The height of summer

Nicholas Murphy has had mixed fortunes with Cork footballers. Now champions Kerry stand in the way of a second All-Ireland final appearance. He spoke to Edward Newman.

WHEN Nicholas Murphy turned up for his first training session with Carrigaline, all tall and wide-eyed, the football men had their set criteria. Midfield or full-forward for fellows his size it's how sport packages its players.

He hasn't left centre-field since at Carrig a club bursting a gut to make the break for senior ranks.

Eight years ago when they reached the county intermediate final against Clyda, they were no match for the street-wise attitude of the North Cork men.

Two years ago, older and under the guidance of an Armagh man against Ilen Rovers, the dream collapsed as west Cork's up and comers ran rough-shod over their strategy.

Strange for an Armagh man to let that happen. Michael Kirk liked what he saw in the club when he arrived for his first season in charge. He brought organisation and attitude. Carrig would no longer be the soft touch as some clubs perceived them.

Murphy notes Kirk's approach was different to the native values. Nicholas, as in every campaign, was the fulcrum around which this team revolved, but that day the screws fell off and Carrig just played in circles.

"Michael was involved with the Armagh seniors a good while back. He is very passionate about the game and he played inter-county with them at some stage. It was disappointing that day, but we'll keep striving to get there."

He's the consummate club man. On a night off from inter-county duties, he is down at the club or attending club games in any part of the county. "You wouldn't be involved with Cork if it wasn't for your club. We get on well in the club. I love the games whether league or championship I try to get to them all when I can."

Sometimes he takes 'the club is family' thing too seriously. Two years ago in a South East Cork JHC tie, while trying to ruck out a sliothar, his hand got caught between two hurleys and the top of his baby finger was severed. You think that stopped him?

He was back a couple of days later bandaged and shaken, but contributing something linesman, umpire, just being there.

"I missed the final," he recalls. "But I love hurling, it is a mighty game and it keeps my appetite for the big ball fresh. I was brought onto the Cork intermediate hurling panel for the final last season with James Masters and we ended up with All-Ireland medals. They say in Carrigaline it's the easiest one I'll ever get!"

This is his eighth year in the senior intercounty football ranks, and slowly, the incline is easing.

His early memories are not fond ones. Murphy was a sub against Clare in Ennis in 1997 when the Banner upset the form book. The dug out was the safest refuge from all the criticism. Carbery Rangers' Micheal O'Sullivan was catapulted into the big time, and in 1998 Murphy, a county minor and U21 of some distinction, was ready to partner him.

It was "a short year" Murphy recalls, with a defeat to Kerry ending their summers in those pre-qualifier days.

Twelve months later on a wet day in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, the duo delivered with O'Sullivan producing a man of the match performance in the Munster decider win over the Kingdom. Not that Murphy was out of the limelight.

"Micheal did the donkey work. I did the catching we knew what each other's game was. We complemented each other's game well and it worked for the whole year. I was only 21. I thought there were a good few years ahead of me getting to the latter stages, but it didn't work out that way. We've only got to one semi-final since 1999."

Under Tompkins the regime was to win possession and lay it off immediately. No soloing, no going forward, he was just a link-man. Murphy couldn't argue with that, though local club men believed it went against his natural ability to field and let the momentum carry him forward.

For all the critics of the system Cork reached the All-Ireland final that September. Despite a bright start, it was Meath who went on to capture Sam Maguire.

"When they missed a penalty we came down the field and Joe Kavanagh got a great goal. With a bit more experience we could have driven on from there, but we had an awful lot of wides in the first half.

"It was a disappointing day overall as we felt before the game we could have won it and should have won it. But it's history now."

Kerry were blending into a new force as the millennium turned. 2000 and 2001 passed by before a breakthrough again in 2002. A Munster title win over Tipperary and Cork found themselves in an All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry whom they conquered already in the provincial championship.

"Put it down to a bad day at the office. But this is a new team this year and you can't reflect too much on what happened in the past. We progressed well throughout the league, getting the proper results improving after every game."

And Murphy, too, has improved with every outing. A change of management has tweaked his game. During the league the Carrigdhoun man proved to be Cork's best and most consistent player, and the form carried through to the championship.

Weights programme, nutritionists and psychologists have been added to this year's preparations. Burning tracks through the sand dunes of Inchydoney, or running the hills of Macroom, have been ditched. It's become all scientific, but the professor of Cork football, Billy Morgan, is still the only voice amongst all the extras.

"When Larry was coach, we were going with what every other team was doing. The Clare hurlers really set the standards in '95 and '96. Tompkins was a driven man himself and fitness was a key thing with him. Thinks went well at the beginning, but with Billy it's a lot of football, and we've got some guidance from UCD with the fitness side of things Brian Mullins, Lisa O'Regan, have set the programmes.

"The weights is not something that can be done overnight. People ought not forget that in Larry's time we used do weights in the pre-season. This year the weights are developed throughout the season, we're doing it every night at training so it's not such a chore anymore."

Along with evolving attitudes to training, Murphy has found the midfield game change over the years.

"It gets very bunched at times. You see a lot of teams leaving two men inside and bringing a third man out to midfield and that will limit your influence in most games. Any time you catch or get a ball, you are going to be hit straight away unless you release it fast. It gets more difficult with half forwards covering back. Breaks are a big thing in football now around midfield there isn't too much clean catching in the majority of games."

HE has lived a parallel world alongside Darragh Ó Sé in midfield, but this year the Carrigaline man put in a storming second half in the Munster final to outplay the Gaeltacht man. Yet inside the forwards had difficulty breaking down Kerry's smothering defence.

"We felt afterwards there was more in us. If we were more clinical we could have won it, but games like that you learn from. And after beating Sligo and Galway, there's a bit of momentum there, but still it's a difficult task against Kerry at any stage, and closer to the line there a much harder team to beat."

That second half showing against Galway could prove the key to their season. "We weren't playing that bad at the beginning we just made a few mistakes. We got two points before half-time which were crucial to bring the lead back to four points. In the second half we hit a purple patch and scored 1-5 without reply and Galway ran out of steam.

"These are the games you want to play in. People will say we were unlucky to lose against Kerry in the Munster final, but at the same time we lost it and we have to forget about that. It's a new game, new pitch, new surroundings.

"Kerry will be used to it they're All-Ireland champions and used to playing in Croke Park. Beating Galway the last day meant we got a game under our belt and going up this weekend we'll relish the challenge."

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