Kerry Footballers

Still number 1

September 16th, 2009
by Weeshie Fogarty

When, as I expect, Kerry win their 36th All Ireland title next Sunday, GAA historians will look back and point to one defining moment in what has be a magnificent voyage by our county footballers. Seven championship games played to reach and a record sixth consecutive final, but that one moment in time will live long in the memories of all those present who witness it.

It's the evening of July 18 and Kerry are playing a rare championship qualifier in Tralee. Rarer again, Sligo are the opposition. Minutes remaining and Kerry are struggling to hold on to a slender two-point lead as Sligo come forward in waves of attack towards the John Mitchels end. Then it happens. A Sligo forward is careering through when he is hauled down in the square. Wexford referee Syl Doyle has no hesitation and signals a penalty to the visitors. It suddenly dawns on the huge Kerry crowd present that if Sligo score and with so little time remaining then unbelievably Kerry are out of the championship.

Diarmuid Murphy, Kerry's towering goalkeeper, now stands between his county and defeat. In all my years watching championship football stretching back to 1955 this was the most crucial penalty kick I have ever witnessed by virtue of the fact that time was practically up. Sligo's diminutive and brilliant corner forward David Kelly was assigned to take to kick. I was in the Radio Kerry commentary box and gave a confident prediction the Dingle man would save the effort as he has been in such brilliant form all year. Kelly's kick was directed high to Diarmuid's right and was tailor-made for the big man. He threw himself sideways and upward, got both hands to the ball and the huge home following cheered with relief and admiration. The Dingle custodian had saved the day for Kerry.

Three weeks ago in the first half in Croke Park against Dublin he made an even better save in my opinion as he guarded the Canal End goal. Bernard Brogan cut in from the right, hit a rocket of a shot which appeared to be heading for the net just beneath the crossbar. Once again Murphy stretched to his full six foot three height and finger-tipped the ball on to the crossbar. This magnificent Diarmuid's club mate Bernard O'Sullivan, himself an All Ireland medal winner in 1981, has vivid memories of the big man's first game in goal for Dingle.

"I was in charge of our senior team at the time," O'Sullivan recalled "and on one occasion our goalie was injured, and despite the fact that he was still only fifteen years of age we decided to chance Diarmuid in goal. He had been playing outfield for our underage teams where his height was a great advantage to him and it was because of that we decided to try him in goal that day. The following year, and at sixteen years of age, he became our regular net minder and as the fellow said the rest is history."

Bernard was at pains to emphasise how important Diarmuid was to the morale and success of their club. "Even when he is prevented from playing with us due to his Kerry commitments he is always there and is a great motivator in the dressing room and when playing he gives tremendous confidence and assurance. And we know that if the opposition score a goal it will be well earned".

So how good does Bernard rate his friend? "He is one of the best I have seen in my time. His height is a huge asset and he is probably the only intercounty goalie that regularly saves the ball from going over the bar. I believe he is a certainty for his third All Star". An insurance clerical officer with Axa, based in High Street Killarney, Murphy was born in the townland of Ballinasig, just outside Dingle, a month before Pat Spillane accepted the Sam Maguire cup for the hospitalised Mickey Ned O'Sullivan in 1975.

All Ireland under 21 wins in 1995 as captain (following a draw with Mayo) and 1996 brought him to the attention of the Kerrry junior team selectors and he helped Kerry to All Ireland Junior finals in 1997 and 2000. By now Murphy was building up huge confidence and experience, both so necessary for the highly demanding and specialised position of goalkeeper. In 2001 Diarmuid took over from Killarney Legion's Peter O'Leary as standby keeper for Declan O'Keeffe. Patience would now be his virtue and he needed to wait until May 23, 2004 before he made a winning championship debut against Clare in Ennis. Kerry won that day by 2-10 to 0-9 and went on to win their 70th Munster title and their 33rd All Ireland title.

The big man from West Kerry would go on to play 40 Championship games (to date) for his county and 42 National League games. He also went five successive clean sheets in a row in 2005 – broken by Tyrone in the final. (Paudie O'Mahoney holds the Kerry record for consecutive clean sheets in Championship football with six – four in 1975 and two in the opening rounds of 1976 – but Murphy's five stands alone in a single year.) Declan O'Keeffe has no doubt but that Diarmuid's support and advice in training and conversations about their goalkeeping tactics was a massive help to him when the Dingle man joined the panel.

"There was no specialised goalkeeping training in my time so Diarmuid and I would go and train and coach each other. I found him as a very deep thinker in relation to goalkeeping positions and angles and I got great tips from him which certainly helped me a lot," O'Keeffe says. The Rathmore born Garda, who played 39 championship games and 47 national league games between the posts for his county, also points out that Murphy's kick-outs this year have improved greatly and the variation of long and short kicks has been a huge factor in Kerry's march to the final.

"He has all the attributes of a great goalkeeper," Declan added "he's tall, has great hands, isn't fussy and will always do the simple things well and that is what good goalkeeping is all about. And add in to this all of his brilliant saves both high and low and you have a man at the very top of his game.

"Murph was always very highly thought of in the Kerry dressing and his thoughts on the game and how it should be played always provoked interesting discussions." So, in a sentence how does O'Keeffe rate his former under study? His answer is a simple rhetorical question. "Would we be in the All Ireland final without him?"

Diarmuid Murphy is a quite spoken, modest and exemplary person. Slow to talk about his achievements, he has won three All-Ireland senior medals and if, as I expect he will, he wins his third All Star award this year he will stand alone as the only Kerry goalkeeper to have done so. In many ways this will copperfasten his greatness in the eyes of the discerning Kerry GAA followers.

Recently I had the privilege of having him as a guest on my Terrace Talk programme and when questioned as to being nervous before big championship games he replied. "Not at all, I am okay like that and it's easy to prepare for these big matches. It helps a lot to have a settled defense in front of you, Marc (Ó Sé), Tommy (Griffin) and Tom (O'Sullivan) have developed a great understanding with me and this is the most vital part of my job. I can see everything happening on the field and it's up to me to direct the move - ment of the defence."

So how difficult was it for him and the rest of the players to motivate themselves in attempting to reach a sixth All-Ireland final in a row, never achieved by a Kerry side before? "I have no problem with motivation and every time you put on a Kerry jersey you are hungry for victory and that goes for the rest of the lads too."

Murphy trains very hard and I can vouch for that as I have watched him many evenings in Fitzgerald Stadium as he prepared for the big games. He uses these practice matches to hone and sharpen his reflexes to a point where only the best shot from very close in will pass him. I have seem the Dingle man play in practically every league and championship game since he first donned the keeper's jersey and as a former custodian myself I would always take particular notice of Diarmuid's positioning and defensive callings.

So how will he be remembere d and how good is he in comparison to those men who have preceded him between the sticks? Next Sunday he will play his 41st championship game for the Kingdom, moving one ahead of Johnny Culloty. Only two other men have guarded the Kerry net more often. The legend that is Danno Keeffe has 66 appearances and Charlie Nelligan played in goals on 49 occasions.

Mick O'Connell rightly advised me once that it is impossible to say who was the greatest of all. Wise words especially discussing Kerry football. Nevertheless, in my opinion and basing my judgment on what I have seen since 2004, Diarmuid Murphy is as good a goalkeeper as ever stood between the posts for this county or any other. His record will bear this out. He continuously brings off point blank saves in league and championship and he is the only Kerry goalkeeper I have seen who on a fairly regular basis prevents the ball from dropping over the crossbar.

His displays this year have been outstanding and the variation of his kick-outs has played a huge part in the march to the final. Win, lose or draw next Sunday the man from Ballinasig just outside Dingle can be relied upon to perform to the highest of standards. His is the most responsible position of all and we are fortunate to have him in what can often be a lonely position. The county is indeed in very safe hands.

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