In places as far apart as Ballyduff Upper and NUIG they weren’t surprised at all, as Michael Moynihan found out.
HE WAS the fair-haired youngster who always had a hurley and ball in his hand around the village. It didn’t take long for county teams to came calling for Stephen Molumphy. Starting at U-14, he’s represented Waterford at every grade.
But he never forgets home, Ballyduff Upper.
“He trains with us whenever he’s around, but he’ll also line out any time he’s available,” says John Jackson of Ballyduff, former Waterford county board PRO, “Not just in the county championship, but in challenge games and tournaments if he’s around.”
It’s not an idle boast. Last February Ballyduff edged out Kilmoyley of Kerry in the Munster club SHL final, played at Ballingarry, a long way from Croke Park on a summer Sunday. Molumphy was at midfield.
He and his brothers — Pat, Michael and Tom — backboned the club side which won the county intermediate title two years ago, bringing the red and white up to the senior grade, but beating Passage East in that final wasn’t the end of the road.
“Stephen and his brothers all made a huge contribution when we won the intermediate championship,” says Jackson. “We only lost narrowly to Ballinhassig of Cork in the Munster club IHC final — and they went on to win the All-Ireland.”
Noel Kelly of Erin’s Own was one of those county selectors who gave Molumphy his first break, with the county minors in 2001.
“Stephen played centre-forward or wing-forward for us. Ballyduff Upper had won a minor B championship that year and he would have been their best player.
“He played against the Cork minor team which had Setanta O hAilpín, and he would have been one of our better players.”
Kelly had taken notice of Molumphy when his club lost to Ballyduff Upper in that minor county final; the youngster’s willingness to go into contact had struck him.
“I noticed that he was always willing to take his opponent on, no matter how big or small they were. He’s not that tall, but he’s well made, he’s a broad-shouldered lad.
“My impression of him always was that he was a combative player, the physical battle didn’t bother him — I don’t mean dirty play, he’s very strong on the ball and would be well able to compete physically.
“He was a quiet enough youngster, but he was only 17 then, so he had another year on the county minor team. He’s very much a lad who’d get on with things himself — he’d get his head down and work.”
Kelly is at pains to point out that being quiet doesn’t necessarily mean lacking self-confidence: “Don’t forget Stephen’s an army officer. You’d want fair self-belief to go into that line of work.”
Part of an army officer’s training involves going to college, of course. Adrian Hassett, GAA officer at NUI Galway, is glad Molumphy chose to head west.
“Cadets have a choice between courses in Limerick, Dublin and Galway, and a lot of them come up to Galway to GMIT or NUIG. Stephen’s doing history and German up here.
“The first year he came into us his club had won the Waterford intermediate championship, so we didn’t see the best of him until after Christmas, when he was finished with his club.
“He’s naturally fit and very committed, but he’s not a player who announces himself. In games he always holds his own and drives the team on — he was a leader, even though he was a new player for us. In the Fitzgibbon last year, in Cork, we got to the semi-final against WIT and he was instrumental in getting us there.”
That was a Fitzgibbon tie to cherish. In a blood and thunder game in Cork’s Mardyke, Molumphy came up against a man who’s soldiered with him all this season, Waterford skipper Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh.
“That was a great game,” says Hassett, “But in a funny way it’s hard to pick out a stand-out performance from Stephen, because he’s a very consistent type of performer, that’s the way he plays. He’d remind me of Denis Irwin in that way — he gets the job done, gets it done well, but it’s only after a game that you realise just how well he’s done.
“This year we played UCC up in Daingean and it was the same thing — he was getting the job done nice and effectively, and the same against LIT in the Fitzgibbon Cup final. We lost that game but it wasn’t any fault of his. It’s when a game is over that people realise the influence he’s had and his importance to the team.”
Molumphy’s ability to cope with each new level of competition hasn’t surprised Hassett.
“Last year worked out well for him, Justin (McCarthy) was bringing him in for Waterford for a few minutes at a time for games in the league and so on. That experience helped him to take steps up the ladder, and every time he did so he was doing it comfortably.
“I’m not surprised with how well he’s done in the championship, given the ability he has. Things wouldn’t faze him and he’d certainly have the confidence to push.”
It’s commonplace for third-level competitions to be praised for sharpening young players, but Hassett’s argument is more convincing than most.
“I’m probably biased, but Fitzgibbon is a huge step in the development of a player, from minor and U21 up to senior.
“It exposes players to other counties and their style of play. Stephen came to us from Waterford and he’s mixed in with the Galway style of hurling and plenty of Clare lads. I’d like to think that’s helped him and brought him on a bit more.
“We’ve been lucky too, in that we’re getting to the tail-end of the Fitzgibbon, semi-finals and finals. It’s a high standard and Stephen has come into that, which has helped in turn to get him up to the standard of national hurling league play, and the championship as well. It’s been a stepping stone in his development.”
Molumphy faces a few months in Germany next year on an Erasmus scholarship, but Waterford fans needn’t worry; he’ll be back in time for the championship. And back for Ballyduff Upper.
“There’s huge pride in him around here,” says John Jackson.
“He’s nailed down a regular place on the county team and has improved with every game. He had an ankle injury last year so we didn’t see the best of him, now he’s blossoming. He’s a huge part of the county’s plans, and himself and Aidan Kearney are probably the finds of the season.
“He’s quiet and easy-going, but he’s captain of our senior team this season, for the second year in a row. He wouldn’t be a lad who gives long speeches in the dressing-room before games, just a few words.
“He leads by example.”