Gallagher needs cure for Murphy headache
Donegal are battling to get the best out of their captain at Croker
If Cork ever needed warning of what Donegal captain Michael Murphy could do, they got it early in 2012.
Seconds into their National League clash in Ballybofey, Karl Lacey ran onto a pass in midfield and launched the ball forward. Murphy out-muscled his marker, turned and banged it into the net - with only 14 seconds gone.
Plays such as that one showcase what Murphy is about. With his accuracy, natural size and strength along with his developed ability from both feet, he is the prototype full-forward.
But since the 2012 All-Ireland final, and ahead of today's qualifier against Cork, Murphy's effectiveness has been called into question. His scoring contribution has become negligible.
In the last four Ulster finals, he has been held scoreless from play. In fact, over four games in his province this year, Murphy only managed one point from play in total.
It was 10 seasons ago that he made his championship debut, the same summer that Brendan Devenney played his last.
"I thought he was an astonishing talent. With his size, I wasn't sure how he would mature when he got to 21, 22 because he was so far evolved," recalls Devenney. "But everything about him was on the money."
The playmaker in Donegal's breakthrough Ulster title triumph in 2011, Michael Hegarty can recall then selector, now manager, Rory Gallagher urging him to find Murphy with long passes.
"In the Ulster final against Derry, we were favourites," says the Kilcar man. "I was playing centre-half-forward that day and Rory said, 'when you get the ball, let her rip'. We ended up getting joy from it.
"The goal came from a long ball kicked in when we won the penalty. I had the latitude that when I turned, I could just lorry it 40 or 50 yards. Murphy was causing havoc."
Since the 2012 All-Ireland win, Murphy's role has become that of troubleshooter. His ability to force turnovers and play a part in transition from defence to attack is impressive. But it takes a lot of hard yards. At 26, you wonder how many more years he can squeeze out of himself in this role.
Hegarty says: "Somebody is going to have to make peace with the idea that Donegal are not doing enough to relieve Murphy from out the field.
"People are going to have to play him at full-forward and try to work to their strengths, rather than getting him to win possession out the field."
The problem with having a player of Murphy's excellence is figuring out where his talents are best suited. Although he watches all of Donegal's games as an analyst, Devenney himself is still not sure.
"For the first Monaghan game, I was saying on-air that at this stage, Murphy knows best, the management knows best. He plays where he needs to," explains Devenney. "He went inside and was such a threat that I changed my mind.
"Then, in the second game against Monaghan, he was brilliant and played nearly the whole game out around the middle, playing balls through, giving great leadership. He really took the game to Monaghan."
So, a few weeks down the line, what conclusion has he reached? He responds: "It depends on the game."
In this year's Ulster final against Tyrone, Donegal were locked in a game of cat and mouse. A telling moment came when Gallagher stood on the sidelines urging his team to get forward in order to distort the Red Hands defence. Call it age, pressure or simply a hot day, but the zip in their legs from 2012 has gone.
Hegarty believes freedom of expression is suffering.
"It's okay to be cautious, but I think it has gone over the top. The players are not expressing themselves at all. I think a lot of the boys who played would have no memories at all of the match because they would be so down about the thing.
"They would be crucified if it was too over the top, if boys are not allowed to play, because there is no enjoyment out of it."
As Donegal prepare to face Cork in Croker today, they might think back to the same stage last year in their win over Galway.
A high ball was put in towards goal, Murphy hung in the air and tipped it down to Ryan McHugh, who finished to the net. Simple. Effective. He still has it all in his locker.
Devenney is cautious about the future. He adds: "Looking at the games he has played, he has probably produced the kind of work that most players have by the time they turn 30. He has the miles on the clock."
Gallagher could be the Donegal manager for the next five years and oversee a huge transition. Murphy may or may not see his role evolving.
But should Gallagher leave any time soon, the next man would be keen to put his own stamp on things. It would start with Murphy, who would become the permanent point of reference at the edge of the opposition square.
Play it that way and Murphy could be around for another half-dozen seasons at least. Continue in the way he is being used now, with the effect of injuries accrued around the middle, and he might not.