aged 17, did so while also balancing his club commitments with lining out for the county minor, under-21 and senior teams. No to mention the fact that the go to man for all sides also had his studies to contend with.

“It was always very, very tricky. I’m lucky that Brian McIver, the county manager at the time was very understanding, and indeed with him coming from a teaching background he seen the need for education and the need I suppose for me to play with people at my own age group, and I was lucky with that.

“At the time there were four teams I could have been playing for at any given weekend. It was difficult, but look when you’re that age, at 17 you’re just mad for football and all you want to do is play. And if you played two games on a Saturday and again on a Sunday you just did it - and the body didn’t really tell you any different. Now looking back you can really struggle to see how you juggled it but at the time you just wanted to play with your friends and at the same time you just wanted to play with Donegal every bit as much.


“At that time school was your life. I remember going down to Dunfanaghy and training in the sand dunes on Boxing Day and over Christmas and they are memories you will always have. There was great camaraderie in terms of, if you were to try and define it or if you had been at one of the training sessions, that whole more or less team spirit kind of defined a small group of people coming together to try and go against the odds.”

His first season with the Donegal seniors in 2007 ended with 1-2 from play in his three championship appearances, and he wasn’t doing too badly playing with his friends either. In 2008, fresh from winning the MacLarnon, ‘B’ competition, St Eunan’s took on the province’s finest football academies in the MacRory Cup.

“We would have predominantly in St Eunan’s, from first year more or less the whole way up played in the the ‘B’, and we would have always aspired to win the MacLarnon coming up through the years.

“I would have won that in my second last year - and then following on from that we decided we would give it a pop at the ‘A’ competition - and we had a fairly decent team. We had a couple left over from the year previous, and yeah we went out and did it in the group stages, we did brilliantly, and we managed to battle our way into a play-off, then we won a quarter-final and before we knew it we were in a semi-final of the MacRory.

“Like, we got beaten but it was nearly funny how far we went in the end, in some games the first emotion when you get after victory is relief and joy. When we won there was joy of course but there was nearly a sense of humour to the whole thing too.

“Based on the small resources we had and the small pick of players we had in terms of clubs, we were really only really picking them from four clubs max where we were playing against colleges who were picking them from the whole of a county. It came to an end then up in the semi-final in Omagh against St Michael’s Enniskillen, where they beat us fairly well. Still it was kind of a fairytale. To even think about or contemplate playing ‘A’ football was a dream, and I suppose realising that and reaching a semi-final then was like almost winning it for us.”

At that stage Murphy had starred in the Donegal minor team’s route to the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final, he had won an Intermediate title in 2005 with his club Glenswilly, having only turned 16. In 2007 he was part of the same team that reached the senior county final.

“The main breeding place for county squad is club football, and I suppose (his call-up) was a mixture of that then and county underage and then the schools too - I’m sure with Brian (McIver) being a teacher himself in the north, he would be very familiar with MacRory football.

“But it was huge (the step-up to senior intercounty), it was such a learning curve and it took me even two, three or four years to deal with that. It’s just part of the whole learning thing at senior level. You’re never going to be wholly physically ready when you come into it, but you have to bide your time and just physically develop, and I suppose just grow up and that happens from being a 17-year-old even to say a 20-year-old.

“But I suppose that’s part of life in general, you find ways and means to deal with it and I suppose the number one thing is you just have to try and keep your skill level high, you have to practice the basic skills as best you can and then physically you will end of developing at some time. But at the end of the day you have to have the level of football to be up to county level and that will always be the case.”

From somebody who at just 26 has gone on to do achieve almost every honour in the game, what’s the advice for a young player playing colleges football?

“I suppose the big one - and I know it’s kind of like a parent-type advice you get given - but you’ve got to enjoy it. Because you will rarely ever get an experience like it again, really. I suppose it’s hard to believe it when you get told it 100 times when you’re playing MacRory or playing in your last year in school, but you’ll rarely ever experience something like it again. The closeness - the being in school every day and playing with someone you’ve more or less lived with for six or seven years, in any kind of sport, so just really enjoy every minute of it.

“It’s absolutely huge, for anyone aspiring to play any form of county football. MacRory was a real, real good ground to test yourself. You would watch on St Patrick’s day for any player that is in a school here in Ulster we’d watch the MacRory Cup final and the MacLarnon final on BBC - the MacRory would always be televised and the MacLarnon would be shown on the highlights.

“But any player would tell you that they would have always watched it, and the main powerhouses of St Pat’s Maghera and St Michael’s, and all the teams in Newry and you would have always been looking at them and wanting to pit your wits against them - and it became a real objective just to compete in it never mind to actually succeed in it.”

The close-knit Letterkenny school reached their first MacRory quarter-final last year since the ‘Murphy-era’ in 2008 and this year they are back in the last eight of the MacLarnon. They can be sure their most famous ex-pupil is following their progress as keenly as any.

“Absolutely, one of our senior club managers would be heavily involved in there, Gary McDaid would have been involved with the Donegal senior set up and Mr Neil Gordon would have coached me from first year the whole way up and I was just up with him last week. We managed to sponsor a set of jerseys from the shop (Michael Murphy Sports & Leisure) to the school for an underage team. And I’d be chatting to Colm McFadden, he’s a teacher up there and he’s heavily involved too and that’s great for the young lads.

“But everybody you meet whether it be in DCU, or if you’re away in Australia travelling, you’ll always bump into someone that you played with somewhere along the way, that you went to school with, and you still hold a common bond. You juggled, you enjoyed playing in it, you would come from training with your school and you would just hop in the car up to county training and you would be home again and by the next morning you would just be energised to go at something again - you just enjoyed it so much.”

Eamon Donoghue

Eamon Donoghue

Eamon Donoghue is a sports journalist with The Irish Times