JOHN MURPHY DOESN’T want to talk.
“I’m a little bit embarrassed,” he says.
“My story is not remarkable. It’s about a young fella who went to England and had a go at professional football, had three-and-a-half or four years at it, came back and played League of Ireland without achieving anything spectacular. I read other people’s profiles and they have interesting stories. I probably don’t, to be honest with you.”
An hour later – after an enthralling, compelling conversation that involves anecdotes and memories about mid-90s football – we wrap up.
It’s anything but unremarkable.
“I gave it my best shot,” he says before putting the phone down
“Yeah, I was better than most fellas locally. And I certainly thought I was good enough to play in the Premier League but it didn’t work out that way. I worked hard at it. And I don’t regret it. I don’t hold any bad feelings against it. Things happen for a reason. And I’m very happy with how things turned out.”
Murphy was born and raised on Cork’s northside and counted St. Mary’s as his local club. He started with them at eight years old and from there it was Kennedy Cup with his county before international call-ups in his mid-teens. He was part of the same Ireland underage group as Shay Given, Gareth Farrelly, Mark Kennedy and Willie Boland and, given the talent available, they excelled.
“This was before qualifying for the Euros was national news in Ireland, before Brian Kerr raised everything to a new level,” Murphy says.
We reached the Under-16 European Championships under Joe McGrath in 1992 and it was completely under the radar. But we were fantastic. We had Spain, Romania and Holland in the group. And at that time, you had Holland – who beat us – with Clarence Seedorf in the middle of the field and Patrick Kluivert in the squad. Spain – who we drew with – had a fella called Ivan de la Pena in midfield – The Little Buddha, as they called him. With Seedorf, we’d already heard about him and that he was on the fringes at Ajax. We didn’t know much about him beyond that but you still recognised that he was the best player in the competition by a mile. We won one, drew one, lost one and it wasn’t enough to get through to the knockout stage but it was a great standard.”
Given the quality of the Irish side, scouts monitored quite a few of the players and Murphy began to receive some enquiries from English clubs, including Liverpool. But when Aston Villa brought him over to Birmingham for a look around, he knew it was the place for him.
“I didn’t want or need to go anywhere else,” he says.
“I was happy with how the treated me and what they offered. But I never would’ve gone without finishing school. My father was intent on me doing that. It’s a bit unheard of now but I started school on my 4th birthday and there was no Transition Year for me either so it meant I sat the Leaving Cert when I was 16. I was able to go over to England having sat my exams. It was either go over to Birmingham or go to college and it was going to be Physiotherapy or Teaching for me. My father insisted I could only go if my Leaving was out of the way so I did it in June and went to Villa in the July.”
“Yes, there was homesickness and it took some time to get used to but the most important thing that happened to me was that I was placed in digs with Jim Walker, the club’s physio. I fitted right in with their family – his wife Sue and their two daughters. They had a son who’d gone to the US on a scholarship so I slotted in. And there was Gareth Farrelly in the house with us too because he’d signed for Villa at the same time and we shared a room. He didn’t stay too long because it didn’t suit him but it was a second family for me. It was easy to integrate and to find company. You weren’t in a hostel and feeling isolated. They were keen to make it feel like a family environment so that we felt more comfortable.”
Murphy’s deal saw him serve as an apprentice for a year. The YTS scheme earned him £39 per week and it was the usual workload: tidying up the dressing-rooms and being general lackeys for the first-team players.
“I was given Paul McGrath’s, Ray Houghton’s and Steve Staunton’s boots to clean,” he says.
“I was interacting with these fellas – who I’d just watched at World Cups and European Championships – and I was a bit starstruck, to be honest. But they were ordinary guys and quickly became a part of the circle you were in. You didn’t walk around with your mouth open. You become used to their company. And they always looked after us with a decent Christmas bonus too.
But at that time, everybody was together in the same complex at Bodymoor Heath, everybody lived in the same areas. And maybe I was a bit closer to the players because I lived with Jim, I travelled with him to training and players were always in the house all the time. Because I was interested in physiotherapy, I maintained the medical room and the equipment so I was always dealing with the senior players.”
Murphy was walking into the club just at the right time. Under Ron Atkinson, Villa found a great blend of steel and skill. And it was the 1992/93 season when everything seemed to click. Dean Saunders was signed from Liverpool for £2.5m and his partnership with Dalian Atkinson was electric. There were strong midfield figures like Kevin Richardson and Garry Parker and everything was anchored by McGrath – Murphy’s hero – at centre-half.
“The best player I’ve ever seen is Paul McGrath,” he says.
And Jim Walker was tasked with looking after him That’s in Paul’s autobiography too, just how thankful he is to Jim for all of his support. Because the night before a Saturday game, the team would stay in a hotel close to Bodymoor Heath but they wouldn’t let Paul be there. They didn’t want him in the hotel, they didn’t want him going to Manchester. They wanted Jim minding him. And that’s what happened. So, Paul stayed with us on a Friday night. So we’d be together in a room with two single beds and then I’m up watching breakfast TV with him the following morning. It was surreal. But it became very normal. He was the most polite man you ever met. He did look up to Jim and the family. And it was the best way to deal with him and look after him before a game.”
“He was my biggest hero. He was a physical specimen. He was big, imposing. He wasn’t a great communicator because he didn’t talk very much but his ability to be where the ball was at a crucial time was magnificent. And for me – somebody who was studying him – you came to the realisation that you can’t teach that, you can’t learn that, you can’t coach that. To always be in the right place and without ever being flustered or seemingly having to break sweat to do it. It was an amazing trait to have. We work hard to be footballers but the natural ability he had…it just couldn’t be coached.”
“Dalian Atkinson was around at that time and he was the most cocky and self-confident person I ever met. Arrogant, even, to an extent. But the only person he would bow down to was Paul McGrath. This was the fella who thought, genuinely and openly, that he was the best player in the world. But who still felt Paul McGrath was better.”
Though McGrath would walk away with the PFA Player of the Year award, Villa squandered the chance to win the very first Premier League title. With the finish line in sight, they collapsed and were picked off by Manchester United.
Still, the mood was positive. Maybe with another one or two smart signings, they could compete for the championship again. For Murphy, he was buoyed too by the other young talent pushing their way to the first-team. Atkinson believed in giving the raw and inexperienced a chance, like Dwight Yorke, Ugo Ehiogu and Graham Fenton. The defender had an encouraging relationship with his manager too and felt he’d get his chance if he remained patient.
“They bring you in as a young fella to try and impress you, particularly if there are other clubs interested,” he says.
“You meet the manager, you meet the chairman – the late Doug Ellis – you sign the contract in their presence – all of that stuff. And I still have a huge amount of time for Ron Atkinson. He was a huge character and I got to know him very well because he was great friends with Jim and was around the house so much and always in contact with him. He was a man’s man and a great, great manager. He made sure he had the best coaches around him for the tactical stuff but as a manager, a man-manager and for getting the best out of players, he was excellent. As a result, the players wanted to play for him and that was his best trait, for me.”
Atkinson landed silverware in 1994 but it was the League Cup, not the championship. Villa were never in contention for the title but the Wembley win papered over some cracks. Still, the following season, the club ran out of paper. And Big Ron was gone.
“The first season I’m at the club and they’re flying, absolutely magnificent,” Murphy says.
“The second they drop off a bit and the third season they’re struggling and there’s a threat of relegation, really. But, I was pretty close to stepping up. I had been captain of the youth team when we won the equivalent of the FA Youth League Cup and we beat Spurs in a two-legged final. The next year, I was with the reserves and I was knocking around the first-team squad and travelling with them and I was on the bench a few times.”
I was on the verge and about to make my breakthrough and, I felt anyway, about to become a regular. Steve Staunton was still there but not playing all the time and suffering from injuries. Yes, Phil King was there but Bryan Small had gone out on loan and there was an opportunity for me to get games under my belt.”
Ironically, Murphy was probably closest to finally making a competitive appearance when Brian Little took over as manager.
His second game in charge was a League Cup tie against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park and he named Murphy on the bench. Despite taking the lead, Villa were thumped 4-1. Murphy could well have got on but for Ehiogu’s early red card that ensured a relentless second-half onslaught from the hosts and their subsequent comeback.
The narrative complements Murphy’s football career perfectly: almost but not quite.
“The guy who’s talking to me about extending my contract and his plans for the first-team and how I was part of it…well, he goes,” he says.
“But in fairness to Brian Little, he arrived and maintained everything. About two weeks after he joined, we had Leicester away in the league. He had just left them to take over Villa and I was on the bench for that game again. But, after Christmas, he decided to change things around and do things his way. There were about 12 or 13 guys on the fringes of the squad and were told their contracts wouldn’t be renewed. It was disappointing but each manager has their own view. And it happens so regularly that you have to be realistic about it.”
“I do think Brian came into a culture where he felt there was still a legacy of Ron Atkinson and his players. Brian was a much quieter manager and the difference between them, I always said, was that you may not have seen Ron in the building but you still knew he was there. Brian could walk up the corridor and you’d bump into him without ever knowing anyone was coming towards you. He didn’t have the same presence. When you look at the players he inherited, maybe he had to make those changes. Ron was very loyal to the fellas who did very well for him. And that team that finished second in 1993, you may have had to move on from that.”
Murphy didn’t collapse into a fit of fury and anger and resentment. He knew he had the ability and he finished out the 95/96 campaign with a litany of loan deals: Shrewsbury, Torquay and Preston.
With Jim Walker’s contacts too, he wasn’t overly worried. But when the offers came in, none were long-term. They weren’t even medium-term.
“I still thought I’d be a footballer but just not at Villa so it didn’t knock me too much,” he says.
But, the deals on the table were all for one-year and two-years. This was the mid-90s. There was no certainty in it, there wasn’t the money that there is now. It wasn’t going to make me rich. I always say that Denis Irwin went to Leeds and didn’t make it, went down to Oldham and came back up with Man United. But for every Denis, there’s 99 other players who went down and never came back up. And then they’re suddenly in their mid-20s with nothing behind them. But I did consider the options and went back home to Cork that summer.”
With his father a big influence, Murphy had always been studious. He was already a rarity: a footballer with a Leaving Cert under his belt. But when he was in Birmingham, he did one day and two nights per week for three years at Sutton Coalfield College and picked up a diploma in Business and Finance. And when he was on Leeside, those hours in the classroom led to an opportunity.
“That summer I played with Cork City in friendlies against Sunderland and Southampton but the club was in a vastly different place to where they are right now,” he says.
“They were still in Bishopstown, fellas didn’t know if they were getting paid at the end of a week, you didn’t really know what was happening. It wasn’t a great setup so I guested with some other teams – Athlone, Sligo, Shelbourne. But, funnily enough, a friend of my father’s, Liam McMahon – the manager of Cobh Ramblers at the time – contacted him and said, ‘Kevin, what do we need to do to get John to sign for us?’ And they had a strong side at the time. Cobh put me in touch with a guy involved in the insurance business and I ended up getting a job through that connection. I was able to put the Business and Finance diploma to use and get something out of it and I signed with Cobh, but on the basis that I’d be going back to England eventually. But it didn’t work out like that.
I was 21, my girlfriend, Tara, was here and we settled down together. I still thought I was a footballer first and working in insurance part-time. But before I knew it, football became the secondary career. I ended up staying at Cobh for eight or nine seasons and had a wonderful time. I captained them for a few years, ended up being assistant manager but without ever achieving any real success. And it’s a huge credit to Cobh and other teams like that they still manage to operate in the League of Ireland, put teams out with small crowds and very little resources and have so many volunteers doing the work.”
By his mid-20s, Murphy had taken his insurance exams and starting to really enjoy the industry while his football needs were still being sufficiently satisfied too.
“It wasn’t consuming all my time,” he says.
“There was training two or three nights a week. Now, the weekends were tough – you had Finn Harps, Monaghan, Longford, Athlone, Sligo, Drogheda – but they were the games and places that built character. And the First Division in the late-90s and early 2000s was a very, very tough place. You grew up quickly. You learned that football wasn’t always pretty. You had to be hard and you had to grind things out. You went to places that were desolate and it gave you a wider education about the game.”
“But then my wife had twin boys. I was in my late-20s, we were settled in a lovely house in Carrignavar and it started to become increasingly difficult. Being away three nights a week for training and then overnights every second weekend…it’s not fair on your wife or anyone else. So I made the decision to put League of Ireland to one side. And there was nowhere else I was going except back to St. Mary’s and I ended up playing in the Munster Senior League with them until I was 36.”
It’s my club and that’s something that’s come back fierce now. You talk about full circle. I took over the academy when my boys started to play and now I’m looking after the Under-17s and I’m also the club treasurer, my wife is youth secretary and PRO, the boys are playing and my daughter comes to all the games. I was lucky enough to have a good career in terms of the standard I played at. And wouldn’t it be a shame for somebody like me to drop my kids off at the gate, head off for a coffee and come back an hour later? I couldn’t do that. I felt I had something to give. Maybe I didn’t know it would be to this level but it’s where I started, it’s on the northside, it’s where I’m from.”
There’s a remarkable epilogue as our conversation draws to a close. It’s another reminder of Murphy’s humility. A story that comes up almost by mistake. Most fellas would begin conversations with it. But Murphy, evidently, is a bit different.
It actually begins with him discussing the grassroots and the notion of local teams and how reputation, the old days and stories about having breakfast with Paul McGrath mean absolutely nothing.
“If you go into St. Mary’s now, I’ll be on the pitch hanging the nets or on the gate of the senior games collecting the 3 euro entry fee,” he says.
“I help out anyway I can. The same way the chairman does or anyone else. And if you go through our teams, most of the fellas wouldn’t know I was in England or that I played at that standard. Because it’s just pretty ordinary, to be honest. But if my boys are in the house and something like Premier League Years comes on the TV, I’ll tell them about marking David Beckham at Bescot Stadium in Walsall. But I don’t broadcast that because I’ve moved on and I’ve a different life now. A cool job, a fantastic family. It’s a part of my life that I’m hugely proud of but I’m more proud of what I’ve done since, in terms of family and work and all of that.”
He laughs when I ask to press rewind so we can delve into some more details.
“In winter, Villa didn’t play reserve games at Villa Park because they wanted to minimise the damage to the pitch,” he says.
“So, from November to March we played at Bescot, which was only five or 10 miles outside Birmingham. But that day against Man United, we had Paul McGrath because he was coming back from injury, Andy Townsend played, Mark Bosnich was in goal, Tony Daley was on the wing in front of me. And this was a reserve game. United had Beckham, the Nevilles, Nicky Butt, Ben Thornley, Chris Casper. We had a side made up of first-team players, they had a side made up of young fellas and it ended up as a 2-2 draw.”
“But I will say that around then, I played a youth international against Northern Ireland at Dalymount and I was marking Keith Gillespie. And if you asked me at the time, Gillespie was a tougher opponent than Beckham. He was a speedy winger and he’d take you on. You were doing doggies all day with him, up and down. Beckham wouldn’t go past you at all. He’d never threaten a full-back the same way in terms of making you work. But he built his career around his passing and his crossing.”
Very, very occasionally, Murphy will allow his mind to drift and he’ll smile at the memories.
“To be honest, it’s embarrassing for me to be talking about it but when I’m with my mates and talk of times gone by and I name the players around me at Villa…it was magnificent – it really was,” Murphy says.
“There was my biggest hero in Paul McGrath. There was the likes of John Fashanu walking around the dressing-room – Bosnich, Nigel Spink, Shaun Teale, Kevin Richardson. These guys were real men and great players. And even being taken over to Spain for a pre-season tour and playing against Atletico Madrid and getting to travel with these fellas and being around them…I didn’t become a full international or have a Premier League career but I saw some things that I can look back on and say, ‘That was pretty cool’.
I kept some of my Ireland jerseys and my Villa gear just to show my kids what it looked like. And we had so much stuff. At the time I think half the northside of Cork was walking around in Villa stuff. But you were just delighted to show it off and be able to give it to your pals. Müller Rice were the sponsors at the time and we had a garage at home and if you opened the door, crates and crates of it would fall down on top of you because Jim Walker handled the distribution of it and I ended up with loads of it.”
Our conversation drawing to a close, Murphy gives a general assessment of his football career.
“I always remember that Gareth Farrelly went over to Villa with me,” he says.
“He could do half the work but still be a better player. Some people just have that natural talent. I was never the most naturally gifted player in the world. But, by Hell, I worked hard. I put my head down and did all that I could.”
John Murphy didn’t want to talk.
But it’s nice that he did.
Subscribe to our new podcast, Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42, here: