Shayne Murphy: The Corkman who helped guide Scotland to the Euros

Shayne Murphy played for Cork City’s youth team and dreamed of a Premier League career. He got there, but his calling was off the field, guiding with science the growth of stars from Phil Foden to Steph Houghton. Now he’ll bring an Irish presence to the European Championships later this summer
Shayne Murphy: The Corkman who helped guide Scotland to the Euros

Shayne Murphy supervising training with Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez. Murphy recently took a step back from City to form his own consultancy business, SDM Performance, but City remain one of his clients.

The name Shayne Murphy won’t be familiar to you but some of those of the people who rave about his work will.

Jadon Sancho may now be one of the most coveted talents in world football, expected to leave Dortmund sometime this year for over €100m, but he hasn’t forgotten who used to oversee his athletic development back when he was in his early teens at Man City; when Murphy was recently launching his own consultancy, Sancho offered a glowing testimonial, proclaiming the Corkman as a “thorough coach” that he’d “highly recommend”.

Phil Foden is another prodigious 20-year-old England international who remains grateful for how Murphy helped him, all the way from when he was just 13 to breaking into Pep Guardiola’s first team; after Foden made his senior debut on a preseason tour of America, he signed his jersey and gifted it to Murphy, the sport scientist he’d still commend “to anyone”.

The list goes on. Jill Scott and Steph Houghton, England internationals each with MBEs and over 100 caps to their name and serial FA Women’s Cup winners with City; for them the 33-year-old Murphy is “an unbelievable professional” and “an even better person” who pushed their game “to another level”. Michel Salgado, a Champions League winner with Real Madrid, who can still recall how the “excellent” Murphy helped prolong his career at Blackburn Rovers while Murphy was only starting out in his.

And when Murphy next goes to update his website, he could call on some other big-hitters, such as Andrew Robertson, Scott McTominay, and Steve Clarke if he liked.

Last November, while Ireland experienced heartbreak in losing out on penalties in a Euro 2020 playoff, Scotland prevailed in theirs, sending the country to its first major tournament since 1998. Coincidence or not, their breakthrough has happened to occur during Murphy’s first campaign as the team’s lead sports scientist, ensuring an Irish presence in that tournament.

In these times Murphy is now able to work from his wife’s native county of Meath and invite the world to come to him, but back when he was starting out in this game he knew there was only one place for him to be, and it wasn’t here.

Ever since he was a kid growing up in Rathcormac, he wanted to carve out a career in English professional football.

For a while the dream would have been to make it as a player, even if, growing up in a GAA-mad village, he only formally took up the sport when he went to secondary school in Fermoy.

He’d prove to be handy enough to feature at central midfield on a Cork City squad that won the FAI Youth Cup but by then he was realistic enough to recognise his limitations. If anything he was overly-pragmatic; while he’d had thoughts about doing sports science, it seemed too hard a field to break into, so he took a course in Limerick in teaching and Irish before he read an article that revived the kid within.

It was on a sports scientist working with Glasgow Celtic and the guy’s job seemed a lot more fascinating than Murphy’s course, so he changed tracks and applied for sports science in UL.

Back then in the mid-noughties the discipline was still in its infancy in this country. There was no Institute of Sport. Rugby was beginning to explore its possibilities but there was just the national team and the four provinces. To work, you’d have to travel. Numerous students and graduates had gravitated to the AFL but it was another major league that Murphy had his eyes on. “I wanted the Premier League. That’s where I wanted to work.”

So he took a leaf out of the book of a fellow Corkman, having heard a teenaged Roy Keane once wrote to every club bar one in the old football league, informing them he had boots and would travel just to get a trial.

Keane only heard back from a handful of those 91 clubs and received no offer. In Murphy’s case, he emailed 72 clubs: will gladly clean all your boots and travel just to do my third-year placement with you. Only two bothered to get back to him, Everton and Cardiff City, but Cardiff were willing to take him on.

Before he knew it, he was inside the first team’s dressing room at half-time, having coded clips prepared for manager Dave Jones to show the likes of Mark Kennedy and Stephen McPhail.

It was the season before the club would improbably reach the FA Cup final with a prodigious rookie called Aaron Ramsey, but the same one in which Michael Chopra was banging in goals for fun, triggering one Roy Keane to splash out £5m to bring him to Sunderland.

Murphy was in his element. While he was originally tasked with performance analysis, he created enough leeway for himself to practise a wider range of sports science support.

“A lot in football goes by a hierarchical model. At the top you have the manager, then the players, the rest of the staff and then someone like me at the bottom. And I felt that right away. But I knew what I was trying to achieve and it made me a lot hungrier for work. I’d see little things in players, especially young academy players and how far off they were, and think, ‘He needs a development plan.’ That lit a spark in me. And that spark is still with me today.”

 Shayne Murphy celebrating Euro playoff success with Scotland manager Steve Clarke.

Shayne Murphy celebrating Euro playoff success with Scotland manager Steve Clarke.

After going back to Limerick to finish his degree, he got a call from Blackburn Rovers, based on a tip-off and recommendation from Derek McCarthy, the former Limerick FC player who had done his sports science placement there. It was back when Big Sam was in town and Murphy found Allardyce very progressive in his appreciation for sports science, though it was a time the discipline itself was still trying to find its feet and place.

“Sports science has made a lot of mistakes — and learned quickly from it,” he says in his measured, understated but convivial way. “The best thing it ever did was recognise and remember where it sits in the picture. Too often it tried to run the show. It’s not about that. It’s about making the sport and athletes better, faster, more robust to play the sport.”

Sometimes it could be too clever. You may have heard the one about a GAA team a week out from an All-Ireland final back in the noughties who had their AvB session pulled because the coaching staff conducted a urine sample that showed most of the players were dehydrated.

The team were duly beaten convincingly the next week. Murphy wasn’t familiar with that story but he’s familiar with ones like it from his own sport. That internal game should have gone ahead in some form at some stage. Trying to be too clever is just dumb.

There was a stage where we relied too much on numbers; sports science went from monitoring to making decisions and the technology was telling you whether a player could train or not. That’s too far for me. We’re dealing with human beings, not robots.

“When soccer started back up [after the first lockdown], all the talk was about when Aston Villa and Sheffield United were playing and in the last minute the ball went over the line but the goal was disallowed because the referee’s watch didn’t go off. But at what point do you take what you saw with your own eyes into account rather than what the technology has told you? Sports science made the same mistake. Instead of looking at what the athlete was telling us, we were more going by what the numbers were telling us.

“At the end of the day, it’s the manager’s job and the players’ careers that are on the line, so you should only make recommendations: Look, going on this, this is what is best for you. There is no sports science mechanism that will guarantee you a player will break down. But we do know that if a certain player has done two days of intensive running and is down to do the same tomorrow and that he’s reporting that he’s sleeping poorly, that needs to be fed up [to the player and manager].”

For the most part though, managers and coaches welcomed that information. At Blackburn, Murphy collaborated extensively with the club’s U23 coach Gary Bowyer who’d want his input into helping design his training sessions. But after three years at Ewood Park, he got a call from Anfield, or rather Melwood.

Liverpool, at the tail-end of Kenny Dalglish’s second stint as manager, wanted him as part of their academy’s sports science support. Soon he was mixing and working with everyone from Trent Alexander-Arnold and Curtis Jones with the U14s to Raheem Sterling who was going back and forth between the U23s and first team.

“Straight away, and no disrespect to Blackburn which was a hell of a club in its own right, you could feel it was a level up. There were more coaches, more support staff, more expectation, more famous people watching training, radiating ‘this means something’. You’d go to the U23s and the manager and Stevie Gerrard and Jamie Carragher would be there to see who might be the next big thing. They say you learn the most in the first 100 days of any job and Liverpool was like that for me.”

Within a year though he got an offer he just couldn’t refuse. Manchester City had just established themselves as having the leading first team in the country but wanted the same to be said of their academy. They had an extremely talented U14 group coming through. Murphy could help prepare the club’s future for the future.

“They’d won everything in their age group but the thinking was: Right, this is 2013 but what’s elite football going to look like in five or 10 years? It’s going to be quicker and more demanding. We’ve to prepare these U14s for that first-team debut.

“So that meant sitting at a round table, involving everyone and taking in a range of factors. With U14s you could have some lads who were biologically 16 and others who were biologically 12. That’s a four-year differential. Do you move a lad down an age grade? Do you move a physically stronger player up?”

Phil Foden was a particularly interesting case study. Physically he was immature but technically he was incredibly advanced.

“You had to ask: will he be able to manage the demand and will he be able to suitably develop if he’s getting kicked and muscled off the ball? But then if you move him down, isn’t he going to be far superior to those around him and he’ll just breeze through them? We went [more with the former]. 

Watching him now, I always laugh at how quickly and often he checks over his shoulder; he’s brilliant at receiving the ball. And that came from having to be very aware at an early age of where he was receiving the ball.”

Not everyone was a Foden or Sancho though. Murphy has seen the dead bodies, at the clubs he’s worked at and elsewhere. “You’d see players who were physically superior that aren’t playing anymore or at least not at the highest level. If they’d played up more they would have been challenged more: When you have to rely on a good first touch, you tend to develop a good first touch. But some lads didn’t because at their age it didn’t matter as much as power and speed.”

It can be a wrench seeing kids he tried to help nurture and develop suddenly released at 16 by a club they’d spent most of their childhood with.

“It’s very tough. When I was at that age I thought I’d play for Ireland, score a goal in a cup final at Wembley, even though there was no way that I could. And it’s the same with them: in their minds they’re going to score that first goal in the Etihad and go on and win the Ballon d’Or. So when they’re released, it’s a hugely personal thing. And they don’t know what the next step is. For years they’ve presented themselves as a Manchester City footballer and trained and had their photos taken with Sergio Aguero and all of a sudden it’s taken from them.”

Some clubs, he finds, are getting better at helping players through that transition; City have linked up with AFFPA (Academy Football Players and Parents Association) as has Murphy himself. And he’ll always try to retain a connection with them. As a kid himself, he never really followed a team; it was always a player — like a Zidane or Ronaldinho — that he rooted for. And today, though it’s a team or organisation that ultimately pays him, it’s the player himself who most interests him.

“I think what gives Irish people a chance [as support staff] is that we’re authentic. Talented kids can be guarded because they can’t trust people, they have a lot of proxy lives, but I was brought up to always treat people equally and players can sense that.

“A Phil Foden was always going to make it, even if I cut off his left arm. But I can list to you so many names of players that you wouldn’t know but that are still playing somewhere and that I still have relationships with. Because you were still there behind in the gym with them and listened to them and encouraged them when they’d maybe stopped believing in themselves. You didn’t want anything from them, just the best for them.”

As it happens, Foden would remain appreciative, gifting him that signed jersey after his first couple of appearances with the first team. With so many young players being blooded on that preseason tour of the States, Murphy was brought along, giving him the chance to see up close the brilliance of Pep Guardiola on the training ground.

“He’s very succinct on the pitch. He knows how to regulate a session. Quite often he’ll be happy just to sit on a football and observe. But then if he feels the standards aren’t great and there’s a poor touch, not just out of human error but from sloppiness or laziness, he’ll come straight in. Doesn’t matter if it’s a Vincent Kompany or a Leroy Sane. He doesn’t just let it go and write it off as just a bad session. He knows when to step in and when to stay back.”

 Shayne Murphy with Manchester City and England star Steph Houghton.

Shayne Murphy with Manchester City and England star Steph Houghton.

Murphy himself has recently taken a step back from City to form his own consultancy, SDM Performance. City remain one of his clients, as do several of their associate clubs like Ronnie Deila’s New York FC who he spent two months with during their last preseason. But for the past 15 months he’s been based back in Ireland. Ten years ago when he was over for a Kings of Leon gig in Slane, he met Lorna from just up the road. In recent years they just felt it was time to move home. And with the new venture he had in mind, he could work from anywhere.

“I’d noticed that the trend in sport, including football, was becoming for individual athletes to look for external support. If you look at the likes of Ronaldo and LeBron James, they have a whole team of people looking after them. And while you might say they’re superstars, this [his service] is probably needed even more for other athletes.

“At the end of the day, an athlete is either self-employed or unemployed; a club might be paying his wages but only for the duration of his contract. If I’m moving from club to club, who has a longer view of my athletic development? At my current club with 25 other first-team players, am I getting the best specific individual programme for me?”

And so players at City that he collaborated with and subsequently moved on are now back teaming up with him. And it’s freed him up to link up with organisations from other sports and spheres, like a cricket team in India and some lecturing in Setanta College.

The Scottish national team was an ideal gig, given his current arrangements: another high-performance setup but one he wouldn’t need to be with every day. And the fit has been just right. A fellow Celtic nation. A fellow Irishman in Steven Reid as coach. An experienced, open-minded manager like Steve Clarke, and a head of performance like Graeme Jones.

“The great thing about Steve and Graeme is they don’t get caught up in any nonsense. They just make sure things are done right like they would be in the Premier League. That’s not easy to achieve. If you have an Andrew Robertson who is out to get the best out of himself, you have to make sure your processes measure up to Liverpool’s, because otherwise he’s not going to be happy.”

The night we happen to catch Murphy for a chat, Scott McTominay is playing for Manchester United. So Murphy will log the amount of minutes he or anyone else is playing so that when the Scottish squad again assembles for a match, Clarke will be aware of how often a player has trained and played. So two days out from an international match, the staff might decide a few players should sit out the first morning session. Again though, the data is just information, not a decision.

On game day, he’s the one handing out their drinks, taking their pre-match warm-up. When David Marshall saved that penalty in Belgrade, Murphy was among the tsunami of tartan blue that engulfed him.

It was incredible. I think being from Ireland, you knew just how special it is to make it through to one of those major tournaments. I saw grown men cry, people who have been on the staff for 20 years. It meant so much to the Scottish nation.”

And, so this June, should the Euros actually go ahead, some of his old clients will go head-to-head with his current ones: Foden and Sancho against the Scots. At Wembley.

The kid from Rathcormac got there after all.

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