By Frank Craig
Michael Murphy’s greatness will only really be fully appreciated when the day comes that we’re finally denied his influence.
So says Neil Gallagher, a man that knows the Donegal talisman better than anyone. Off the field the pair are extremely close. Over a cup of coffee, swinging a golf club or just in general conversation, the 2012 All-Ireland winner says Murphy is very good company.
He’s someone that has great patience and is generous, perhaps even to a fault on occasions, with his time. Those same traits are identifiable watching a Seamus Coleman or a Jason Quigley attempt to get around a room. No one is left out.
But what is it that changes inside these individuals when they step inside the ropes or across that white line? There is a conviction, a ruthlessness that completely takes over.
The term is called ‘game face’ but the label does a terrible injustice to what you’re actually witnessing. Eyes narrow, the brow lowers and you just know it’s time to go.
Ahead of Donegal’s Ulster SFC opener, the Donegal News’ Frank Craig sits down with Gallagher to find out exactly what makes the Donegal captain tick.
Being handed the captain’s armband at 21 by Jim McGuinness raised some eyebrows at the time…
“Even though he was still so young, the best thing to do for that squad was definitely to make Michael captain. He thrived on it. A lot of lads in that panel were much older at the time but no one’s nose was out of joint. Right away, you looked up to him because of the way he applied himself. You just knew he had that presence and that authority, instantly. He’ll be captain of Donegal until he stops playing.
“He’ll go down as Donegal’s best ever player. He’s a once in a generation player. If Michael wasn’t captain or it was passed on with him still there, he’s still going to be the leader in that circle. Off the field, he’s unreal. He behaves and looks after himself in the right way. It’s a professional way. He has unbelievable talent. We all know that. But I think his biggest strength is his mental strength. He’s very modest and a good fella. But listen, when he pulls on that jersey he’s as competitive as they come. Ferociously competitive.”
He is a game-changer. He has that ability to win games on his own.
“As recently as the League Final, I was sitting there watching and I just knew. Mickey Newman (Meath) was going well in the first-half, full-forward hitting points and the odd free.
“I just knew Murphy was going to pull that game back the other direction. I slagged him about it after. I said to him he couldn’t just let Mickey Newman have his day! He turned it on. And that’s what he can do for a team. It’s phenomenal. We played St. Michael’s in 2011 (in the county final). You know when he’s on it and I knew he was on it that day.
“We won a free and I’d the ball. As usual I was taking my time. Men had gathered in front of him inside so I wasn’t too sure. But I could hear him roaring out, ‘just kick the f****** thing in.’ I did what I was told. He won it and put it over the bar for a serious score. When he’s in that mood – which he is the majority of the time – he’s almost unplayable.
“The lads used to slag me all the time, Rory Gallagher as well. They used to say I only kicked it to Murphy. I didn’t but he always seemed to get himself on the end of things. I’d say back, ‘listen, if you were playing with him you’d be kicking it into him too’. If you’re playing full-back do you want to see him coming your way? And then, you definitely don’t want to see the ball coming in where it’s you and him.”
There was real interest in him from a host of Australian Rules clubs back when he was a teenager. Were you worried he’d go?
“There was interest surely and I’ve no doubt whatsoever had he gone he’d have made it. He’d have been a star. He’d have been a top Australian Rules footballer. No doubt whatsoever.
“He has the ability but it’s the mental strength that usually sets people apart when it comes to making it in professional sport. I think playing for Donegal and winning things with Donegal was his goal. There was no chance in hell that he’d change any of that now – what he’s gone on to achieve. The money he could have made and all that… nothing would have every come close to being successful with Donegal.
“The memories that were made and the joy it brought to the county can’t be replaced. It’s selfish but thank god, from a Donegal and Glenswilly point of view anyways, that he didn’t go. Saying all of that, there is no doubt he’d have been a star out there.”
You also work with Paddy McGrath. Now you’re out of that bubble, do you ask or talk about football with him or any of the lads?
“It’s funny. I know from being in that circle, not to ask too much. I go to matches now like everyone else. I hear bits and pieces here and there but it never comes from the boys. In the week leading up to championship now, I’ll be chatting to both Paddy and Michael surely to god. But I don’t ask anything. This is the truth, if myself and Michael go for a round of golf or a cup of coffee we barely chat about football.
“Everyone he bumps into are already asking him about it. They need that wee break too from that environment.
“Paddy (McGrath), I do like pushing him a little! I’ll get a bit of craic out of that. It’s funny listening to him or Murphy talking to people coming up to them and asking questions, wishing them well. You just know it’ll be as generic and bland as it comes. They rhyme it off!”
Do you miss being part of all that?
“I’m not long out. I look back now sometimes and think ‘jeez, how did I do it?’ The commitment is massive. But see when you’re in it, nothing else matters. I loved it. I would do it all again, no bother. When you’re in that environment everything, and I mean everything, else throughout the whole week takes a back seat. It’s all tailored towards the football.
“I wouldn’t change it. You need to be like that. In that circle, there is nothing like it. Even this week they’ll be buzzing at training. The whole build-up for the last number of weeks will begin to come together for next Sunday. Championship season is the best part of it all.”
Donegal, at times, have missed the likes of yourself and Rory Kavanagh around the middle. It takes a while to find that right blend there…
“It does (takes time). People forget now but we were 28 or 29 when we won the All-Ireland. Not everyone can be like Michael or Patrick (McBrearty) and come in and be a star instantly. They are the exceptions to the rule. Those lads there now are all talented players with serious ability. We just have to allow them to find their feet. They’ll be grand. Hugh (McFadden), Michael Langan, Jason McGee – they are all big men but they are technically very good. It’s exciting. I think Donegal have piles of options around the middle this season.”
Where should Michael play?
“It depends. He’s that good out the field as well that if you’re in bother you bring him out. But I would always play him on the edge of the square. All it takes is one ball in to decide a game. Sides have to think big time when he’s in there. You can actually sense the panic. I go back to the All-Ireland final. That goal sums him up best. The biggest day of the lot, when we needed him early on, he bangs in that goal after just minute or two, into the roof of the net. It was some goal.”
Paul Flynn had some big praise for Michael recently…
“And Paul Flynn could have mentioned anyone. Think of the names he’s played with. No matter where you go in Ireland, everyone wants to know about Michael. Flynn is a seriously talented footballer but even he learned from Michael. No matter who you chat to, the likes of Adrian Sweeney and Damien Diver, they’d have loved to have played with him. We’re very fortunate to have him.”