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In the eye of the hurricane

by Sunday Independent was published in the Sunday Independent on Sunday the 21st of May 2006

IT'S six years since he burst on the scene, fresh-faced and unflustered, but it wasn't long before Brendan Murphy had to wave goodbye with a wistful smile to those untroubled days.

They were the best of times: action-packed on and off the field. Murphy's hurling career began with fireworks when he reached an All-Ireland final in his first season, only to be pipped by Noel Hickey for the 2000 Young Hurler of the Year. In 2001, he graduated from UCD with a Chemistry degree, but staying true to his wish of becoming a doctor, he re-sat his Leaving Cert, got six A1's and is currently in his fourth year studying Medicine at Belfield.

While his academic life unfolded, his Offaly career stalled and last year, Kilkenny hit them like a cyclone and put 6-28 on the board. As captain, Murphy thought he was slap bang in the middle of a twister but when on vacation just a few months later and fleeing Hurricane Katrina, he revisited his opinion.

The soap opera year ended with even more drama when he was knocked unconscious in Boston last November during the interprovincial final and he still can't remember much of that weekend. Upon returning home, he lost a Leinster club final with UCD to James Stephens.

While time has rolled its ceaseless course, Murphy's days have been swifter than a pickpocket's hand, so he won't look back on those formative years with any regret: he squeezed in everything possible.

Medicine is in his bloodline. His father Charlie is a doctor and Brendan wanted to follow suit. But the hurling genetics are harder to pinpoint. His parents hail from Donegal

First the exams: in 1999 the dark-haired Ballyskenagh man enrolled at UCD and spent four years studying Chemistry. He didn't pursue his options in this area and instead opted to study Medicine. Having achieved 530 points in his Leaving Cert, he needed 600 to allow him into the course and so, at 22, he enrolled at Leeson Street College and re-sat his Leaving Cert. He hit the required figure.

"Going back was as hard as the hurling," he says. "A lot of people knew about it and it could have backfired very easily."

Close friend, college mate and Tipperary hurler, Diarmaid Fitzgerald says going back to school only illustrated the strength of Murphy's character. "I've gone to primary and secondary school in Roscrea with Brendan and UCD as well and that took guts, but that man is full of leadership anyway. He's committed to everything so it didn't surprise me."

Medicine is in the bloodline. Father Charlie is a doctor and Brendan wanted to follow suit. But the hurling genetics are harder to pinpoint. His parents hail from Donegal, not exactly a hurling stronghold, excluding Burt.

Still, Murphy learned the game, applied himself well and won a Fitzgibbon Cup and Leinster under-21 title in 2000, the same year he made his debut for the Offaly seniors under Pat Fleury. The speedy wing-forward seized his chance and 19 championship games and 9-29 later, that wonderful season remains his best.

He ghosted in to crack a goal against Wexford on his debut, fired over 0-4 against Kilkenny as they lost the provincial final and scored 2-1 against Derry before pointing in both the semi-final against Cork and the decider against the Cats again, which they lost 5-15 to 1-14. Since then, he's only failed to score in one game - against Tipperary in 2002 - but he admits he has struggled for form over the past nine months.

"Ah I did," he says. "It was no secret I wasn't playing well last winter; maybe you kind of get browned off and don't do the things you know you are capable of. When the summer comes around it gives you a boost, so I'm looking forward to the dry ball and the dry sod," his eyes brightening at the thought of it.

"In the first few games of this year's league I was very bad but I'm hopping off it again now. To be honest I don't think I was ever much of a league player anyway. In fact, I could count on one hand the number of good games I played in the league."

In the quarter-final against Tipperary, however, there were signs that his slump was passing as he got two great points on the wing. His slide can easily be traced back to a disenchanting summer when Offaly were walloped by Kilkenny and then confined to side-theatres for the rest of the season.

There was no respite afterwards: he played for Ballyskenagh in the Offaly club championship and UCD in the Dublin equivalent, where more tales of woe lay in store. When an Ollie Moran shoulder accidentally knocked him cold in the interprovincial final last November, it should have been the cue to take a break but instead, less than a week later, he was playing for the college against Birr in the Leinster club championship. No wonder his game suffered.

"I suppose I'm seven years going now and there are hard demands but that's no excuse," he insists. "Everyone knows the requirements and lads are big enough and bold enough to know that if you can't make commitment then leave it. We do it because we love it. The odd Friday or Saturday night out with the lads would be a break, but your friends would give their right arm to play with Offaly."

Fitzgerald says talk of Murphy losing his form was over the top. "Maybe he got too much hurling," his friend suggests. "He may not have been scoring as regularly last winter as usual but I wouldn't agree he had that much of a slump. His work-rate was brilliant and he has that speed to get him out of trouble; he's put on a bit of muscle as well. I know from marking him that he just pops up everywhere looking for the ball and that's a nightmare for defenders. That sort of energy will get you out of trouble."

With the added responsibility of the captaincy again this year, Murphy's fantastic work-rate is an inspiration. A thoroughly impressive character off the field, he's using his leadership qualities to reproduce his best on it. Not that today's championship opener against Laois should pose too many problems. Laois haven't beaten Offaly in the championship since 1972 but Murphy will be worried by his team's dramatic slide against Cork in Templemore last week when the Rebels hammered them 3-21 to 0-6 in a challenge match. Both counties had full teams out, but Offaly only managed 0-4 from play in a game that left manager John McIntyre boiling with frustration.

THAT reverse should spur them into overdrive in O'Moore Park, but Murphy has been an Offaly player too long to take anything for granted. "It will be an absolute dog fight," he states. "We're going in with our eyes wide open into their back yard. The media will play down Laois and maintain they're not a team in our league but we've played them enough times to know what they are like. They relegated us two years ago and are well able to look after themselves. Our own form is notoriously up and down, so we have to get ourselves right."

This time, there are no excuses. He won't tolerate anymore yak of Offaly hurling being in evolution; talk of changing the guard is for Buckingham Palace. Murphy says the transition of players is long since complete; the only problem was that new guys couldn't always find their form.

"When I came in, older guys were on the way out and we took the reins," he remembers. "The last few years have been really up and down and it's almost a cliche to say Offaly are in transition. When is that going to end? I think it's up to ourselves now and the lads coming in to take a bit of responsibility. Hurling careers only last for so many years and we would want to be doing something now. You don't know what lies ahead.

"The humiliation at the hands of Kilkenny did it for me: no player involved will ever forget the shame and embarrassment. I will never forget it anyway, that's the last thing we want to feel again, that's what's driving lads on. But it's going to take a lot of serious effort to get us back to where we want to be."

After that Kilkenny pasting, the season petered out like Congress 2005 after Rule 42 had been amended; Offaly just wanted to get it over with. In the relegation matches against Dublin and Antrim, the crowds were smaller than the queue in your local supermarket and those games were about as electrifying as a James Blunt concert.

Murphy remembers New Orleans in chaos; it took seven hours to get out of the city which was in meltdown

After beating Antrim, Murphy travelled across the US for two months with seven friends. Hawaii was the first stop and Murphy gladly swapped his hurl and helmet for circlets and chaplands as the bitter taste of home was replaced by the sweet scent of Tropicana.

After a week, they hit the west coast, checking out San Francisco, San Diego and then Vegas, where it felt great to be rich and equally great to be poor. They headed for New Orleans but their travel booklet didn't hint at a hurricane coming their way and after arriving there on a Friday, the gang was forced to flee to the sanctuary of Orlando, where they only got the tail end of 'Katrina.

Murphy remembers New Orleans in a state of chaos; it took seven hours to get out of the city which was in meltdown with outbound traffic. It was surreal, but he soon got a sharp slap of reality when summoned home to play for Ballyskenagh in their quarter-final against Shinrone a week later. His two-month sabbatical had ended, but he'll never forget it. That trip gave him breathing space, allowed him to recharge the batteries and reminded him there was more important things in life than hurling.

His next trek, to Boston, was another experience. He was brought on as a sub for Leinster who looked set to beat Munster in Canton. After gaining possession, he cut in at full speed from the right wing but ran into a JCB disguised as Ollie Moran. Murphy's faceguard cut his nose and chin; he was out cold. When he awoke, Munster were champions.

He told players afterwards that he was "a bit shook" and wondered why he was in Boston at all. Soon after the post-match banquet, he ended up in bed. The following day he remembered even less of affairs.

It was noticeable in Boston that the UCD players are as united as the Cork team. Murphy, Brian Barry and Fitzgerald have shared their academic and sports careers together and Fitzgerald says it's only natural they look out for each other. "A lot of us have come up from the country to try to get our education and hurl together as well, so we've a lot in common," the Tipp man says. "We have pretty intensive courses but you have to relax and it helps that we've our own little club at UCD. Like, we're in Dublin to get a degree but we meet in the canteen and socialise together a lot, that's where the bond comes from."

That harmony has been reflected in Offaly this year after some unsettling seasons. "It's tough to keep going in small counties," Murphy admits. "All of north Offaly is football and we've lost good players like Neville Coughlan to football along the way, but we're going in the right direction again. We had a fair wake-up call last year."

He's not travelling from Dublin and sacrificing study hours for the craic; Murphy had a pleasant taste of the big time years ago. It would be nice to get a second helping.

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