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Goalpoacher's wish list

by Dermot Crowe was published in the Sunday Independent on Sunday the 4th of July 2004

FOUR years ago Brendan Murphy launched his senior hurling career against Wexford, quietly placing his signature on a rampant championship win. He scored a goal but it wasn't a work of art and his emergence went largely unheeded. Then suddenly the 19-year-old found stride. In the Leinster final, rowing against the tide, he filched three points off Philly Larkin in the opening quarter of an hour.

Sufficiently impressed, Kilkenny sent Peter Barry over to put manners on him. "He was actually all chat," Murphy recalls. "I was waiting for the handle of the hurl or something because I knew Peter Barry obviously but I'd never marked him before. Next thing he came over chatting, 'How's Brendan?' Real kind of friendly, like."

Barry limited him to a further point but 0-4 on a day when Offaly were well beaten marked Murphy down as a serious find. Pat Fleury introduced him along with a few others off the U-21 team that would beat Kilkenny in the Leinster final the week after, a big surprise, with Murphy scoring 1-3. The previous year Ballyskenagh, home to Paddy Kirwan and Pat Cleary, reached the county semi-finals five years after winning the junior championship. It put players like Murphy, Mick O'Hara and David Franks on the inter-county radar.

Of them all, Murphy stood out immediately. With Offaly struggling against Derry in the 2000 quarter-finals he scored two goals which killed off their stubborn resistance and during the memorable semi-final defeat of All-Ireland champions Cork he was part of a strategic switch with midfielder Johnny Dooley. The final was a one-sided Kilkenny carnival in which he was substituted but, for a first year, it had been a roaring success.

That's as good as it has got. Fleury, frustrated by various issues that had stalked him throughout the year, withdrew and Michael Bond took his place. Bond lasted one summer. Another thumping from Kilkenny precipitated the end for Johnny Pilkington and John Troy. Fr Tom Fogarty had a short-lived stab at the job before Mike McNamara arrived. On the playing front, only Brian Whelahan of the old guard remains, their sole Leinster medallist.

The year 2000 is now a fading memory. "I really enjoyed that summer," says Murphy, at home in Ballyskenagh where his father runs a surgery. Charlie Murphy hails from Bundoran and played football at minor and U-21 for Donegal, alongside Brian McEniff with whom he retains a close friendship. He spent some time in Canada after qualifying as a doctor, then came back to Ireland and met his wife in the Mater hospital. "She was a nurse, the usual story," their son explains.

They raised six boys who all played hurling. Brendan's older brothers Cathal and Noel, twins, were on the Offaly panel when the county won the 1998 All-Ireland. They continue to travel home from work in Dublin to play for the club. Their mother's father, Mick Loughnane, a native of Loughrea, hurled for Galway before winning a Munster medal with Tipperary in 1941, the Foot and Mouth year, after he had moved to Roscrea where he opened a butcher's.

The first year Murphy made the Offaly team has easily been the best. "I can't remember training in the rain that summer, it's always a good sign; that shows you were enjoying all the sessions," he recalls. He was only beaten to Young Hurler of the Year by Noel Hickey. While the senior team reached the All-Ireland final, and the U-21s managed by Percy Clendennon landed a Leinster championship, the county minors also topped the province. There was every reason to feel optimistic.

"I suppose I was thinking there's always next year. Johnny Dooley, Johnny Pilkington, John Troy, all these lads were there, I suppose it didn't really dawn on me that the team was beginning the filter out a bit. The next year was a rude awakening, a terrible summer. We got beaten in the first round by Kilkenny, we got an awful drubbing in Croke Park. The following Wednesday (in the U-21 championship) we got beat by Wexford, I didn't puck a ball at all that night, three or four of us played really bad, and Wexford bet us with a goal in the last minute and they went on to the All-Ireland final, to lose it by a point."

'For people to call for his head was ridiculous, the buck stopped at the players. We had to win one game out of the three and we couldn't do it'
Along came Fr Tom who drafted in Brian Carroll and a further sprinkling of new players but they lost a Leinster semi-final in Thurles to Kilkenny. Before half-time Murphy streaked through for a goal which raised their hopes before Kilkenny pulled away in the second half. They made hard work of Meath, then buckled against Tipperary in Portlaoise - "that was an absolute disaster." Murphy says there was "bickering in the camp" and a poor atmosphere. Sure enough, another management change ensued.

Even McNamara's tenure, secured for a minimum of two years, hasn't been free of controversy. Earlier in the year he was lambasted by former hurler and manager Pádraig Horan who called for a coach to be appointed to work with the manager. Michael Duignan has been added to the management team in the meantime, but Murphy dismisses any suggestion of player dissatisfaction with the manager and his training methods.

"It was very harsh the criticism he got. When you look at the first phase of the league we beat Tipperary, Wexford, Antrim, were beaten by a last minute goal in Cork, and went down to the lower tier only on score difference. At that time we were fairly happy. We had to win one game (to avoid relegation) and we didn't, but the injuries piled up. For people to call for his head at that stage was ridiculous, the buck stopped at the players. We had to win one game out of the three and we couldn't do it."

He says the "more the merrier" on Duignan's arrival and blankly refutes the charge that McNamara is a poor coach. "That's ridiculous. I'd just invite anyone down to the sessions, look at the sessions and the drills he does. I suppose at that time hurling wasn't that much to the fore, it never is in the league anyway.

"In Offaly at the end of the league we start going to Tullamore, that's the turning point, we start playing matches then. So maybe the hurling was a bit off in the league but it's always going to be like that in the league. But, no, he's well able to coach. Michael Duignan came in and brought in a few more ideas as well."

Murphy missed last year's defeat to Wexford in the Leinster championship because he decided to re-sit his Leaving Cert. It also ruled him out of the match against Dublin. A student at UCD, he graduated with a 2.2 honours degree in chemistry but his ultimate ambition was to pursue medicine and he needed a 2.1 to get on the course. The only alternative was to sit the Leaving Cert again in order to compile the necessary points.

It was a hard slog. He'd pick up his notes, then return to UCD for a long day's study. The commitment paid off; he achieved the 600-point target with six A1s (chemistry, physics, biology, maths, applied maths and social & scientific) and a B1 (geography). He hurled for the earlier part of last year's league but later pulled out of the panel until his exams were complete. He hopes to be qualified by 2008.

"I'd prefer to be a doctor anyway," he explains. "I'd be doing something I want to be doing. My eldest brother is a doctor over in Newcastle, researching into lung transplants. He was interested in respiratory (issues) so I'll keep my mind open, if something catches my fancy."

It's a tough course, he admits, and trying to fit in a hurling career creates an added strain. "I suppose coming up to exams you have to cool off a bit all right, like the exams in medicine are tricky enough and fairly time-consuming. This year they weren't too bad but they'll be getting worse, getting tougher.

"Like, Stephen Lucey (former UCD student and Limerick dual star), he's a phenomenon, he's finished medicine now, he was a fresher when I started, he's playing football and hurling. I remember one stage I counted 13 teams he was playing with at the one time and he's balancing medicine with that as well so I suppose you're thinking to yourself if he can do it sure I can surely just concentrate on one, (I can) get away with playing just hurling."

When Offaly went to Nowlan Park last year to face Wexford in the Leinster championship he was at home preparing for Leaving Cert exams. "It was strange. I'd two exams the next day. I remember listening to it on the radio, Johnny Dooley was commentating and at half-time thinking 'here we go, we're sorted (Offaly raced into a seven-point lead). I'll be back for the Leinster final.' I went off, did a bit of study, came back then 15-20 minutes into the match and I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was like a different team altogether."

He was back for the match against Limerick in the qualifiers and celebrated with a fine solo goal, helped, it needs to be added, by loose marking. His goalscoring record is nine out of the 19 Offaly have scored in the championship since 2000 - a fairly prolific strike rate. He scored 2-5 against Dublin in the Leinster semi-finals recently, playing at full-forward, rather than left-half where most of his hurling has been done with Offaly. Against Laois in the previous round he managed 1-2.

'The way they brought the half-forward line out and left the three quick lads inside. That was very effective'
Paddy Kirwan, who has known Murphy since he was "in the cot," says the player is free to concentrate more on his hurling now that his career path is clear. How does he rate him? "He'd be in the top two most dangerous Offaly forwards, with Rory Hannify. If either of them were held on Sunday, Offaly would be in big trouble. He has tremendous workrate, never stops going." For that reason he reminds him of the late Pat Carroll.

Kirwan's mother, Ellen, who died a couple of weeks ago, used to help out in the local surgery with Murphy's father. "Herself and Brendan had a great bond," says Kirwan. "The one thing she was always interested in was how Brendan used to hurl. Every Monday morning first thing Charlie would get a phone call about how Brendan played."

Last year's qualifier win over Limerick had Offaly thinking they might have turned a corner. "We felt," says Murphy, "that we'd beaten a force. We hadn't managed that since 2000." But they bowed meekly to Tipperary in the quarter-finals at Croke Park. With a helpful draw in this year's championship, and Kilkenny eliminated, today is a golden opportunity to make up for the lost years.

He watched Wexford topple Kilkenny at home. "I suppose in 13 or 14 positions Kilkenny were outplayed by Wexford, how many times does that happen a Kilkenny team? Their tactics were spot on. There was a lot said about (Damien) Fitzhenry's short puck-outs, that worked a treat, but other than that the way they brought the half-forward line out and left the three quick lads inside with lots of space. That was very effective. It's not too often you see Noel Hickey, JJ Delaney and Michael Kavanagh being dragged all over the place. They pinpointed that as how to get at Kilkenny, Tactically, they had it spot on."

Without Kilkenny is it that bit easier? "I don't know, I mean, people are saying 'oh it's not Kilkenny,' maybe there's a bit more pressure on now but as I said Wexford, they're as tough as any of the teams there. I mean physically they're massive, much stronger I think than Kilkenny physically. I mean look at their backs, Doc O'Connor, Darragh Ryan, Skippy Ruth, they're going to hit you hard. And then they seemed to get the blend right the last day, they got the skill and the youth in there as well. Usually, you expect a big, physical Wexford. So, we're expecting a ferocious dogfight."

He knows a few of them well. The captain John O'Connor was on the UCD team this year with him, both wing-forwards, and they were exchanging text messages earlier in the week. "I'd know Johnno fierce well." Doc O'Connor was full-back on the 2001 UCD team that won the Fitzgibbon Cup, with three of the Murphy brothers.

So, in his fifth season, he's already reflective. "I suppose the highlight for me in an Offaly jersey was getting to an All-Ireland final and getting bet out the gate by Kilkenny," he grins. "I remember hearing that day someone shouting, 'hold open the gates, we're going to bate ye out of it!' That's the highlight basically. It's not good enough from an Offaly point of view really: five years, no medals. The onus now is on a different generation of players to produce the goods and it's time we started realising that."

Today, in other words. "This is the time for Offaly hurling to step up from boys to men I suppose. It's my fifth year, there's lads like Ger Oakley as well, it's his seventh year, or eight year, then you've Niall Claffey, his seventh or eighth year, same with Simon (Whelahan) and then Brian Whelahan, a lot of lads have been around a while, but nothing to show for it."

He still regrets the 2000 All-Ireland final having passed him by ("I'd an absolute stinker that day"). Choices he made, things he might have done differently. Stuff that wrecks your head. "I suppose when you do get an opportunity to play in Croke Park again, you're thinking, 'right so, no more what-ifs, now is the time to do it.'"

This is it: their first Leinster final appearance since 2000. Who'd have thought?

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