Shaun Murphy: ‘I always felt I would call Ireland my home’
World championship runner-up was stopped everyday by Guards on his way to practice
Shaun Murphy ‘The Magician’ is feeling that old magic again. Photograph: Zac Goodwin/Getty Images
First the name. He understands how it goes. “Yeh Seán,” he says knowingly. Living in Dublin for three years and the spelling of Shaun Murphy comes with an anecdote explainer.
It’s trivial enough but you wouldn’t believe how excited people can get over letters, a ‘hau’ instead of an ‘ea’. Murphy takes it all like just another re-rack.
“My poor mother, bless her,” he says. “She just had a bit of a panic one day when she went to name me. My name should have been Seán.
“The story goes she went to register my birth and might have had a glass of wine on board. She had a bit of a twitch and spelled it the English way.”
Done. Murphy’s greater claim is as a World Champion. In 2005, he arrived as a virtual unknown to try and qualify for the biggest event in snooker. More than qualify, he blew off the doors, carving his way through the early matches and on to the main stage at The Crucible.
At 22-years-old he was about to become just the third qualifier to win the World Championship. Today ‘The Magician’ is feeling that old magic again. His three-frame defeat by Mark Selby in last Monday’s world final was competitively disappointing but it stirred a revival. He hadn’t seen that coming.
At 38-years-old, married to Elaine, a professor of chemical biology in UCD and with two kids, the life of a touring professional playing a ‘bit part role’ as he puts it, at the top end of the game had become comfortably familiar.
The light had not gone out entirely. But it had dimmed and Murphy had quietly fallen into a process of acceptance, where he talked up his game, while internal reservations were telling him a different story.
“Since my last appearance in a world final six years ago, I’ve done plenty of interviews where I’ve talked about winning,” he says. “It was ‘of course I can win another World Championship, of course I believe I can.’ I have to admit in the last few years that fire had gone out.
“I felt comfortable with my top 16 seeding. But my years of competing for the major championships were probably gone. What this last tournament has shown me is that I was wrong.
“I came up three frames short against Mark Selby. But I beat some very good players including the world number one [Judd Trump]. I certainly have more belief than I did a month ago. That’s for sure.”
Murphy is engagingly open about his life, unafraid to explain he has been mistaken in the past about certain things, whether it’s about a phase as a born-again Christian, his flattening career, or his father Tony, from whom he remains estranged but whose early guidance he acknowledges.
A professional golfer until injury intervened, Tony was the early influencer, who understood that mechanics in anything where a ball is struck is one of the keys to success.
It was he, who devised exercises when Murphy was younger, that were designed to teach him to cue dead straight. Today he’s recognised as having one of the straightest cue actions in the game.
My wife says I’m the biggest show off she’s ever met and snooker is merely my vehicle”
“My mum has some pictures of me playing on St Stephen’s Day when I was eight,” he says. “I look like a snooker player. In many ways I look the same as I do now. You can see he’s got the grip, he’s got the bridge and this and that.
“My father came up with all sorts of creations and inventions to generate a smooth cue action. We used to have an old match box with the tray taken out, stand the match box on its end and cue through it. Any deviation would knock the packet over.
“We had a steel tube. I had to cue through that. The better I got the smaller the tube got. We used to play with a blind fold on. Any movement and you were away. He knew what it took in golf standing there hour after hour after hour in the beating rain.
“But there were times when as a 13, 14, 15-year-old boy turning into a 16-year-old man I didn’t want to listen to him. I thought he was talking rubbish most of the time.
“It’s publicly known we are not on good terms. But on those issues, he was right and as a 38-year-old father of two, I look back now and go, yeh I didn’t like the things he said and the way he went about it. But you know what? The old fella was right.”
The year gone by has been tough and Murphy says it nearly broke him. He found a routine that adhered to the restrictions but it was tough.
Driving into the city from his house to the Stephen’s Green club, where he has a private room to practice, he was stopped by gardaí every day. Soon they got to know his car and the snooker player was waved through.
The complicated part was coming back to Dublin from the UK, where the professional tour is primarily played and the requirement of having to isolate.
The knock-on effect was that it limited practice between events. It wasn’t until October last year the restrictions were altered and the elite sportsman exemption came in. He continued to isolate when he returned to Dublin but was, crucially, able to practice.
“To be perfectly honest I don’t feel I navigated the year very well at all,” he says. “Only as much as I never actually gave up. But I got very close to it. It got very close to breaking me.
“The Stephen’s Green club is closed. I was allowed to go in through the back door and use my snooker room there because it matches the requirements of the government. It wasn’t that I had to sneak in and not tell anyone. I was stopped by the Guards regularly.
“It became a bit of a daily rigmarole. I had my letter ready, like this is who I am and were I’m going. Only that I ticked all of the boxes was I allowed to go in. We saw what trouble the GAA got into, so we knew that people were watching and it was important to do the right thing.”
Murphy moved to Dublin when he was married. It was a full circle for Elaine, who studied in UCD and after a stint in England returned there for research.
But he says that’s not the full story. He says he may have an English accent but it’s Irish DNA. Three of his grandparents were Irish and there’s family connections to Kilcock. He tells the story of a favourite uncle, since passed away, sending him out to find the family home.
Murphy calls him and hears the cackling on the other end of the phone. I can’t find the address, I’m in the middle of Kilcock the nephew says to further cackling from the uncle, who explains the family home was demolished and replaced by a round about.
“We’ve the family grave in Kilcock and we try to keep on top of that,” he says. “I always felt way before I met Elaine, before I had any visions of marrying an Irish person that one day, I would call Ireland my home.
“I was very strong on that. Whenever I came here, played tournaments I always felt a great affinity.”
There’s now down time before the tour starts in July. A chance he says to get value for his golf membership in Powerscourt. He hopes live audiences will be back for the UK Championship in the Autumn, that it’s a big part of snooker for him.
“My wife says I’m the biggest show off she’s ever met and snooker is merely my vehicle,” he says proudly. “Yeah, she’s probably right.”