BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THE last time Michael Murphy played in the Dr McKenna Cup, Donegal won the pre-season competition, defeating Tyrone in a Brewster Park final, thanks to a dramatic late goal by David Walsh that retained the title in Tir Chonaill.
John Joe Doherty was the manager and that team of only four Januarys ago contained forgotten Donegal names like Fergal McNulty and Eddie Kelly, not to mentioned nine men who would sample immortality 32 months later.
A couple of months previously Murphy had been named as the GAA’s Young Footballer of the Year. It was a strong McKenna Cup squad that Doherty rolled out, with Murphy having kicked 2-9 in a group game against Tyrone on a night when Martin Penrose hit 3-3 as the teams drew 2-17 to 4-11.
How times changed.
2009 had ended with Donegal suffering a hammering against Cork in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
The winning of the McKenna Cup was as good as it got for Donegal in 2010.
They sank to great depths and when Jim McGuinness resurrected the ship from reaching the ocean’s basement later that year the Dr McKenna Cup was put firmly to the bottom of the list.
For the last three seasons Murphy has been ‘college tied’ having been playing Sigerson with DCU but now, in a new departure, McGuinness has named a strong panel for the McKenna Cup with Murphy again selected as his skipper for 2014.
There appears a real drive about Donegal this winter. There was a real lean look about them in their challenge games and, as well as Murphy, McGuinness has been able to include the likes of Michael Boyle, Eamonn Doherty, Thomas McKinley, Anthony Thompson, Declan Walsh, Antoin McFadden and Leo McLoone, who have all had college ties in recent Januarys.
“For the last four or five years, I’ve been travelling up and down from Dublin, maybe heading up on Boxing Day for Sigerson Cup training, coming back down to Donegal again, trying to juggle, mix and match as best I could,” says Murphy.
“This will be one of the first times that I’ll be at home properly at this time of year.
“That’s a big bonus. I didn’t mind being in Dublin, but the travelling was a killer on the body, mentally and physically. I had company from the rest of the boys who were in the same boat, but it still takes it out of you.
“I enjoyed the Sigerson, but you were in shape and trying to get peaked for the Sigerson as well as being aware that you needed to be getting yourself back up there again a couple of months later for the Championship. I loved playing for DCU, but that was always in the back of the head. You were training under two programmes, one with the college and one with the county. This year, it’s still the same in that it’s busy with training, but the big difference is that it’s only with one team now.”
Murphy was recently accorded with a Civic Reception by Donegal County Council in honour of his sporting achievements.
At the function in the County House in Lifford, Sean Dunnion, the Donegal county chairman, spoke of Murphy’s leadership qualities and mentioned how, in the aftermath of the All-Ireland quarter-final hammering by Mayo, Murphy had rallied the troops, calling a meeting of the players and starting a process of righting the wrongs of what was a pained 2013, in which they were relegated and relinquished their titles at both Ulster and All-Ireland level.
“After a big defeat it was very hard to come back,” Murphy says.
“The feedback off everybody was very positive. Any phonecalls or meetings that we’ve had since have been very positive from all of the players.
“Everybody was hurt by the defeat and they didn’t want to end on a note like that after giving it the all for a few seasons. The squad wanted to drive on. They realised that there is the nucleus of a very good squad there and it’s about putting it right this year.
“We are very lucky to have a top-quality set-up that gives us the best, top-notch preparation work in areas like strength and conditioning and nutrition. They realise that we have a good set-up in place and things can’t get any better in terms of our preparation and being able to prepare to the best of our ability.
“That was heartening to see everyone come back and give it a good lash.”
An All-Ireland qualifier win over Laois in Carrick-on-Shannon had papered over the cracks exposed by Monaghan in the Ulster final at Clones, but Mayo seized on the chinks in Donegal’s armour with a rout in Croke Park on the August Bank Holiday weekend. Aside from the emigrated Ryan Bradley and Ross Wherity, all of the players from 2013 have committed again for another go.
Murphy says: “Walking away wasn’t spoken about too much. It was positive and it was all about: ‘Where to now and when do we get at it again?’ We all knew we needed to improve and the most positive thing was that people were looking to see where we could improve very soon after that Mayo game.”
Murphy hopes to begin a Masters in Sports Psychology at Queen’s University, Belfast later in the year. He has a burning interest in the area, taking a lead from Donegal manager Jim McGuinness.
Murphy watches other sports religiously and is a massive fan of the All Blacks, the serial winners who just keep coming back to the well. He’s recently started watching American Football and his interest in these sports are far from passing. The devil is in the details and Murphy expends a lot of time watching the careers of the key players in other sports, with rugby’s specialised kickers like Ronan O’Gara and Jonathan Sexton among those he keeps a close eye on.
Soon after Donegal’s exit from the 2013 Championship, they began assessing the whats and the whys.
“If you look at the harsh reality, we came up short by quite a huge distance,” he says now, almost five months on from that sixteen-point loss to Mayo.
“Compare where we went and where we went, it shows that, but we are not that poor of a team. There is a harsh reality there for us and we’ve had to ask ourselves why that was the scoreline. We have identified areas to improve in and we’ll hopefully bring the answers to the table next year.
“We spoke about it and we’ll take lessons from it.
“We’re coming into 2014 fresh. We’re injury free and we’re hungry, but look at teams like Dublin, Mayo, Kerry, Tyrone, Cork and Monaghan who’ll be bringing new things to the table.”
Paddy McGrath’s recovery continues from a groin injury and the winter months have enabled medics to carry out surgery on Christy Toye’s knee, while Mark McHugh and the 2012 Footballer of the Year Karl Lacey have both benefited from time off. While McHugh will play for Sligo IT in the Sigerson Cup, Lacey is back in harness for Donegal’s McKenna Cup campaign.
Lacey and McHugh were hampered for large spells of 2013.
“Those players were vital cogs,” Murphy observes.
“For games like Ulster finals and All-Ireland quarter-final, you want and need the whole team to be fit.
“It was hard to stomach, we had men unnecessarily getting injured in club games, but thankfully that has been addressed. We’ve now had the chance over the last few months to get a rest, to recuperate and recharge the batteries.
“We want to have the same longevity as counties like Dublin, Tyrone, Kerry, Cork and Mayo who can keep going back. You must come back, you must keep learning and bring new things to the party.”
Murphy had called after the Ulster semi-final win over Down for the Donegal Competitions Controls Committee (CCC) to postpone the Donegal senior football championship, but on it rolled – and the captain was pleased that the clubs had come to an agreement with McGuinness in relation to the structure of 2014’s club calendar.
Their start date in the 2014 Ulster Championship is just a day away from what it was in 2013: May 25th as opposed to May 26th.
That date was spoken about in great detail as Tyrone were coming to Ballybofey for a blockbuster of a clash. The reigning Ulster and All-Ireland kings against their near rivals who had overhauled them as the chiefs of Ulster.
“I felt that it was a great focus to have that Tyrone game,” Murphy says.
“All through the League, May 26 was where our focus was; it was all about getting up and running on that date. It was a huge day to start off our campaign. Getting over that one was a huge boost for us. We got over it. We did the same against Down, but I suppose the cracks were there. Monaghan got a start on us in the Ulster final and it was hard to claw back…we just couldn’t get it back.
“We had set out our stall to keep improving game-by-game. We struggled in the Ulster final. Monaghan won it fair and square. It was a big dampener for us because we’d been going for the three-in-a-row, but more important than that was just going in to win an Ulster title.”
McGuinness has selected new players in the form of Darach O’Connor, Stephen McLaughlin and Hugh McFadden and the recalled list of Ciaran Bonner, Leon Thompson, Antoin McFadden and Thomas McKinley, while there is an almost whole-new look to the sideline this time around.
Rory Gallagher, Maxi Curran and Francie Friel are no longer involved, with McGuinness now having Paul McGonigle, Damian Diver and John Duffy – all former team-mates – on board as selectors.
The internal strife took on a life of its own for a couple of weeks in September, but has since simmered.
“The kind of template that we have set out now is that we have a defender, a midfielder and a forward in the backroom team so hopefully they can develop the players in those areas,” says Murphy, whose year didn’t pan out quite so bad as it was appearing in those early days of August.
He captained the Ireland International Rules team to the Cormac McAnallen Cup with comprehensive wins in both Tests against Australia and it was a year of years for his club, Glenswilly.
With Murphy starring a day after playing a lead role as Ireland beat the Aussies in Cavan, Glenswilly powered past Killybegs to win their second Dr Maguire Cup.
“It didn’t finish out the way we’d have liked to,” Murphy sighs as the regret of Glenswilly leaving an Ulster title behind them becomes clearer.
They reached the final, losing to Ballinderry, and for a few short weeks Glenswilly savoured Ulster final fever.
“We’re still hurting in a way from that Ballinderry defeat,” he says.
“If you’d given us that as an option at the beginning of the year we’d have bit the hand off you.
“A lot of people in Glenswilly have said that it’s the shortest run into Christmas that they’ve ever had.
“The week after the final you look at the calendar and realise: ‘Jesus, it’s December’. October and November probably never went as quick for Glenswilly. That’s the way it is with the GAA calendar, if you’re successful there’ll be football for twelve months of the year.
“Still, it has to go down as one missed.
“In 2011 (when Glenswilly lost an Ulster quarter-final to Latton after winning their first Donegal SFC title), we felt as if everything was a bonus, but this year we said we’d celebrate and enjoy the county final win, then really give Ulster a go. We had a steeliness and understanding there that the season was still going. We just kept pushing and that St Gall’s game gave us massive belief.
“We held Ballinderry for as long as we could. We just didn’t capitalise near enough on the two purple patches that we had. We missed a few good chances too. The big lesson will be how much we take from that. It all means making ourselves and the team better.”