Paul Murphy: Attitude the key as this Cat keeps on purring
Luck helped corner back find his role for Kilkenny but retaining it has been down to himself
Paul Murphy: originally a corner-forward and then midfielder, he has carved out a permanent spot at corner-back for himself on Brian Cody’s Kilkenny team. Photograph: Inpho/Cathal Noonan
Paul Murphy is talking attitude. He’s talking about it in the earnest, foot-perfect way that serious intercounty players talk about it. “It’s so crucial,” he says. “One of the biggest thing you have to have as a player is being your own critic. Being able to see the signs around the things that go with winning.
“When you’re winning, people are so quick to praise you and that can make you weaker. The right attitude means having a word with yourself, coach yourself into the right direction and into the best way to lconduct yourself as a player.”
Fine. Okay. Right. All good stuff, obviously. All very important and po-faced and Kilkenny to the max. Until...
“Sure that’s all we are. A heap of lads walking around Nowlan Park talking to ourselves! It’s like a lunatic asylum. That’s why the gates are locked – it isn’t to keep people out, it’s to keep us from wandering off!”
This is more like it. Under the helmet, behind the faceguard, most hurlers are wise-asses. They just don’t get to tell you about it. Murphy is the best corner back in the country in five seasons playing for Kilkenny, he’s been an All Star four times and was nominated the other year. But he is other things too – an army man, a Springsteen man, a county championship footballer even.
In Kilkenny, the army barracks isn’t more than five minutes from Nowlan Park. Murphy lives up across the river by the Castle, no distance away. That would be a tight triangle for anyone else. Oppressive even. But he doesn’t think that way. A few years back, he went on a tour of duty to Chad in central Africa, which had a far greater effect on how he sees the world.
“It was incredible. It’s a country twice the size of France and I think there was something like 100km of tarred road in the whole country. It’s just desert, sub-Saharan. In the six months I was there, I think I spent €50 or €60. There’s nothing to spend it on. The only thing you’d be buying would be the odd can of coke in the evening. But basically there were no shops.
“It was eye-opening when you’d go into the refugee camps and you’d see 100,000 people there. You’d see children walking around that didn’t seem like they belonged to anyone. Obviously their parents were somewhere but there was a kind of a recklessness about the place, a helplessness. You can’t help coming back here and thinking we don’t have it so bad. As much as we want to give out about water charges and house taxes, we don’t have it too bad.”
Around that time, he was on the Kilkenny training panel. You wouldn’t say it was a thankless life but it wasn’t overly fulfilling either. He’d stand on the sideline in Nowlan Park and slot in during a training game if someone got injured. Thereabouts but not, in all honesty, There.
“When you’re first called in, you think, ‘Brilliant, I’m in now’. For a young lad, you’re just happy to be in the door. You’re able to go back to your friends and tell them what’s happening in training. But I suppose after a year or two of that you start going, ‘Well, what am I doing here? Am I part of it or am I not part of it?’ So it’s that point that you have to decide whether you’re going to do an extra bit more to become part of it or are you going to leave it and move on.
“I think I just got a better idea of the sort of small sacrifices you have to make. I remember when Brian [Cody] rang me in 2010 to come in do to the fitness tests for the 2011 panel, I actually had a trip away to London booked. Now, he didn’t put the gun to my head or anything, I just thought to myself, ‘Well surely this is one of the bigger sacrifices that will pay off.’ I cancelled the trip, went and did the fitness test and I don’t know what I got but I’m certain that stood to me. That was what clicked really, just this thought that if I pay my dues here, it will get paid back to me.”
He is a corner back more by happenstance than by vocation. He was a corner forward in his Tony Forristal days and started his under-21 year at midfield. During one training game Mickey Walsh, who was over the team, wanted to try a couple of new lads around the middle and told him to fill in at corner back for while.
“It wasn’t even a way of looking at what I could do at corner back or anything – it was more to get rid of me out of the way so they could look at somebody else in midfield. I said grand and I went back there, not really knowing what to do. So I just started attacking ball when it came in and started running at them then.
“I didn’t think I was doing anything particularly right. I was just running at the ball like I would in midfield. And Mickey just said, ‘That’s ideal. That’s exactly what we want. Do you fancy being a corner back?’ And ever since, that’s what I’ve been. I haven’t moved basically. Pure luck is all it is.”
If it was luck, it wouldn’t have held this long. Murphy’s winter of sacrifice in 2010 paid off so that when the spring turned to summer, he didn’t get the phonecall that he’d dreaded the previous two years.
“Both years, I got a call saying, ‘Thanks, but you’re not in our plans for the moment.’ In 2011, the phonecall never came. In fairness to them, it fairly keeps you on your toes. You’re half-waiting on that call and if you’re not in the team regularly, you just are never sure where you stand.
“They want you to question yourself. Could I be doing more? What do I have to do to get into the team? Part of me was thinking I had played well enough to be in their plans. But another part of me was looking at the players that were in the dressing-room and knowing that you couldn’t have massive qualms if one of them was picked ahead of you.
“But I got into the team after the league and it went so well after that. We won the All-Ireland and I got the All Star and whatever. The thing with Brian is that he was quick to remind you to remember why it went well. It wasn’t a big speech or anything but he did make the point that it had been a good year because I did certain things well and not to forget those things.
“So when I came back in 2012, I was eager not to lose it. I knew that in 2009, Michael Kavanagh was corner back and he got replaced by John Dalton in 2010, who got replaced by me in 2011. So I went into 2012 going, ‘Well, there’s nothing to say they won’t change the corner back again.’ I made a conscious effort to keep my feet grounded because it wouldn’t have taken much for them to give another lad a chance in that position.”
They haven’t yet. Cody wouldn’t be Cody if there wasn’t the permanent threat that he just might but, for here and for now, Murphy is a constant. He takes pride in what they do and who they are – fierce, questioning, relentless hurlers. Thinking hurlers, too, in case any of us were fooled into presuming otherwise.
“My favourite part of the 2014 final was a phase of play that lasted about a minute. We were attacking and Tipperary managed to get it back off us and I forget who it was but they hit Bonner Maher with it. Bonner got it and Jackie [Tyrrell] just hounded him. I can remember it clearly. We got one block, two blocks.
JJ [Delaney] went to hook at one point and Jackie actually got the block by tripping over JJ to get to it. Next thing Bubbles [O’Dwyer] got it and Conor Fogarty was out to him, throwing himself at it. It was just bodies - Tipperary bodies and Kilkenny bodies. It looked manic but there was also a technical greatness to it.
“Or in the Limerick match in 2014, Colin Fennelly got back to make a block on his own endline. Now, people might say that’s manic defending or that it’s a random thing with no structure. But it wasn’t manic. And there was structure to it.
“We didn’t have the ball, how were we going to get it back? Colin might be a forward but he’s not a forward once we don’t have the ball. It might all look a bit frantic, it might look crazy but when you peel it back, there is a perfect structure to it.”
Attitude, clearly, is just the start.