Farewell to a Rebel hero

Nicholas Murphy brought the curtain down on his distinguished inter-county career with his usual unfussy style, writes Michael Moynihan

Donegal are tough to play against but every team is beatable. They’ll tire you out and they work hard, but the fact that Cork played them this year would be a help next year if they met again. Only when you play against it do you realise how intense they are.

The text popped up on Nicholas Murphy’s phone under Daniel Goulding’s name: “You kept that one quiet.”

Goulding was referring to Murphy’s low-key exit from the inter-county scene last week, a quiet departure for a pillar of the team. The towering Carrigaline man had played midfield for Cork as far back as the 1999 All-Ireland final, after all.

“That was one disappointing game to lose,” says Murphy.

“My memory is we had a lot of wides, I don’t know if we ever looked like pushing on after Joe Kavanagh got a cracking goal. Graham Geraghty and Trevor Giles took over for the last quarter and with all the hype, the disappointment was huge at the finish.

“I was distraught, really, after it. I was only 21 and you’d think you’d be back, but you still want to be winning it. After winning a Munster and the league the same year, we thought there’d be progress.

“I was out with [Anthony] Lynchie and [John] Miskella for a few days afterwards and we were thinking, ‘we’ll be back next year’. The pressure had been on that year. The hurlers had won their All-Ireland two weeks beforehand, after all.

“I went to the homecoming for the hurlers and I remember thinking, ‘if it’s like this for us in two weeks’ time...’

“I don’t know if I was right or wrong to go to it, but I went along with a few buddies — I had to put one of them on my shoulders because he couldn’t see the stage — and I suppose we fed off the hurlers that way.”

Before long, they were ploughing their own furrow, and a fine Kerry side stood in their way much of the time: “In fairness to them they were better than us on a lot of occasions in the 2000s, in a lot of those games.

“I don’t think there was a huge niggling factor. It’d be something that fellas talked about in training — ‘we have to beat these’ — because we were meeting them so often.”

After a decade in red and white without a Celtic Cross, Murphy admits there were times he felt the silverware would never come.

“It’s always going to be in the back of your mind. We were there or thereabouts but kept falling at the last hurdle, or the second-last hurdle.

“The one thing was that the U21s were very successful that time with the likes of Ciarán Sheehan, Danny Goulding, Fintan Goold — they were 19, 20, and we knew they’d push on, though there are no guarantees.”

The year that changed was 2010. Murphy detected plenty of belief in the squad that year. It was needed.

“Any time we went behind that year we felt we’d bring it back, and the funny thing is we were behind in a lot of games. But the belief was there, the sense that ‘we can’t lose another one’.

“I always felt we had a great chance against Dublin in the semi-final, for instance, because we felt they’d crack at some stage. They hadn’t been in that position before and we had, and the bit of experience got us over the line.”

Murphy quantifies the benefit of experience: “You have to build that belief, to keep playing the way you believe is the right way to play — you have to be mentally strong enough to say, ‘it will come right at some stage’ and if you can keep that going for 70 minutes, you’d hope that you’ll break the opposition at some stage.”

When it comes to the final itself against Down, everyone remembers Daniel Goulding’s last-minute free, but Murphy spreads the credit a little wider: “Just before that Fintan [Goold] won a huge kick-out. If Down had won that, they were on the attack with a point in it, but because he won it we went up the field and eventually won the free.

“I was off at that stage but I was down on the field by then, waiting to run on. Probably got the board a fine, too. The feeling? It was relief more than anything.”

Murphy says the team felt they didn’t get the recognition they deserved following that win: “As a team that was frustrating, but it wasn’t something we could control. It certainly came up in conversations amongst lads, but that was something out of our control.

“We certainly felt we weren’t getting the recognition — we won four national leagues in a row, including a Division 2, and then the All-Ireland, in three finals out of four. If we’d dwelt on that, we wouldn’t move on, and we’d be thick-skinned enough about it.”

By contrast, Murphy gives Donegal, Cork’s conquerors last year, full credit for their All-Ireland title.

“To be fair to them, they have a system that’s tough to play against. When we played them we did well in the first half and it was probably the 10 or 15 minutes after half-time that they got ahead.

“And maybe we panicked a small bit then, which would be unlike us, but the system they play... much as you’d train for it, it’s not until you’re playing against it that you realise what it’s like.

“They’re tough to play against but every team is beatable. They’ll tire you out and they work hard, but the fact that Cork played them this year would be a help next year if they met again.

“This year was Cork’s first experience of that in the championship and there’d have been a feeling that their movement around the middle eight wasn’t something you’d experienced before. Only when you play against it do you realise how intense they are at it.

“And for all that, if Colm’s [O’Neill] shot had gone in...

“To be fair, they beat what was out there, and they deserved the All-Ireland. It’ll be tough for them because every team will be gunning for them, but they’ll be there or thereabouts.”

How would he break them down, then?

“One thing in the way they play is that they take an awful lot of chances. They can be very exposed at the back if you can break them down in the right places.

“Mayo did that to an extent in the All-Ireland final; if you break them down around half-forward and midfield, then you’d find that some of their other players are gone ahead of the ball to create the big numbers in support of other players. That exposes them at the back.”

The chat meanders on. He’s keen to give credit to Conor Counihan and his selectors for their understanding with his back problems over the years, back problems which have contributed to his departure. He’ll pitch in with Carrigaline, though. And his wife Gillian will see a lot more of him.

He’ll go and see Cork as often as work with National Flooring Limited allows. It’ll be strange not being involved after 16 years, but he’s looking forward to it.

“It’s been a huge part of my life, my whole adult life if you like. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

“I’d have liked to win more but there’s plenty fellas never won one, even. Sin a bhfuil.”

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