Michael Murphy insists Donegal camp a happy one

Absence of former heroes like Mark McHugh weighs lightly on big full forward’s mind

A 17-year-old Michael Murphy celebrates scoring a goal on his championship debut, a first round qualifier against Leitrim in 2007. His manager on that day was Brian McIver, who he will come up against at Celtic Park on Sunday when Derry are their Ulster SFC opponents. Photograph: Inpho

A 17-year-old Michael Murphy celebrates scoring a goal on his championship debut, a first round qualifier against Leitrim in 2007. His manager on that day was Brian McIver, who he will come up against at Celtic Park on Sunday when Derry are their Ulster SFC opponents. Photograph: Inpho

 

In a sporting context, it seems like an eternity. Michael Murphy was 17 when Brian McIver gave him his championship debut in the summer of 2007.

“He put his neck on the line for me and I will always be indebted to him for that.”

His immediate intention, however, is to play out of his skin against McIver’s Derry team in Celtic Park on Sunday.

That the affable McIver risked his neck by starting the teenager that afternoon is an exaggeration: Murphy’s exceptional talent had been well flagged at minor level and even then he had the physical power to cope with the exchanges at senior level.

He started a qualifier match against Leitrim and duly scored a goal. Few then could have guessed what lay ahead. At 24, Murphy has had an All-Ireland winning season as captain between him and is also a seasoned spokesman when it comes to dealing with the ceaseless curiosities about what is going on in Donegal football.

The big change this summer involves the absence of Mark McHugh, the canny Kilcar link man who combined the stamina of a Kenyan distance runner with a razor-sharp football mind. So when Murphy shows up in training gear at Donegal’s championship launch, he answers a series of question in the familiar Glenswilly drawl and with an easy grin.

“It happens,” Murphy says of McHugh’s decision to leave the panel just weeks before the championship. “That’s the nature of football. You go around the 32 counties and there are players coming on and off teams. We have no gripes as a panel. The pressures of playing inter-county football are huge and as I say, Mark has been playing this last while. As have the other three players and when you are outside the 26, it is very difficult to keep up that level of commitment.

“They go with our good wishes and we would hope they would be back again whenever they get their hunger back.”

Selfish He doesn’t say as much but all players are selfish. They are so involved with their own well- being there simply isn’t time to dwell on the decision of a team mate. Murphy has heard the stories that McHugh’s departure is indicative of an unhappy camp. And they amuse him.

“People ask questions and they feel that there should be more answers. But there is very little more to say except that we are at where we are at.

“There hasn’t been much chat about it. We have been flat out training. From the outside, maybe people are painting a different picture. That is all I can give . . . if I could give something more I would love to do it. But that’s all there is too it.”

The other common topic is Donegal’s flat exit from the league, when, with promotion attained, they lost the decorative league final to Monaghan.

“They always reckon that Donegal don’t take the league seriously anyhow,” he says. “But we do take every game on its merits. We had a winter too recuperate. We had lot of injuries to get over from last year and it was good to have key people back for us and the league worked well in getting game time for them and the younger players who have come through. But this past few weeks, you see a pep in the step when the ground gets that bit harder. It brings the smiles back to players.”

Donegal completed promotion to Division One relatively comfortably without really showing their hand.

Murphy responded to a painful surrendering of Ulster and All-Ireland titles last year by leading his club Glenswilly to the Ulster final in December.

He has postponed postgraduate studies, enabling him to spend a winter in Donegal. It has been a restorative experience. The bookies have gone cold on Donegal but for Murphy, the disappointment of those defeats remains acute.

“I’d be lying if I said we’d just forgotten last year. There was a lot said about our lack of competitiveness and we had big defeats. That does add to our motivation.”

First match The first Ulster championship match Murphy ever attended was the 1998 Ulster final between Donegal and Derry, which Derry won after Joe Brolly scored a late goal.

“Bad day. I remember sitting at the 13 as Geoffrey [McGonigle] did his business and Joe Brolly did his. It wasn’t a very pleasant trip home.”

Derry have not won a provincial trophy since and Murphy became the first Donegal player to lift the Anglo-Celt since Anthony Molloy did so in 1992.

But Derry’s impressive performances in Division One have convinced many they are primed to make a hard push for an Ulster title this year.

The influence of McIver has been key in their progression.

“A lot of the players will cite Brian McIver as an influence having worked with him,” Murphy says. “He is a fantastic fella outside of being a fantastic manager and an astute tactician. It is no surprise to us to see what he has done with Derry.

“It’s been the manner of it that has impressed me more than anything. And he will be mad passionate against us. But we will be the same. It will be hell for leather in Celtic Park. We will put friendship aside for 70 minutes.”

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