Then, one day, manager Justin McCarthy asked him to go in corner-back, and Murphy said why not.
It’s worked well for Waterford — Murphy’s growing reputation topped out when he trusted his instincts in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
“I like to play from the front because when good forwards have the ball it’s hard to get it back off them. The best chance is to go from the front, and Justin has given me the confidence to do that. If you take a chance you have two chances — you’ve a chance you’ll get the ball and you might get the break. That’s how I live at corner-back.”
His instincts were right. Waterford’s championship year began with a defeat against Tipperary in the Munster championship; they got back on track in the qualifiers, then defeated the Premier in their All-Ireland quarter-final rematch, when Murphy picked up Eoin Kelly from the start.
“The first match was a big game for us, we were waiting for that all year to open up, and it was odd for us because we were maybe going in as favourites. Tipp were written off a bit, they had new management, but underdogs have a habit of jumping up to bite you, and that’s what happened. It’s probably a negative for us that we don’t do as well when we’re favourites, but it’s something we’re going to address.
“For the second game the pressure was off me. It’s amazing — from my point of view, when you’re on the best hurler on the field, if he scores four or five points people could be patting you on the back and saying you did a great job. If you were on an unknown and he scores four or five he’s probably going to be man of the match.
“I’d prefer to mark the best hurler on the field, because the pressure is on them really, if you can keep them to a point or two that’s grand. It just worked out for me that day.”
Of course, Murphy points to some tasty opposition in training as well: “They’re definitely as good as anything you’re coming up against — John (Mullane) or Dan (Shanahan) could destroy you any night at training, but it can be a bad thing because you’d get used to the way they play, and when you’re on a new player you might get caught out. But at training . . . Shanahan would destroy you in the air, Mullane would destroy you on the ground, you wouldn’t know which way to turn!”
Then came the All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Cork, which Murphy agrees was a particularly hard defeat to swallow.
“We felt really good going into that match, the team spirit was great, and you could nearly smell the All-Ireland final, it was that close. Since then I’ve spoken to grown men, serious GAA men, who didn’t want to speak to anyone that Sunday night and turned their phones off all day Monday. It was real heartache — it wasn’t that they were giving out, saying we were useless, it was just a sickening day to be so close.
“It’s hard to believe that a full year comes down to a few inches. Ken (McGrath) had put over a great free in the second half and he had the confidence to go for it, and how close he came. And if we got the draw, God knows what would have happened. Gut-wrenching stuff, but it only eggs you on.
“You have to be optimistic, a couple of people have said we’re like Munster, trying and trying, and they got there in the end.”
He watched the final and admired Kilkenny’s performance. “I suppose Kilkenny were waiting in the long grass for a couple of years, Brian Cody had the homework done, and Kilkenny have a relentless spirit that’s very hard to instil in 15 players. Cork never got a run going for ten minutes or so to get on top.”
The year had one final twist in it, however. When Murphy received his statuette his club rejoiced.
“The All-Star was a great boost, I play with Shamrocks in Knockanore, and when I came down home on Saturday after the function and they were all waiting for me, it was fantastic. They’re always very good to me, they never give out if I’m away with the county and they’ve always been behind me.
“From an early age, Liam Ahern and Billy O’Keeffe looked after me, and they’re still minding the underage section down there. James Tobin is the chairman for 20 years, and when they had a night for me, the top table had James, Ann O’Keeffe the secretary, who’s my aunt, and Johnny Baldwin.
“Between them they have over 100 years’ service to the GAA and the Shamrocks. They’re the heroes of it all.”
Murphy laughs when asked if he gets recognised. “I’m unknown and I’m happy enough with that,” he says, but a few neighbours would probably pick him out. The Abbott Laboratories hospital rep lives in Cork, after all — Ballinacurra, just outside Midleton.
“I’d say I’m living within a half-mile radius of Donal Óg Cusack, Joe Deane and Diarmuid O’Sullivan. There’s no panic. I’d have the slagging with the best of them, but it’s only a bit of banter.”
Until next year, and the newest instalment of Cork-Waterford, when Eoin Murphy won’t be quite as unknown as he was.
YOU know how it is. You play your heart out, the team comes up short, and the following day in work some smart aleck starts rising you.
Have some sympathy for Cork hurling corner-back Brian Murphy, then. The two smart alecks in his office have seven All-Ireland medals between them and captained Cork in hurling and football All-Ireland finals. That’s the price you pay for sharing an office with Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Dinny Allen in Southern Business Finance. Presumably, though, they take it easy on a fellow-worker.
“I get an unbelievable slagging off the two of them,” says Murphy. “And, of course, I have to take it on board because of who’s saying it. They know the time to mock you and the time not to, in fairness. They’re great with time off because they understand the commitment that’s needed and if I ever have any questions they’re very good. I’d prefer not to dwell on a game the week beforehand anyway, but the Monday afterwards they’d both have a lot to say.”
Murphy’s introduction to the bright lights was bittersweet. When Cork made it to the 2004 All-Ireland final a migraine saw him substituted before half-time.
“I got a belt about ten minutes into the game and I started to go downhill after that — you’d be wishing it wasn’t coming on, but after 25 minutes I knew that if I played on I’d be a minus to the team rather than a plus, my vision was getting so blurred. It wasn’t the best day in the world — I had to go into the dressing room and take Panadol — and I’ve never watched the game fully since.
“I was delighted for the boys, but I couldn’t go through the whole thing again.”
Last year was better: Murphy excelled all through, and in the All-Ireland final he picked Damien Hayes’ pocket on the sideline to set up Jerry O’Connor for a crucial second-half point, one green helmet to another.
At club level, the CIT graduate is the sharpest weapon in Bride Rovers’ armoury: the Bartlemy-Rathcormac outfit have had a meteoric rise from junior B, and Brian followed older brothers James, Padraig and Barry as they helped to drag the club upwards.
“I remember going to the East Cork Junior B hurling final in 1993, when Bride Rovers played Midleton’s third team, and ten years later we played their first team in the senior championship. We had a great rise in that ten years, the work at underage came through by the likes of Paudie Collins, John Joe Carey and Terry Broderick. It’s the same core of fellas that have come through together, though Jack Russell (trainer) probably brought in the extra step we needed to get up to senior.”
Murphy often figures up front for the Rovers — “It’s a change of scenery, we often try to throw the opposition with it as a tactic” — but for intercounty he prowls the corner, even if it’s a relatively recent move.
“I never played in the full-back line until I played in the Harty Cup for St Colman’s, then I got stuck with this job. It’s great just to be on the Cork team — you’d prefer to be out half-back or midfield and hitting more ball, but someone has to play corner-back.
“With Cork we monitor how the opposition play, particularly out the field. Any corner-back will tell you that if the right ball is coming in you’re up against it anyway, so you’re relying on your half-forwards and midfield to decide how hard your day is going to be in the full-back line. We have unbelievable workers playing there and that makes our job a lot easier. Plus, Donal Óg wouldn’t let you relax, anyway!”
MURPHY picked up an All-Star award last month after a summer with the likes of Eoin Kelly and John Mullane for company. He’s pragmatic about the award (” It’s obviously nice to get it, but as Babs said on the night, everyone remembers the team that won the All-Ireland, while no-one remembers the All-Stars, so you can’t let it go to your head”). The All-Ireland defeat is more deeply felt.
“The better team won on the day, I’d have no complaints there. A lot of things we felt we should have been in control of we weren’t in control of, that was the most disappointing aspect of it.
“If we’re being absolutely honest, the three-in-a-row was being talked about among the players, naturally enough. We were aiming for it, we were geared up to win but I suppose we left it back in Cork, we didn’t bring it with us anyway. It was hard to train all year and then play the worst 70 minutes of the season.”
Blame was dished out liberally in the aftermath of Cork’s defeat, with plenty of fingers being pointed at the side’s tactics. Murphy doesn’t hold with the criticism.
“You have to play to the plan that’s agreed, among the players that’s an unwritten rule. We practise what we practise in training to play it the same way in a match. Some people feel we did too much hand-passing this year but I think we probably didn’t do enough in the final, we probably should have drawn Kilkenny players towards us more when we had the ball, but you can’t go back on those things now.
“Donal Óg is the perfect orchestrator for the game plan — he hears more than anyone else what the people on the terraces are saying about the plan, but he’s strong enough to stick to his guns and do what we’ve planned.”
The defender in Murphy comes out in chat about the best forward he’s faced; Tipperary’s Eoin Kelly figures largely but the Cork star prefers to dwell on his top backline: “For me the best full-back line I’ve ever seen was the Cork full-backs in ‘99 — Fergal Ryan, Diarmuid O’Sullivan and John Browne, out first to every ball and never beaten.”
The future is also dealt with. If Murphy is the yardstick, appetite won’t be an issue for Cork in next year’s championship. “Everyone still wants to win the All-Ireland, no-one is going in with a disruptive attitude. The vast majority of the panel is still going to be there, they’ll have the same drive and determination.”