The Murphy conundrum: an all-round talent in the square?
Donegal face an ongoing challenge in making the most of their versatile captain’s rare talent
Michael Murphy: wherever he plays, he’s likely to be pivotal to Donegal’s hopes of beating Tyrone to book a place in the All-Ireland semi-final. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
The epiphany was, according to Keith Duggan on these pages, like a realisation that they had been using Jimi Hendrix as a roadie for the past couple of years. It was the sight of Donegal captain Michael Murphy rampaging at full forward in the quarter-final match against Roscommon.
After a number of seasons largely dedicated to playing out around the middle of the field, the switch was hailed as liberation. After a cautious summer, playing deep, the returns were impressive – 0-5 from play after averaging fewer than two over five championship matches.
This weekend, he turns 29. It has been to date a towering career since making his debut at the age of 17 in a McKenna Cup match against UUJ in Ballyshannon: captaining his county from the age of 21, winning All Stars, Ulster titles and most importantly, the 2012 All-Ireland, performing exceptionally on the International Rules stage and captaining Ireland for two series.
The great debate of recent times in relation to Donegal has been whether Murphy is better off in his optimal position on the edge of the square or because of the high dependency on others in that position, he is more wisely placed farther out where he is going to see more ball.
All things being equal, he starts at 14 because of his strength, ball winning and ability to score. Famously, in the third minute of the 2012 All-Ireland final he rose to claim a long, diagonal ball from Karl Lacey, brushed aside Kevin Keane and planted it into the net.
But as Donegal’s team aged, their needs changed, the captain was required elsewhere and the discussion began.
Professor Niall Moyna has worked with Murphy at various stages from his involvement as Ireland manager in the last underage International Rules series to the player’s student career in DCU where he won a Sigerson Cup medal.
He has no hesitation in saying where he believes the Glenswilly man’s best position is but his view is nuanced.
“Anywhere within 40 metres of the goal but when Donegal were playing 14 behind the ball, it would be ridiculous to leave Michael Murphy up there with four men around him.
That wasn’t going to work and so the thinking would have been that he’d get his hands on more ball out the field and the ball could be played through him and because he has such a good football intellect, they thought that they’d get more out of him.
“He remained the go-to player; look at the amount of ball that used to go through him on its way up front.
“The way football is being played now, those brilliant inside forwards are being negated with the ball coming in so slow and you probably won’t get what you think you’ll get from them, so you have to maximise what you can get.”
There is also the consideration that the space available against a demoralised Roscommon shouldn’t be confused with the likely environment in the first sudden-death championship match against Tyrone since 1994.
This weekend in Ballybofey sees the seventh championship encounter in eight years between the counties – Donegal winning four. Murphy has always been influential in the matches without being rampant; two goal assists in 2011, a series of ice-cold frees in one-score matches, like the three that defined the difference on the scoreboard in 2015.
His skills are extraordinarily adaptable, as Moyna recalled from the U-17 International Rules series in 2006.
“That was the group the Australians took Pearse Hanley from and they were raving about Michael at that stage. They saw something about him and he was by far the youngest guy on the squad. Even then he stood out. Obviously he had very good ball-winning capabilities and when you go off both sides, it makes a difference.
“For a big man he has such soft hands and wonderful feet, which is unusual. You saw from the TV programme [2017’s The Toughest Trade, which saw Murphy training with Clermont in France] when he took up rugby that he’s just one of those individuals who can pick up sports.”
For this weekend, Moyna doesn’t see the Roscommon gambit being repeated.
“Mickey Harte is not going to leave him one-on-one on the inside! That’s why you have to ask the question, are you wasting him there? Look, he’s the best player in the country to go in one-on-one like Kieran Donaghy used to do but that just ain’t going to happen any more.
“Declan Bonner [Donegal manager] has been more flexible in how he uses him and he knows he can’t afford him to be out of the game for any amount of time.”