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Wednesday 22 January 2020

Murphy's law

Twenty years after his Tranmere debut, his love for the game is as strong as ever

Joe Murphy, who earned two senior caps for the Republic of Ireland, is set to play for Shrewsbury in the FA Cup today. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Murphy, who earned two senior caps for the Republic of Ireland, is set to play for Shrewsbury in the FA Cup today. Photo: Sportsfile
Murphy in action in the first round of the FA Cup for Shrewsbury. Pic: Simon Stacpoole/Offside

It's a career which began so long ago that a player from the Jack Charlton-era Ireland side was a team-mate. Now, he's surrounded by colleagues who would have no idea who Jack Charlton is.

It's also a career that is still going. Today, Dubliner Joe Murphy will line out for his current club, Shrewsbury Town, in the third round of the FA Cup, a full 20 years after he played in that competition for the first time. A time when his then club (Tranmere Rovers) and Manchester City were at the same level, in the same league. City, of course, are on a different planet right now.

"I don't know if I am the oldest footballer in England now but there can't be too many older than me. It's been a long old stint," says the 38-year-old keeper, who made his debut for John Aldridge's Tranmere Rovers in 1999 when former Ireland striker David Kelly was a team-mate.

Having joined Shrewsbury from the now-defunct Bury FC in the summer, he's had to settle for the back-up role with youngster Max O'Leary first-choice keeper for Shrewsbury. But their Cup game is against Bristol City and as O'Leary is on loan from them and can't play against his parent club, so Murphy steps in.

How come he's still going, 20 years after his debut? "I had a lot of luck. I had managers who liked me, I had good spells which earned me a move," he says. "But I am still hungry to play, I always loved the game, and I have a few years left in me, I've no idea what level but I want to play on a Saturday.

"I have been lucky with injuries, I had more serious injuries in the last five years than I did when I was younger. You need dedication but you also need a love for the game and I never lost that. You have to think, 'I can play in the Premier League'. You need to think that way."

Murphy says he's proud of what he's achieved and has no plans to shuffle off into retirement. Yet his career was also a case of near-misses. Like the time he almost joined Liverpool, or the three years spent on the books of Premier League teams which yielded just two top-flight appearances, or the Ireland career which gave him just two senior caps.

But he's more of a glass half full person. "Could I have had more games or caps? Absolutely. But I am also very proud of what I achieved. I played in the Premier League, I played for my country at senior level, that's something I can stand over," he says.

Aldridge gave Murphy his debut as an 18-year-old. "I think I made the right decision in terms of the club I went to. I felt Tranmere was a good place to go.

Struggling

"The team was struggling in what's now the Championship, Division One then. Aldo just stuck me in. I had no idea I was going to play so young but I did okay, got a run of games, I had five great years at Tranmere and got the move to West Brom."

Within weeks of his debut, he was off to Liverpool. Almost.

"I made my debut in October when we were struggling, but we had an upturn in form when I came in.

"I can honestly say I didn't do anything in the games, I think the other players in the team looked around, said 'lads, we have a kid in goal, we need to up our game' and we got some results, moved up the table and had a run in the League Cup," Murphy says.

"Around 10 games into that run I started to hear rumblings, that Liverpool were interested. I was a Liverpool fan as a kid so it was crazy to hear that.

"I went back to Dublin for some young sports star awards, I won the soccer award, and Gerard Houllier was guest speaker. He approached me, he just said 'what you are hearing is true, I'd like to sign you for Liverpool'.

"They made a bid but Tranmere knocked it back and it never went anywhere. If I had gone to Liverpool I might not have played and could have just disappeared, they had Sander Westerveld at the time, how could I have got in ahead of him?"

When he did move, in 2002, it was to West Brom, and in September of that year he was a Premier League player, on as a sub at Anfield after Russell Hoult was sent off, the first of just two PL games for the Baggies.

He was also at Sunderland when they were in the top flight but didn't play at all. Missed opportunity? Not so.

"I was in the Premier League twice but was I Premier League standard? Probably not, it wasn't my level. But to play there was amazing, my debut at Anfield where I came on and saved a penalty. I dipped my toe in the Premier League but that's all it was," he says.

His Ireland career was also brief, two senior caps between 2003 and 2010 and a lot of time spent on the bench or in squads. "I'd have liked more caps but Shay [Given] was one of the top four or five keepers in the world at the time so, again, how could I replace him?" he says.

"I'll play in the FA Cup and I will enjoy that. I'm 38, I am fit and playing well and enjoying it. I could have had more in my career but I can look back in time, look back on playing against Man City at 18, beating West Ham in the FA Cup as an 18-year-old. That's not bad to have as a memory."

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