The standard bearer

JULIET MURPHY casts her eyes upwards and her mind back, trying to recall when it was.

She’s been asked when was the last time she treated herself to a dessert, what with her preparation levels renowned in ladies football circles as being McGeeney-like. Finally she locates the answer, volunteering without a hint of self-promotion or self-consciousness either, just as a matter of fact — July. Her brother got married back in July and she indulged herself that day all right.

Her club-mate Mary O’Connor knows all about winning; between camogie and football, O’Connor won 10 senior All-Irelands with Cork before her retirement early this year. O’Connor knows too all about what Eamonn Ryan calls “winning choices”, the Cork coach having an abhorrence for the term “sacrifices”. A few years back O’Connor had a brother getting married as well, but because Cork had a challenge match the following day, she was at home in bed by 11.30pm. It didn’t matter to O’Connor that she was only playing a challenge game; she was still playing for Cork and with that honour came responsibility.

Yet for all the winning and winning choices she’s seen and made, she reckons Juliet Murphy operates on a higher plane again. Not once in over 13 years playing for Cork has Murphy missed a game of any description through injury.

“That doesn’t just happen,” says O’Connor, “it’s because she looks after her body, her rest, her recovery. She puts in the time doing her weights, her core, her stretching and flexibility.”

She can’t remember Murphy ever being booked, let alone sent off, either; contrary to what the increasingly-popular win-at-all-costs-sportsmanship-is-for-wimps school thinks, there is such a thing as the spirit of the game and Murphy is one of its great guardians, the sport’s equivalent of Seán Óg Ó hAilpín.

“I’ve never seen her let herself down on the pitch,” says O’Connor, “or off it for that matter. Just her humility, her manner, the way she carries herself, she’s an ambassador for the sport and sport itself.”

In fact, O’Connor would go so far as to say she can’t recall Murphy ever having a bad game for club or county.

“Juliet’s ability to perform every day is unbelievable. She’s easily the most consistent player of her generation and I would say the best player of her generation too. She’s certainly been Cork’s most influential player and I would argue the best Cork ladies footballer ever. I think anyone who has played with the team would say she’s the heartbeat of the team. She’s just the whole package.”

Often through the years O’Connor would find herself coming onto the pitch about 20 minutes before training, just to get a few shots in, and find that Murphy had been there the full hour beforehand, practicing away on her frees. Murphy’s game is founded on her athleticism and dynamism, winning ball in the air or getting onto it around her own 40 and transferring it to the opposition’s 40. But there’s a finesse to the midfielder’s game too, which her free-taking and score-taking rate underlines, even if it is rooted in the toil and the hours she’s invested in those finer things.

Throw in the fact Murphy has played basketball for the national senior team and you’re probably talking about the most impressive and complete competitor currently operating in Irish women’s team sport.

And yet the sad truth is she’s barely recognised by the wider GAA family in her own county.

One of Murphy’s fondest childhood memories is winning a Sciath na Scol final down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, playing alongside the boys for the local primary school. She was 10.

Twenty-one years later; four All Stars, six league medals and five All-Irelands later, three of them as captain, and she’s yet to play another game in the bowl down by the marina. She’s played in Páirc Uí Rinn maybe three times, certainly no more than five.

She’s noticed that in basketball, the women’s game is regularly twinned with the men’s game, with every men’s national final preceded by the women’s decider. In all her time playing for Cork, she can only recall being part of one double bill, when they played after the county U21s men’s side one day.

Her father has noticed all right that Frank Murphy has always had the grace to attend every one of their All-Ireland homecomings but otherwise Frank’s world and hers don’t mix. The team play nearly all their games in the grounds of CIT. They train in The Farm, grounds belonging to the city’s other college, UCC. It’s those colleges, not Cork GAA, that they deal with.

So when you ask her does she feel like an equal citizen of the GAA, she tells you in that quiet spoken but direct way of hers that, no, she probably doesn’t.

“I’ve never set foot in Páirc Uí Chaoimh as a player since that Sciath na Scol final. Páirc Uí Rinn is a fantastic facility but the reality is the home of Cork football is Páirc Uí Chaoimh, down by the Lee. You’re reared on going down there as a kid to Cork-Kerry games; when you think of Cork football, it’s Páirc Uí Chaoimh you think of. So you ask me do I feel part of the mainstream GAA family? Not really. I train in a GAA field at home in our club all right but it’s our club that provides that.”

Sisters could be doing more for themselves too. Today is the sport’s shop window with all three finals being played in one of the best stadiums in all Europe, but it’s very much an outlier. In this All-Ireland campaign Cork have played key games where there were no seating facilities for spectators.

Before last month’s All-Ireland semi-final against Laois in Cashel the teams stood for the national anthem only for there to be no national anthem played. Then after the game the showers weren’t working. The LGFA’s mission statement is “to be a modern, innovative and well-run organisation that provides a quality service and support system for all members” but its most outstanding player feels it has a long way to go to achieve all that.

“It’s difficult to understand. In my view Cashel wasn’t a suitable venue for a game of that stature. I mean, I’ll get over not having a shower after a game, we all will, we’re not prima donnas here. But it does make you wonder, how important and valued is what you do when those kind of things aren’t in place?

“I’m probably being controversial here but I don’t think our sport is rooted enough. TG4 have been terrific for the sport and increased its profile but the reality is there’s only real profile if you get to an All-Ireland final.”

That September showcase though makes it all worthwhile. Coming up through the ranks, playing in Croke Park was never on her radar. Even when she watched her first All-Ireland final on television 10 years ago and saw Mary Kirwan kick that dramatic last-second free to clinch the title for Laois, Murphy could never see herself up there. Cork were at the bottom.

“There was no sense of pride playing for Cork,” recalled Murphy.

“We were losing all the time, getting hammered by the likes of Kerry and Waterford. You’d be selective about going training because it would be so depressing turning up and maybe having only eight or nine players there.

“We’d go down to Killarney and meet up for the first time in the dressing room, not knowing whether we’d be wearing red or white jerseys. Our last training session before one Munster final was a challenge game against my own club and the club ended up giving Cork five players to make up the numbers. Another time we went down to play Waterford in Fraher Field in the championship and two girls who had gone down as spectators were asked to tog off and ended up taking part in the game. There was no unity. I wouldn’t sit beside Deirdre O’Reilly because I was from Donoughmore and she was from Rockchapel.”

These days they trust each other so much, O’Reilly will do Murphy’s hair before functions. For that they thank Eamonn Ryan. Eamonn transformed everything. He tutored them, bonded them, guided them. The way he saw it, they weren’t there to serve him; he was there to serve them, so he’d ask them what they thought. When did they want to train? Did that drill work? By including them, he became one of them.

“He’s another member of the team,” says Murphy.

“There’s no him and us; there’s us. He’s still been able to maintain that distance which is a hard thing for a coach to do, but he’s done it.”

They know the winning choices he’s made for the cause. He’s cancelled holidays, missed weddings, even family christenings, just because the team were training.

One weekend the team were training in Portlaoise on their way up to taking in the All-Ireland camogie final featuring some of the team’s dual stars and Ryan called them in. Murphy will never forget it. “He wasn’t happy with the way we were doing the blockdown, so he asked Angela [Walsh] to kick the ball. Next thing he dived full stretch on the ground and blocked down the ball. It was just one of those Jesus Christ moments. I mean, there we were, only standing about and half-heartedly tackling and defending and here was a man was in his late 60s still willing to dive on a ball.”

Murphy herself has never been afraid to get her knees dirty. To paraphrase her hero, Michael Jordan, her game has been based on fire, not flash. When she first showed up at national underage basketball trials, the blue-chip city slickers mocked the country girl up from Donoughmore with her big ugly black football socks. Even when she made that squad one of the assistant coaches told her she’d barely made the cut, she had been fortunate. Those words wounded her and they drove her.

“I remember thinking, ‘You didn’t deserve this, you really need to work harder to justify this’. After that I just lived in the hall, doing all those lay ups and shots around the key. I’ve always felt I’ve needed to try harder than anyone else to get anywhere, that I needed to do more than anyone else. I don’t think I ever felt I was good enough, so if you never feel you’re good enough you’re always going to try and be good enough.”

She knows that attitude has hurt her as well as helped her. Before Ryan teamed up with Cork, she’d often run around Donoughmore at night, on top of all the workouts she’d get in at the gym where she worked. How helpful really was it for a footballer or a basketball player to run for five miles at the same pace? Even when she began winning All-Irelands in Croke Park, she’d be too tough on herself.

“I think what’s probably made the biggest impact on my game in recent years is that I’m now less negative on myself as I play.

“If I made a mistake before, Jesus, the things I’d be saying to myself in my head! ‘What the hell did you do that for?’ Then you’d get yourself all worked up for the next ball. I know the next ball is supposed to be the most important but if you miss that one, where the hell do you go then?”

A couple of years ago it came to a head, this fight in her head. She was taking a diploma in life and executive coaching and one of the course tutors talked about the idea of everyone’s inner voice saboteur. They were to identify theirs, what it said, what it looked like; they were even to give it a name.

Murphy recognised the saboteur was herself. It was such a big part of her, she even called it Mise. These days Mise says nothing. Mise is quiet, her mind is quiet. They simply get out of the way and just let Juliet play.

“There’s still a part of me that is grateful to Mise,” she smiles.

“For years he drove me. But there’s a fine line between being a help and being a hindrance as well. I think it’s only now I’m getting the balance right.”

She has a lot more going on than football. A few years ago she went back to college to become a primary school teacher. It was hard work, especially brushing up on her Gaeilge to the required level, but hard work was something she’d never shirked and thanks to a series of grinds from her old friend and coach, one Eamonn Ryan, she got it. These days she teaches in Crosshaven but as well as that she manages a health and fitness club, which, such is her name and standing in Cork, is simply known as the Juliet Murphy Health and Fitness Club.

She’s never been more passionate about her football though than this year and she’s never been more driven because of last year. For the first time since 2005 she wasn’t part of All-Ireland final day and it ripped her up. She was asked to do some radio work but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She couldn’t even bring herself to watch it on TV. Instead that day she put on her iPod and walked aimlessly around the streets and shops of Cork, lost in her own thoughts.

“I just wanted to be alone that day. I almost wanted to feel the pain of not being there. I’d say it wasn’t so much a hurt but a guilt or a remorse or an anger that I was feeling because we hadn’t put in the effort.”

Even before Tyrone took them down in that All Ireland quarter-final, she sensed things weren’t quite right.

“I just knew it. I said to my father earlier in the summer, ‘We’re not going to win the All Ireland this year’. There’s a very thin line between winning and losing and there’s a very thin line between being totally prepared and not and last year we hadn’t prepared right. I didn’t prepare right. I was carrying a bit of an injury but after training instead of waiting around for 45 minutes for an ice bath or some physio, I had to be somewhere else so I’d get into my car and go.

“This year everything else has been parked aside. You don’t make arrangements for after training or else you make arrangements to be at training early. Football is prioritised, football is the priority. There are people out in The Farm by 5.30 for 7pm training for a rub or to practice because that’s what it takes.

“It all comes down to lifestyle choices. What time are you getting to bed? Are you deciding only to get a good sleep the night before the game or are you going to sleep well for the whole week? What sets you apart in this game is how far extra are you willing to go to get better. This year we might not beat Monaghan but at least we can look back and say we gave it everything. At least we’ll have that peace of mind.”

And with it, maybe an overdue dessert tomorrow night.

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