Once upon many lifetimes ago, Donegal manager Brian McIver was having a couple of conversations back and forth with Mick Murphy about the possibility of his teenage son Michael, a pupil at St Eunan’s College, coming in for a few night’s training with the county squad.
Mick was happy as long as it was handled properly. Exams would be the priority. They’d promise to look after him if there was any rough stuff. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
And then he’s in for one of his first training sessions. He’s breaking through the middle. Paddy McDaid goes to block his run and… well…
“I mean,” says McIver now in recalled exasperation, “by the time we got Paddy scraped off the ground… I don’t think he played for the county thereafter. Michael walked over, no, trampled all over the top of him.”
Another night they were drilling the players in close-quarters contact. A few volunteers were required to hold tackle bags. Brian’s son Paul had played alongside some fairly big units with Ballinderry such as Niall McCusker and… well…
“On our way home he said, ‘Daddy, don’t you ever do that again. Don’t ever ask me to hold a tackle bag for Michael Murphy again. Every time he hit me, my whole body shook.’”
And that’s been the story of Michael Murphy. There was no bedding-in period. No staring at his hind quarters with idle chat of ‘when he fills out that frame…’
He arrived fully formed and has added and enhanced throughout his career to become part of the very fabric of Donegal; county Championship sponsor, All-Ireland winning captain, shop retailer, greatest ever player, public representative.
He’s been Hot-Shot Hamish-ing this gig now for 15 seasons and counting.
Come Sunday lunchtime, he will be playing some part in Donegal’s preliminary round tie with Down.
It will be the 163rd time he has had the Donegal jersey on his back. It’s inevitable that he will add to his 33 goals and 561 points over that period.
Already, he is 147 points ahead of his nearest challenger in the Donegal scoring chart, Colm McFadden.
He’ll be captain too, his 11th season as an inter-county captain, a record that will surely never be broken.
There is a famous picture that means a lot to a few people in Donegal. It’s taken just after the county beat Meath in the 2002 All-Ireland quarter-final. Their star forward of the time, Brendan Devenney, is leaning across the advertising hoardings swallowed up by the embrace of his sister Sharon.
His left hand however is holding the hand of a 12-year-old boy, beaming with delight. You couldn’t miss the child; Michael Murphy. He hardly ever missed a Donegal game. He never wanted anything else. As much as the Aussies pursued him to play AFL, they hadn’t a chance. Throughout the four years he spent in DCU, he couldn’t wait to finish his Friday lectures to get back up the road.
“He called me one day to tell me, ‘Make sure you watch The Sunday Game,’” recalls Devenney.
“And there it was, an item when he told the interviewer that I had been his hero. Imagine how that feels? It just comes full circle, because he has become a hero of mine since.”
The two actually got to play together on the same team for a season.
“Michael was just in the squad and we were playing some small-sided game and I ran into him. And I thought, ‘Jesus, he’s so solid.’ It was unexpected. It was like the time Ivan Drago hit Rocky’s gloves!”
If he was gifted with his genetics, then the work he put in on the skills side was another thing.
Gary McDaid was the Glenswilly minor manager in 2003. At the start of the summer, Murphy was just 13 but he wanted him to play against boys five years his senior, even up in Grade One.
They had a difficult game away to Glenfin one evening. Frank McGlynn was the main man in his final year of minors. Murphy was handed the corner-forward jersey and immediately took on the free-taking duties.
“We won 0-15 to 0-14 and Michael hit, I think, 10 points that night,” says McDaid.
“You knew then that this buck, if you weren’t sure, you then knew you were onto something special. He was able to hold his own and mentally he was very mature for his age, all the skills to go with it.
“Then to come in and hit a size 5 as a 14-year-old… I remember it was an oul’ wet night in Glenfin, the ball would have been heavy. But not a bother on him, kicking off the ground, stroking them over the bar.”
A year later he wanted him for the Under-21 team. But a 14-year-old playing against 21-year-olds? Too much.
Only, by the autumn of the following year again, he was making his senior debut. Glenswilly were eight points down at half-time against Tyrone’s Aghaloo in the Ulster Intermediate quarter-final when he came on for Darren McGinley.
Mark McCormack of Aghaloo is the first man who ever marked Murphy in senior football. Glenswilly won by a goal.
“I remember wondering why this guy didn’t start and someone said he’s only 16,” says McCormack.
“I also genuinely remember thinking, ‘fuck, this guy is fast’ and I would have been one of the quickest in our team.”
Glenswilly went on to the Ulster final and lost by a point to Inniskeen. But Murphy’s flare had been shot up into the air. The next thing happened was International honours when the Ireland Under-17 International Rules team gave him the call in 2006.
Managed by Professor Niall Moyna, one of the main coaches was the now Mayo GAA Games Manager Derek McNicholas. He already knew Michael Murphy senior as he had become the Donegal Games Manager. He told him he had, as McNicholas says, “a good young fella.” On wintry Saturday mornings, Murphy used to travel from Glenswilly to DCU for the training sessions. He had some serious contemporaries in Paddy Andrews, Kevin Nolan, Pierce Hanley, and Gary Brennan.
It was a hectic schedule with three tests in different venues as they inched west from Melbourne onto Adelaide and Perth. The Australians were all professionals too, having been drafted by clubs. But Ireland held their own and won a game.
“He would follow instruction perfectly in what was a very successful tour for us,” says McNicholas.
“A good person, very genuine and genuine with his efforts on the field. Very skilled, he had the frame and not the physique he has now. But you could see back then that this guy was going to go places. You could see the temperament for the big time.”
Back home, Murphy spent a final year in school as he was weighing up his options. Gary McDaid was teaching there and over the MacRory Cup team. Murphy was overage, but that wasn’t going to stop him trying to help them to win.
“He wanted to be involved so he came out to help me, would have taken the team for the warm up and helping on the sideline,” McDaid reveals.
“He always had a huge intertest in coaching from a young age and that’s the best demonstration of that.
“Not too many 18-year olds would be interested in helping to coach their peers, and fewer still could actually manage it.”
Around the club, McDaid can barely believe they have him. On his night off Donegal training he can land and help with any team. In his year out after finishing his studies at DCU, he used some of the time to create a player pathway in the club. He was involved in the design of training kit that Glenswilly players from nursery right up to seniors all use.
In what Jim Gavin might call the ‘maturity piece’, Murphy had it emotionally as well as physically from an early age.
“He was always wild mannerly. That came from his upbringing. His mother and father gave him a great grounding, especially his mum. Very quiet-spoken woman. Mick won’t like me saying all the manners came from her!” McDaid chuckles.
“But he had a good upbringing, on how to conduct yourself at school and so on.”
When he reached the Donegal dressing room, he walked in an instant leader.
“Reputations counted for nothing,” insists Brian McIver.
“And because he was such a good player and his attitude was so positive, nobody said to him, ‘Michael, you are too young to be taking on this role.’ Boys just accepted that this is how it had to be from now on.
“Almost single-handedly, he changed the attitude of preparation for games in Donegal, how you performed, looked after yourself and how you committed.”
Even at that stage, little phased him.
In just his third Championship game, Donegal were awarded a penalty in this first minute of a qualifier against Westmeath. Murphy stepped up to it and Gary Connaughton made the save.
“I am standing on the line going, ‘what did you do that for, McIver?’ A crazy decision, letting a young lad like that hit a penalty,” recalls McIver.
“And 10 minutes later he got a ball over on the other side of the pitch. He took about three big strides and he let fly for a point.”
It’s remarkable how much of a lightning rod he has become for opposition teams. While he keeps up a constant line of communication with the referee, it gets up the nose of some teams. In one of the league games this season, one squad player, not togged out but in the stands, sent a stream of invective and disgusting language towards Murphy throughout the game.
That’s before you get into the certain style of marking that opponents have employed. Even managers try to put him off his stride.
“The one thing you learn from very early on, you can forget about trying to intimidate Michael Murphy. That is totally crazy from the opposition’s point of view,” says McIver.
“The idea of sending somebody out to intimidate Michael Murphy is crazy stuff, it is never going to happen.
“Above all in the football side of it, he is a very grounded fella and that says so much about him. When the game is over, he shakes hands and moves on. That’s him.”
Post-game is where you witness an innate decency. He stands and talks to young lads and girls for as long as it takes. When Jim McGuinness once marvelled at how many text messages and notes he received after a big game, he asked Murphy if he replied to them all.
“Oh God aye, Jim,” he responded. “I couldn’t not.”
Like McGuinness, his education did not stop in his early 20s. He recently completed an MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology in Jordanstown, his thesis on attitudes and experiences of sports psychology among Gaelic players at club and county. He is a lynchpin of the new regime at Letterkenny IT, where he takes the football teams.
He will be a Donegal manager. Everything he does is geared for it, how he structures his life.
Will there ever be another player that towers over his own county? Or as the man McIver adds about his influence, ‘Not just in Donegal, but across the country?’ A final anecdote.
A couple of days after Donegal won the Ulster title in 2011, Murphy was bringing the Anglo-Celt Cup for its first visit to the Cúl camps. The first one they arrived at was St Eunan’s, where Sharon Devenney was coaching officer. She pointed up to a house in the distance to where her Granny, Polly Devenney lived, and would he mind terribly...
‘Surely,’ he said, and off they went. In came Sharon, Michael and the Anglo Celt through the door and Polly almost dropped.
Pictures were taken and in no time at all, other pictures of earnest-looking grandchildren with mortar boards, holding scrolls celebrating doctorates and degrees were taken down for the picture of Polly and Michael.
Brian McEniff, Brendan Devenney, Jim McGuinness, all rolled into one. With a dash of Daniel O’Donnell.
Donegal will never have another like him.