He frustrated us, he broke our hearts, but you’d still love to have him on your side

When Meath football was at its zenith between 1986 and 1991, some wisecrack came up with a ‘Quiz Question’ as follows – What footballer played in and refereed the same All Ireland Final? With the answer being the newly appointed Meath manager being the answer!

As far as the writer knows, the jibe related to the the replayed All Ireland Final of 1988. If, as was alleged, Colm O’Rourke did have a word – or several of them – with referee Tommy Sugrue, as he was one of the senior voices within the group, he was well entitled remind the Kerry whistler that he and his colleagues had got the rough end of the stick in the drawn game.

Which resulted in Brian Stafford getting a busted lip and 16 stitches thereafter. Back then, when men were men and football was played the way it should be, these type of matters were sorted on the field amongst the players and there wouldn’t be another word about it.

Until that day. When Sugrue made all the headlines – which is presumably what he was after – by sending Gerry McEntee off. Anyway, the point of mentioning all of the above was to underline the fact that, if he had got on Sugrue’s case, Colm surely wasn’t the first to air an opinion with a match official and, as sure as the Pope is a Catholic won’t be the last either.

It comes with experience and the respect that experience germinates. From fellow players and, indeed, match officials. Witness, for example, the way in which David Coldrick will speak to a player, say, for arguements sake, James McCarthy, on a first name basis. Or former hurling referee Barry Kelly, who was known to praise players for a good score or good defending, whatever it happened to be.

All in stark contrast to the sycophantic fawning over referees which prevails in rugby. I am not for a moment talking about being confrontational or abusive towards referees. Rather, as one former Dunboyne player would put it, “Get on their good side”.

“For example, if you know he’s a farmer, ask him his he the hay done or how the cattle prices are going in the factory”. A strategy based on breaking down barriers.

Next season, one of the best referee communicators (and/or influencers) in Gaelic football will be absent from the biggest stage with Michael Murphy having announced midweek that he has pulled on the Donegal jersey for the last time.

I can’t say I was shocked by the news. There was a period, about half way through the second half of the Ulster final that it was obvious he was only running on fumes. By his demeanour you wondered did he want to be there anymore.

Yet there’s part of me thinking, properly rested and with proper game management, there’s no reason why he couldn’t have soldiered on for another year or two. No doubt people will pinpoint things like work and/or family commitments as a reason why players retire younger nowadays.

But to me, they are all things which can either be parked or at the very least worked around. They are matters which have always and will always be there.

Michael Murphy has been the most influential player of his generation

In more recent years, Meath have been on the wrong end of Murphy’s undoubted class and influence more than most. Now, at this point, let it be categorically stated that in no way was the above a dig at Michael’s nous at working with match officials.

In fact, it’s something I love to see in a player. That they have the street smarts to work certain situations to their advantage. However, it’s beyond question that the great man from Glenswilly frustrated us in Meath and left us heartbroken on more occasions than we care to remember.

Both through scores he kicked himself and others which his craft and knowhow – with and without the ball – manufactured for his colleagues.

All that said, if there was a transfer market in GAA – God willing our games will turn professional at inter county level – Murphy would be one of the first names you’d love to have.

Even though, to a neutral observer, you often wondered were those who were blessed to call his mesmeric abilities their own quite sure how best to deploy them.

Again, looking from an outside perspective, it seemed a fairly open and shut case. Park him on the edge of the square and let the ball do the work. Thus was one of the finest goals seen in person in recent years – albeit a decade ago now – constructed.

That being his catch, turn and blast which sort of finished the 2012 All Ireland Final against Mayo before the Connacht county had figured out what way the wind was blowing. Obviously, that was the pinnacle of his career as it would be for any player, but the levels of success for which he was the catalyst for Donegal were quite staggering. As wall as Sam visiting the hills, so too did the Anglo Celt Cup on a handful of occasions and at least one National League title, as we in Meath know all too well.

Still, and particularly when other pillars of those successes like Neil Gallagher and Colm McFadden bowed out, the Donegal remedy of choice was to have their talisman drift out the field to aid their efforts to garner possession.

Unsurprisingly, mind you, a lot of the time he ended up kicking the ball into where he would have been most beneficial himself. Furthermore, a pondering as to whether all the extra mileage he clocked up flitting between positions played a role in his decision to draw stumps now is unavoidable.

Prior to the bursting of David Clifford onto the scene, if you were to design a prototype Gaelic footballer, Michael Murphy would have been the standout template. Possessed of the strength to win his own ball, the vision and selflessness to act as playmaker and the ability to kick scores seemingly from out in Lough Swilly!

Gaelic Football’s gain was definitely some other sports loss, as he undoubtedly would have made an effective Quarterback or Wide Receiver in American Football or – as was seen during his spell with Clermont Auvergne during the Toughest Trade television series, he wouldn’t have been lost on a rugby pitch either.

Then there’s the fact that, off the field, from the couple of occasions I had the good fortune to be in his company, he comes across as the quintessential GAA hero – humble, gracious, generous with his time and – as evidenced by the letter he penned to the young lad which ended up making its way into the national press.

It will be admitted that I have never been sold on the idea of national or international sports stars being championed as role models. It is my belief that such icons are always found closer to home. Thus, those in the homes of Donegal (and elsewhere) will have to find a new bastion of Gaeldom to look up to. On the other hand, defenders everywhere will sleep a little sounder!

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