herald

Tuesday 12 November 2019

David v Goliath - a tale of two special players

Clifford and Murphy look in the mood to light up Croker

Greatness beckons: Kerry's David Clifford is expected to be put on a pedestal as his career progresses
Greatness beckons: Kerry's David Clifford is expected to be put on a pedestal as his career progresses

You're a marketing whiz-kid, new to Croke Park, tasked with drumming up an extra 10,000 ticket sales for Sunday's Super 8s double-header.

You could opt for the do-or-die theme to coax as many Mayo and Meath fans through the turnstiles. Then you realise its futility: half of Mayo will travel to the game regardless.

But as you ponder the headline event, a thought strikes you: not alone is this a clash of two in-form heavyweights, you've got the poster boys to prove it.

Michael Murphy may not have the medals to match Dublin's all-time greats, yet many observers regard Donegal's captain as the best footballer in Ireland.

And then, in the Kerry corner, almost a decade his junior, stands David Clifford.

"I said it last year, I believe he's going to go on to become the greatest Gaelic footballer the game has ever seen," proclaimed Joe Brolly on The Sunday Game four nights ago.

If the subject were anyone else, you might rush to dismiss it as Brolly being Brolly. Yet Clifford has been so effortlessly prolific, when Kerry were great and even when Kerry were gruesome, that it's a claim worthy of serious assessment.

Premature beatification? Perhaps, given that his senior career stretches back barely 18 months. Then again, not every glittering young talent boasts a minor CV quite like Clifford's. The winner of back-to-back All-Irelands, his tallies in 2017 were so outrageous that the crowning glory of his 4-4 final haul against Derry merely iced an already ample cake.

Development

As Peter Keane, his then minor and now senior boss, reflected afterwards: "A lot of people would compare him to Maurice Fitzgerald. I have first-hand experience of Maurice, we grew up together in Cahirciveen. I would say he's actually ahead of Maurice at this stage in his development."

Clifford's immediate graduation to senior didn't take long to justify. One statistic tells a multitude: his four-game running total at the Super 8s stage is a staggering 4-21 (3-17 from play).

As Kerry laboured last July and early August, he tallied 4-14 in three games. As Kerry shot the lights out against Mayo last Sunday, his peerless 0-7 included five from play and a touchline free straight from the Maurice Fitz playbook.

"Clifford is an unmarkable snake. I don't know what we're going to do with him on Sunday!" admits former Donegal player Brendan Devenney.

And yet, for all of Donegal, hope is embodied in the giant frame of their leader.

Michael Murphy turns 30 next month. If it seems like he's been around forever, that's probably because he made his SFC debut back in 2007, when still only 17.

There are similarities between the 20-year-old Clifford and the younger Murphy, who started out as an inside colossus.

Some traditionalists still wish he would act like an old-fashioned number 14 and simply stay there. "For years," says Devenney, "people kept saying - particularly people from outside the county - 'Murphy has to play on the edge of the square.'"

But that is to miss the point about this ultimate team player and supreme all-rounder. For years, but especially now given the inside options available to Declan Bonner, Donegal's greater good was best served by his roaming commission.

Thus, when waxing lyrical about his Meath tour de force, you'd almost overlook his 0-3 (0-2 from play) such was his all-embracing influence around the pitch.

Murphy won seven second half kick-outs, five off his own 'keeper Shaun Patton, including that sublime moment of telepathy when - with the sides back level - he flicked on to the accelerating Ryan McHugh for a Jamie Brennan point that could easily have been a goal.

"He seems to have really grown into that midfield general," says Devenney, even though he expects Murphy to play a more advanced role against Kerry.

Physically, he looks in peak condition this summer. There may be another reason for this, Devenney ventures: the "freshness" that comes from leading a team playing football on the front foot.

"There were a few years, he had a few knocks, but he looked very laboured," the BBC Radio Ulster pundit admits. "Whereas now, he's got that real spring and he's enjoying his football. I think that all comes down to Bonner and the guys and how they're approaching games."

And then, of course, there is the aura of the man who led Donegal to Sam Maguire in 2012. Harking back to his seasonal return from injury, against Armagh on a foul Ballybofey night in early March, Devenney recalls how "the whole team lifted. The vibe in the whole stadium changed. You could feel it on the pitch."

That's what special players do.

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