The making of hurling's best goalkeeper started with a game where he didn't play in goal. Just over a week out from the 2011 All-Ireland final, Kilkenny gathered in Nowlan Park for one of their ritual sort-out sessions ahead of Brian Cody picking his final team. If the whole point of those games was to have war zones all around the field, circumstances usually allowed for a couple of pockets of unofficial armistice here and there.
When then third-choice goalkeeper Eoin Murphy lined up at corner-forward on a club corner-back who had been called in to ensure there were 30 players for a game, everyone presumed that was the deal. Neither of them had a chance of playing their way into the matchday 26. It wasn't exactly spelled out but it didn't need to be - they'd go out, play their position and help in their own small way to ready the rest of the squad for the final.
Or not. By the time Cody blew the final whistle, Murphy had 3-3 against his name. He was known around the place as a handy player but this was Kilkenny in 2011 - praise didn’t come much more faint. Nobody ever made a splash as a handy player. After that night, his standing changed.
"Suddenly everyone sat up and took notice of him," says David Herity, Kilkenny's first-choice goalkeeper at the time. "Up until that point, as the third goalie, Eoin would have been on the sideline in those games, filling in here and there as needed. But after that, everyone realised that there was more to him than met the eye.
“When he came in at the start, I don’t know what Brian really had in store for him. I think Brian really rated his natural skill as a hurler in general and was always going to find a place for him some way or another.
“Then in 2012, he would have still been seen as a goalie but Brian played him in the forwards in a league game down in Cork. He was taken off early in the second half and I think it made Brian’s mind up for him. This lad was going to be a back-up goalie rather than an outfield player. That’s the way things panned out.”
At the launch of this year's Leinster Championship, Murphy recalled his one and only stint away from the posts under Cody. "I got a game a few years ago," he said. "Brian Murphy roasted me down in Cork. I got two pucks the same day, I played a pass to Michael Rice for a point in the second half but I got one in the second half and he blocked me down. That's all I had, I remember it vividly.
“Things didn’t go well for me, I would have loved to get another shot but that’s the way it goes. I would have been the third keeper at that stage as well and management made it clear to me. I didn’t go in not knowing where I was going to play. They said they were going to give me a chance outfield, see how it goes.”
Every once in a while in the years since, the notion would bubble up in Kilkenny that they were wasting one of their better forwards by keeping him in goal. But after that Cork game, it was never spoken of seriously within the Kilkenny fold. PJ Ryan retired at the start of 2012, leaving Murphy as Herity’s understudy.
“He’s become an excellent goalkeeper,” says Ryan. “He’s also an excellent outfield player and you can see that in how he hurls in goal - he’s like an extra defender because he’s really comfortable on the ball. He comes out with the ball, sidesteps a fella and plays a pass up the field. He’s a natural hurler, an excellent shot-stopper as well. He ticks all the boxes.”
He didn’t always, though. Because Murphy was a late vocation, the things that came naturally to lifelong goalkeepers took a bit of learning in his case. Outfield players hardly ever catch a ball into their chest, whereas a goalkeeper might have to do it two or three times a game. The first couple of years saw him make the odd fumble on what looked like a routine dripping ball. It wasn’t a major glitch in the system but it had to be ironed out all the same.
“The best way I could describe him is that he’s kind of robotic, like a computer game,” says Herity. “It’s as if he upgrades himself every so often and becomes a better version of what was there before. He learns a skill and then banks it and that’s it, it’s there forever.
“After the All-Ireland semi-final in 2012, Brian was chatting to me and he asked how Eoin was getting on and what kind of player he was. He could see his improvement, obviously. Foolishly, I suppose, I was honest with him - I remember the conversation only too well. I said, ‘He’s like a sponge, Brian. Everything I do, before training, at training, after training, the lad picks up.’
“Everything I was trying to improve in myself, Eoin was doing it and he was doing it at a much faster pace. The line I said to Brian was, ‘Whenever this lad gets in goal for Kilkenny, no-one will ever take the jersey off him.’ Which was a fantastically stupid thing to say, seeing as it was me he’d be taking the jersey off when the time came. But when someone asks you a question, you answer it.”
That quality - that sponginess, if you like - meant that whatever Murphy lacked in experience, he was quick to make up through diligence. His dressing-room personality has always been bouncy, full of life and chat and confidence but there was a feeling in those early days that when he went out onto the pitch, he had a tendency to go quiet.
It’s one thing putting on your game-face and switching into serious mode. But when you’re a goalkeeper, you can’t afford to leave the chat in the dressing room. You need to be an organiser, a nag, an all-seeing eye. Murphy had to develop that side of the role, whether he liked to or not.
“You can have all the hurling in the world,” says Herity, “but unless you can see an incident happen, communicate it and organise a response before it becomes a problem, you’re going to come under massive pressure. Communication is what separates a decent keeper from one who ends up having to fight fires and look bad. You cut off problems before they become problems. That’s what Eoin has developed more than anything over the years.
“It was a small thing but it important because when you looked at the sort of goals Kilkenny were conceding, they were messy, scrappy goals that came about because there was a small bit of uncertainty and miscommunication back there.
"He was coming into a team as a young lad and maybe in that situation, you doubt yourself. Like, who are you to tell JJ Delaney where to stand? Are you really going to be roaring at Jackie Tyrrell and telling him where to go? I grew up with those lads and I was slightly ignorant anyway so I had no hassle shouting at them."
Herity spent two years going toe-to-toe with Murphy for the Kilkenny number one jersey. Murphy got the first game of the 2013 league against Galway, Herity came in for the second game against Tipperary. A collision with Lar Corbett in that game put Herity out for a month and Murphy carried his bat for the rest of the year.
In 2014, they went to-and-fro again. This time it was Murphy who picked up a mid-season knock, missing the Leinster final and the epic All-Ireland semi-final against Limerick. Cody broke Herity’s heart by dropping him for the final against Tipperary, a response to a couple of shaky performances in training in the lead-up. Murphy played in the final, played in the replay, got an All Star nomination and has kept the jersey ever since.
As Kilkenny have developed to play against sweeper systems over the past few years, Murphy’s innate hurling ability has been a key component. If Cody was leery about the idea of working the ball out from the back through short stick-passing and quick puck-outs to corner-backs and the like, the fact that he had one of the most natural hurlers in the squad initiating the moves would have sweetened him on it.
Though it has become more obvious in this championship, Kilkenny have been evolving in this direction for a few seasons with Murphy as the cool-headed instigator. Go back to the drawn 2016 All-Ireland semi-final and when a Pauric Mahony free puts Waterford a point up in the fourth minute of injury-time, every Waterford player on the pitch retreats in anticipation of a scrap over a bombed puck-out.
Instead, with Croke Park in rocking all around him, Murphy has the presence of mind to work a short one to Joey Holden, who plays sideways to Paul Murphy, who picks out Conor Fogarty in midfield, who stitches an equaliser. All because the Kilkenny goalkeeper didn't do what Kilkenny goalkeepers have always done.
“One of the biggest things I took away from my last year with Kilkenny,” says Herity, “was that after I told Brian that nobody would get the jersey back from him once he got into it, I did manage to get back in and stay back in for a couple of games during that championship.
“To be able to get my place back off him, considering how good he was and is, was something I was really happy about. We went head-to-head, it was really a serious battle to try and get the better of him. And the only thing I had over him was experience. He had everything else and what he didn’t have, he made sure he learned. He’s the best in the game now and when he’s finished, he’ll be one of the best ever.
“People nearly don’t notice him making saves anymore. In the Galway game in Salthill, he made four saves in the first half. Galway would have been gone 10 points up only for him. And I was thinking to myself, ‘They’re going to go to town on how good this lad is in the half-time analysis.’ And yet when they mentioned him on TV, it was nearly only a sidenote. He’s at that level now where unless he catches the ball four foot over the bar or makes a save in the very top corner, sure he’s only doing what’s expected of him.”
Only the best can make the exceptional look routine.