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Sunday 25 August 2019

Keeper of the flame: ‘An All-Ireland final is the big day... That’s what you dream of as a kid’

NUMBER ONE: Eoin Murphy was the All-Star goalkeeper last year. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
NUMBER ONE: Eoin Murphy was the All-Star goalkeeper last year. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Once upon a time, current Kilkenny selector James McGarry collected Celtic Crosses with indecent regularity and yet was never awarded an All-Star.

A six-time All-Ireland winner, he was first-choice goalkeeper for Brian Cody's first four September triumphs: in 2000, '02, '03 and '06.

Even though Kilkenny fans raged at his career-long All-Stars exclusion, McGarry was the ultimate victim of his own team's miserly brilliance. Compared to several overworked rivals, he rarely had to showcase his shot-stopping acumen.

Unlike Eoin Murphy.

Life as a Kilkenny keeper can get pretty hectic at times. For Murphy, this was perhaps most obvious 12 months ago, when he made four saves - three of the highest order - against Limerick at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage.

Two of those saves, turning near-certain Aaron Gillane goals into points, were nominated by The Sunday Game for 'save of the year'. The third nominee? Murphy again, for another flying stop to deny Galway's Conor Whelan.

Many would argue that another save against Limerick, diverting a low bullet from Gearóid Hegarty, up and over the crossbar, was best of the lot.

Ultimately, those heroics couldn't save Kilkenny in Thurles. And yet, when it came to handing out the All-Stars, the goalkeeper from Glenmore was the obvious No 1.

He was also the first hurler from outside the All-Ireland semi-finalists to be honoured since 2012. It was his second award: his first also came in a year Kilkenny came up short, to a rampant Tipperary in the 2016 final. They haven't been back in an All-Ireland ever since.

All of which helps to explain Murphy's impatience to revisit the biggest stage. He may have four All-Ireland medals - as third-choice keeper and extended panel member in 2011, as second-choice to David Herity in 2012, and as starter in 2014 and '15 - but four years without 'Liam' represents Kilkenny's longest famine in two decades under Cody.

Bulletproof

Less than a fortnight shy of his 29th birthday, his status as the premier keeper in the game is pretty bulletproof, but the best players always measure their careers in collective honours, not individual plaudits.

Hence Murphy's mindset as he prepares to renew battle with Limerick in tomorrow's All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park (6pm). For so long the hunted, Kilkenny are now the hunters.

"When I was growing up, they were winning [All-Irelands] every year for a number of years or every second year, certainly so," he recalls.

"But at the end of the day, no disrespect to the Leinster, the All-Ireland is the be-all and end-all.

"You want to be there every single year," he expands. "Leinster final, look, brilliant - don't get me wrong. But an All-Ireland final is the big day. That's what you dream of as a young kid, running out in front of a packed house and the parade and whatever else goes with it.

"Then, obviously, the 70th minute winner - that's really what you dream of. So look, for 70-plus minutes, Limerick are going to be in our way and we just have to bring our 'A' game because they are not league, Munster and All-Ireland champions for no reason. We just have to make it a battle really."

Based on Limerick's Munster final tour de force and their 8/15 odds, John Kiely's reigning champions represent the ultimate battle for Kilkenny at the penultimate stage.

Their prospects of an ambush have been bolstered, though, by the return of several Cats laid up through injury at the start of this campaign. No one more so than their goal-saving, long-range free-scoring custodian.

******

Timing is everything, and Murphy's looked particularly wretched when he damaged his knee playing his usual outfield role for Glenmore in a club match back in April. When it happened, it was a pain level he had never experienced before.

The Leinster round-robin series was just three weeks away. Initial doomsday fears of a ruptured cruciate were allayed, but any optimism was all relative: in hyper-extending his knee, he had suffered a fracture at the top of his tibia.

As it happened, Murphy defied the predictions of his own manager by making it back on the pitch for Kilkenny's pulsating round-robin finale in Wexford on June 15. He had missed just three games, during which Darren Brennan deputised.

The keeper is now three roller-coaster contests into his comeback: the draw in Wexford Park, a painful Leinster final defeat to the same opposition, and Kilkenny-of-old second-half charge against Cork 12 days ago.

Worried

Looking back, he was "definitely" worried that he might not feature at all this summer; after all, one more Wexford point in his comeback game would have knocked them out of the entire All-Ireland series.

"They'll give you a time frame of six to ten weeks but, in between that, it could be anything at all or it could be more," he says of his injury.

"It was right on top of the tibia. That's carrying all the weight ... couldn't do anything for a few weeks. Even when I came back, I just really had to mind it. Doing a good bit of work on the bike. But it's not the same. Even mentally.

"That was the hardest thing, I couldn't train. You don't feel a part of that when you're not out pucking a ball. If you have a pulled hamstring, you can still be there pucking a ball. I was just plodding along on crutches. It was odd."

Match days weren't much better: he was "an absolute wreck" as a spectator.

The Sunday morning of Kilkenny's defeat to Galway, Murphy came through a tough pitch session. Lots of running, but now with twists incorporated. "The confidence," he recounts, "was back in the leg." And once he caught the first ball in Wexford Park, six days later, he felt good again.

Mind you, he didn't feel great after the Leinster final. The key post-match learning? "Better use of the ball," he answers, "from myself right up to number 15."

But now, one redemptive win later, Kilkenny are back where they want to be. Back within sight of the holy grail.

"Our second half was very good against Cork. Still, when you are playing teams like Limerick where they waste very little, our scoring percentages need to go through the roof against them," Murphy reasons.

Limit

"And obviously we have to try and limit them from creating the chances that they have been creating.

"But look, we have a good few more games underneath the belt and we just really need to go at it from the first minute. We can't wait until the second half because Limerick will have us blown out of the water."

Unless, of course, a certain All-Star keeper is in one of those moods.

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