BY CHRIS MCNULTY
ALL-IRELAND football final Sunday has always had a routine for Michael Murphy: “It was basically go to Mass, watch the minor game, get something to eat, watch the senior game, see the team lift the Sam Maguire and then you’d be waiting to see the celebration banquet on the Sunday game…all the time, you’d be watching and wondering what it’d be like.”
The 2012 variety had routine, but it was order of a different kind. By quirk of the calendar, the third Sunday in September 2012 did not, as usually would be the case, signal All-Ireland football Sunday. This time around, it was the Gaelic football equivilant of Palm Sunday – the Resurrection came seven days later.
Michael Murphy always harboured ambitions that one day he’d walk a fabled path trod by only the select few and just one Donegal man, Anthony Molloy.
September 23rd 2012 was Murphy’s date with destiny. One Sunday in September, Michael Murphy fulfilled a childhood dream – and became the story of the 2012 All-Ireland final, enabling him to dine at the top table as the Sunday Game broadcast from the Burlington, the hotel of the All-Ireland football champions, Donegal.
“Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved,” the great US politician William Jennings Byran once said.
Just 139 seconds into the All-Ireland final, Karl Lacey delivered an inch perfect right-footed pass to the edge of the Mayo square. A little less than four second later, the ball crashed into the Hill 16 net.
The move began in the Canal End-Cusack Stand corner when Eamon McGee snuffed out Alan Dillon’s ball that was intended for Cillian O’Connor.
Neil Gallagher and Rory Kavanagh briefly held possession before Lacey seized the moment and sent a raking ball into the Glenswilly man’s paws. “If you give a ball like that to the man-child, there is only going to be one result,” was Joe Brolly’s inimitable take on the passage.
For a brief second it seemed as if Lacey’s knifing run would continue, but he struck gold when he launched the arrow from the ‘45. Murphy must have felt as if red wine was coursing the veins of his imposing frame as he fetched and turned poor Kevin Keane in the one fell swoop before planting a venomous shot past David Clarke. Bedlam in the stands. From Murphy? Just a focused gaze.
The goal didn’t arrive by chance, though.
“We’d aimed for the good start,” he says now, three months on.
“That was something we’d worked on for those weeks. It was nice to see it come to fruition that day. It’s the same as when you’re studying for an exam and you see the question come up or a topic come up that you know you’ll get right.
“We hadn’t got off to a good start much in the games before the All-Ireland final. It was something we’d spoken about in the four weeks from the semi-final to the final. We were concentrating on various things surrounding the game and getting the good start was one of them.
“It was the whole lead up to it – the tackle from Eamon in the corner to win the ball and then Karl bring the ball out, there was no better man to deliver the ball in and, c’mere, I did the easy bit really.”
With that crash of the O’Neills, Michael Murphy became the first Donegal man to score a goal in an All-Ireland final. Destiny.
After the semi-final win over Cork, Donegal went crazy for a month. Banners, flags, signs and bunting adorned every street corner, Donegal was ‘Walking Tall’ again, Highland Radio’s airwaves blared a selection of the sublime and the rediculous All-Ireland anthems. From a beach in Lanzarote came the soundtrack to the summer and ‘Jimmy’s Winnin’ Matches’.
A series of ‘forums’ took place in every corner of the county, All-Ireland heroes from near and afar coming to give their tuppenceworth. Heck, even Pat Spillane dropped in to O’Donnell Park one night.
Tickets became the talk of the town – and national media descended on Donegal. For a month, dear old Donegal became the story.
For the players, it was a different sort of a month.
“It’s something I couldn’t say: that the build up was crazy for us,” says Murphy.
“I know the build up was mad in ways and the anticipation was massive for us as players and for the people of the county.
“The buntings and flags were up on every corner of Donegal, but the build up was handled well by Jim and Rory.
“We were managed so well for that month after the semi final. We weren’t totally cacooned away but, at the same time, we weren’t ‘out there’ the whole time.
“It was a good balance and the management deserve credit for that. They gave us the opportunity to experience an All-Ireland final build-up, but not once was the focus lost – we knew we had a job to do.”
Donegal awaited the winners of the second semi-final between Dublin and Mayo.
The week in between, Donegal’s focus didn’t alter – and they certainly didn’t wait to find out their opponents.
The main thrust of Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher’s preparatory work was about getting Donegal’s end right. ‘Nailed’ as Murphy puts it: “We were trying to get through a set of criteria that was all about nailing performances. Whether that be for a game against Dublin, Cork, Mayo, whoever, it doesn’t matter – it’s about nailing individual and team performances. We give every team the respect that they deserve.”
Donegal had spent five days in a training camp before the final and they kept to that ritual which had served them so well in their previous six games. For games in Dublin, Donegal base themselves at Johnstown House in Enfield.
Nerves before an All-Ireland final are natural. Eamon McGee has recounted how he tossed and turned, unable to sleep. Emotions were running high as the hours passed. “F*** off McGee,” rebounded his room-mate, the reserve goalkeeper, Michael Boyle.
McGee got to sleep and turned in an exceptional final performance the following afternoon, running Murphy close for the Man of the Match award.
Murphy thinks back now and doesn’t see too much different from the previous games in the pre-match sense.
He says: “It was a funny experience. I can safely say that now. You nearly expect things to be different just because it’s an All-Ireland final. They way we prepared was the same all year – from Cavan in the Ulster preliminary round to the All-Ireland final, the routine was the same. On the way in on the bus you’d be kind of pinching yourself wondering: Why isn’t this any different.
“We went through the normal route, leaving Donegal on the Saturday to go down the road. You have little time to think about the occasion itself. We did our usual thing the morning of the game, we met up and just reiterated those certain key messages we have that were important for the game.”
Once they got to destination Jones Road, there was an ever-so-slight hiccup. For all their previous games in Croke Park, Donegal had been in Dressing Room 2, but for the All-Ireland final they were drawn to be housed in DR 1.
It was only a minor hitch. Business was at hand.
“When you’re in there, in the warm-up area, it’s about running through and focusing on those key messages,” says Murphy.
“In the dressing room, it’s about the individual preference – some get changed straight away, others lay back with their music, others will go to watch the minors, have physio rubs, whatever.
“Early in the day, you’d do a few stretches and get limbered up at the hotel. As the day goes on, you get more focussed and just mind not to burn yourself out.
“Before you know it, you’re on your way. Before you run out, the messages are relaid and it’s time to go…
“The All-Ireland final brings certain distractions with the parade and meeting the President, but we spoke about all of that and planned for it…we’d planned for what we’d do.”
In Sam’s For The Hills, the memoir of the 1992 All-Ireland win, Anthony Molloy recounted the experience of running out for the start of the match to Damian Dowds and Donal Campbell: “It doesn’t matter what you do, there’s nothing in your life that will surpass that feeling,” said Molloy.
Murphy had spoken to Molloy in the weeks leading up to the game. Nothing, though, could prepare him for what he’d experience as he bounced the ball, bursting through the big yellow doors out into the great Cathedral.
“It was just a din…a great, big, loud din,” Murphy recalls.
“It was spectacular to run out onto Croke Park, to look around and see the colours, green and gold, from every corner of the stadium.
“We were just trying to get things flowing and it was only something in the week after that I thought about and said to some of the boys one of the days: “Jeez, wasn’t that loud…it was some support we had’.”
Just eleven minutes in, Donegal’s dream start got even better – and again the captain’s prints were all over the move. Cillian O’Connor was penalised following a challenge with Eamon McGee on the Donegal endline. As Mayo protested, Mark McHugh took a quick free which found Murphy, deep in his own backline. Lacey got the ball and found Leo McLoone. When the Glenties man sought to offload it was the galloping Murphy he found.
Patrick McBrearty was fed by Murphy and, after his shot cannoned off an upright, but lurking beneath the falling ball was Colm McFadden. 2-1 to 0-0 Donegal led.
Murphy says: “Colm capitalised in some style…but then we we took our eyes off the ball and let Mayo back into it. In fairness to Mayo, they got some super scores before and after half-time. For us, we had to maintain the distance at that stage and close the game out.
“There was a crucial score before half-time with Colm scoring a brilliant point after they had a number on the bounce.”
That score from McFadden came just after Mayo reduced the deficit to three.
“He was taking a free from just outside the ‘45. A Mayo player was telling him to go back a distance and he had to set himself up again. Colm nailed it and that was a real lift. Colm was doing that all year, alleviating pressure when we needed it lifted.”
Around 50 minutes later, Donegal paused for the briefest of moments as Maurice Deegan shrilled a long gasp of his whistle, just as Murphy picked himself off the floor having climbed to bat down a ball in his own backline. As Karl Lacey scooped it up, the moment had finally come: Donegal were kings again.
“I just made a dash towards the Hill end,” remembers Murphy.
“Five or six of us were in a bunch…to identify and spot people in the crowd was amazing.
“The Mayo fans had dispersed and it was just a sea of green and gold. It was a great idea to let us bring the Cup around the crowd. You could pick out family, friends, people who’d helped you, like coaches, it was some experience…a dream come true.”
The week after the Cork game, Murphy opened the laptop and typed three pages of a speech. He didn’t want to tempt fate, but it was something he had to do. He gave the finished version to Michael McMenamin, the team’s logistics manager, and that was that.
Having led his team up the 36 steps to the Hogan Stand’s presentation area, Murphy clasped hands on that elusive chalice. Sam Maguire was Donegal’s: “We have him!” exclaimed the captain.
“For manys the Donegal Gael, it’s something that will live long in the memory,” he says.
“It was just a fantastic occasion for Donegal people. It’s been building for 20 years.
“This year, we retained Ulster and coming back off that we really got momentum built up from that.
“It exploded for the All-Ireland series. Over the course of the last two years, the people of Donegal, the supporters who have come out to cheer us on have been brilliant.”
The player had their own moment together with Sam in the warm-up area inside their dressing room. As Murphy says, they had a chance to ‘acknowledge that we’d done it and done it together’.
He would wait until late on the Thursday night before, flanked by Neil Gallagher and Gary McFadden, he brought a delirious Glenswilly to a standstill when he took Sam to Pairc Naomh Columba.
Before that, a madcap few days that began when they left Croke Park to head to Burlington. These were the moments the young Murphy watched and wondered.
“Just going down O’Connell Street after leaving Croke Park was amazing, even Mayo people were out clapping…then to bring Sam into the throngs of Donegal people at the Burlington was just a moment to savour.”
For a month and more, we had our own Las Vegas in the Hills of Donegal. All made possible by that one, never-to-be-forgotten Sunday in September.