Murphy leads the way in Offaly's walking success story
By Kevin Egan
The old adage about big championship finals and how you have to ‘lose one to win one’ is probably a bit hard to take when you endure the loss, and all the more so then when that second chance to go one step further never comes along.
In a lot of ways, that was the story of the career of Offaly and Ballyskenagh hurler Brendan Murphy, who soldiered in the tricolour jersey from 2000 through to 2012, a period through which both his teams underwent a notable decline in fortunes.
In his first year with the Offaly senior panel, while still an U-21, Murphy started at wing forward in an All-Ireland final at Croke Park but endured a difficult loss to Kilkenny.
Three years later, he was the driving force as his club side reached the Offaly senior hurling championship final for the first time in their history, albeit the timing wasn’t ideal. When they got there, they met a Birr side that hadn’t been beaten in two and a half years, a Birr team that was chasing a third consecutive club All-Ireland, and their failure to build up a lead while hurling with the wind in the first half meant that they were always chasing their tails. Murphy’s second half goal couldn’t prevent them from falling to a seven-point defeat.
And in both cases, that was to be as good as it got. Offaly’s slow fall from relevance on the national hurling scene was beginning to get underway and by the time Murphy took over the county captaincy in 2006, his chances of getting back to the biggest stage of all looked to have receded beyond the point of recovery.
For Ballyskenagh too, the trajectory started moving in the wrong direction and they soon suffered relegation. 2008 did bring success at intermediate level, but demographic pressure on a very small rural community just outside Roscrea took a toll, and in 2013 they were left with little choice but to amalgamate with neighbours Killavilla.
Good days for Offaly and Ballyskenagh-Killavilla have been rare since, but Saturday March 27 certainly was one of those, as the county and the clubs therein raised over €200,000 in their ‘Grand Canal Walk’ fundraising event, with Brendan Murphy leading the way by raising a personal tally of approximately €15,000. Now the man who has been busy serving his community as a GP throughout the battle against Covid-19 feels that this can be a turning point.
The format of the event meant that each participant’s total would be split equally between county and club, and Murphy believes that approach was a huge driver for the success of the event.
“It was incredible overall, you’d have to say hats off to the Offaly county board for the initiative, it has provided an incredible boost to small rural clubs like ours at a time when it was badly needed," he said.
“There’s clubs out there on their knees at the moment, all their income streams have dried up and they need to be ready to get back into action very soon. The Walk meant that people could support Offaly and support their local club at the same time, and it says a lot about the positivity and energy there is in the county at the moment that it was so successful."
County fundraising events like this rarely draw a huge amount of support from across the border, but Murphy, who runs a GP practice with his wife in Roscrea and serves as the Tipperary senior hurling team doctor, got a lot of backing from people in the Premier County in this event.
“It’s been a tough time for a lot of people but we got a lot of help from both sides of the border, people just wanted to show some solidarity and they understand how vital sport is for areas like this. Getting an injection of funds as has happened here means that hurling still has a future in the area, and we’re all really looking forward to getting back to living that future and to seeing the kids get back out on the fields and into action."
Even after amalgamation, it took some time for Ballyskenagh-Killavilla to find their feet. They were still competing in the Junior championship in Offaly when the October lockdown meant that all games had to stop, so their flagship side is not where they want to be, but at underage level, Murphy feels the club is beginning to make a bit more of an impression again.
“I think everyone accepted the need to join up, the numbers just weren’t there, we all went to school together and we were playing together at underage level anyway just to make up numbers.
“It’s taken some time for a new generation to come along but that’s starting to happen now and for us to have a player feature for the Offaly minors in their Leinster championship run in 2020 was very important. Luke (Watkins) hopefully will get to play that final against Kilkenny, but, one way or another, his presence is a sign that we’re taking our place again and Offaly hurling needs us – it needs everyone, just like at club level, we’re too small to lose any club.
“I’ll give a lot of credit to Michael Duignan and his officers, we put in place a ten-year strategic plan and he spent a full evening going through all that with us, helping us along and making sure he understood what we were about, and that makes a difference."
Murphy takes part in that club effort by coaching some of the local juvenile teams, while continuing to use his medical expertise to highlight other issues in the GAA, most notably that of concussion. He took part in a Symposium at Croke Park in 2017 that highlighted the important points ordinary coaches need to consider, and feels that overall, there has been real progress made in the GAA.
“I think as an association, we’re in a good place right now," he says. "The message is very simple – if in doubt, leave them out – and I can see that people are taking that on board. I work with the Tipperary seniors and at that level it’s probably quite easy to follow proper protocols since you always have a full panel with high quality substitutes ready to come in if anyone has any sort of a knock that makes you suspect that concussion might be an issue.
“It’s a different story in a junior club league game where maybe it’s an important player, or you don’t have a sub ready to come in, but even in that situation I think in the GAA there’s a realisation that there’s too much damage can be done by leaving someone continue to play on. Concussion is cumulative in that when you haven’t fully recovered and taken the time needed, that’s when you can do a lot more damage.
“It’s a quite scary experience, if you’ve been through it.
“I played in an interprovincial game for Leinster out in Boston and I can’t remember most of the game, and I had a few other concussions as well. There are a lot of sports that have a problem coming down the road with it, but to be fair I think the GAA has to be commended
“The partnership with UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, a world leader in concussion study and awareness) and Dr. Micky Collins have created huge awareness and while there’s always room for further development, overall the GAA have taken the bull by the horns and there’s a big difference between where we are now and where we were 30 and 40 years ago."
Making positive changes, step by step. That’s been Brendan Murphy’s approach, whether he’s had a hurl in his hand, he’s walking the canal, or driving a new approach to head injury in gaelic games.