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Why Donegal need the Murphy-McBrearty axis to click

It is rare that two stellar talents such as Murphy and McBrearty would have such an overlap in their careers. And yet, as the evidence shows, have not truly established a strike partnership when both were on song for the biggest days of their careers, writes Declan Bogue.
Jun 27th 2021, 8:00 AM 9,476 2

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LET’S TAKE IT back to that dark November night of last year in Armagh city.

Cavan are playing Donegal in the Ulster final. Donegal are aiming for their first ever trio of consecutive provincial titles.

Killian Brady is black carded for a tackle on Ryan McHugh after 13 minutes and while Cavan had been 0-5 to 0-2 prior to this, Donegal outscore Cavan in that 10-minute punishment period for Brady 0-7 to 0-1 to command proceedings and lead 0-9 to 0-6.

Patrick McBrearty got off the mark on 13 minutes after a pass from Ryan McHugh. A minute later, he created a trademark loop to take possession and doubled his tally.

He had to wait for the first attack of the second half for his next score, a converted free. He slotted over another free on 49 minutes but by the 57th minute with Donegal just a point ahead he was withdrawn for Ciaran Thompson.

Cavan prevailed with a goal in injury time. McBrearty was furious with himself.

“Donegal management might have got a lot of criticism for it but there was a reason behind it,” points out former Donegal player, Eamon McGee.

“In terms of them defensively, pressing up on kickouts, Paddy seemed to be struggling a wee bit with it and Cavan were then creating that overlap. So there was a solid reasoning. People from the first perspective might have questioned it but there was a logic.

“He would have been hurt and mad to bounce back from it and go again. Maybe what we are seeing now is the response to it, becoming that real focal point, to become the Michael Murphy of the Donegal attack.”

He had to wait several months to do something about it with the multiple lockdowns ruling out county football.

In the second league game, we got an emphatic response. Michael Murphy had to come off after five minutes with a hamstring strain against Monaghan.

Conor McCarthy of Monaghan hit the net three times in the opening half. Donegal’s Daire Ó Baoill was sent off 18 minutes from time. And yet Donegal kept coming back, with McBrearty on fire. He grabbed seven points, four from play by the final act of the game when he caught a delivery and stuck over a mark to draw the game 1-20 to 4-11.

A week later, he was up against Armagh. On a scorching evening Kieran McGeeney’s men were four points up with seven minutes of normal time remaining. McBrearty kicked into top gear and hit two from play and Donegal once again pulled a draw out of the fire as he fired over another 0-8, three of them frees.

At times, the crowd got on his back. Opposition players certainly tried to rile him. But he never bit back and showed reservoirs of experience.

“I was told by a coach at underage that if you’re getting abuse it’s a compliment to you,” he said to reporters afterwards.

“I’ve always taken that with me since I was U14 and I was getting attention back then. If you were getting abuse it’s a good thing, so I’ve always kind of taken that.”

And yet, McBrearty is still only 27 years old. In that Armagh game, he was the last man standing from 2012 – the only man on the pitch with a Celtic Cross in his collection.

It would seem certain that Michael Murphy will be fit to play today in Newry against Down. Donegal do not have to do it without him anymore, and yet McBrearty played some of his best football in years when the responsibility was thrust upon him.

The first time they ever played together was Donegal’s first win in the Ulster Championship in four years, on a sodden day in Ballybofey and an iffy win over Antrim in 2011, a decade ago.

It was the day McBrearty achieved the rare distinction of playing minor and senior Championship on the same day. He was intercepted coming off the pitch after the minor defeat by senior backroom member Maxi Curran who brought him away to chase a bowl of pasta down him and change into fresh gear for the substitute’s bench.

 Back then he was that young and innocent, he refused to wear gloves, instead smearing his hands with the stiff hair product, Dax. The preference for no gloves was never going to stick under a manager as strong on detail as McGuinness.

paddy-mcbrearty Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“People have to remember that Paddy came into the squad when he was 17, so there was a lot of talk about Paddy,” says McGee.  

“He has fulfilled a lot of the stuff too. We talk about tiers a lot in football but in terms of player tiers, Murphy is up there and I believe that Paddy McBrearty has the potential to become that really top-tier player.”

If Donegal are to do something meaningful this year, then they will need Murphy and McBrearty in tandem like never before to come through big tests on their side of the Ulster draw and starting in the preliminary round.

Murphy’s absence in the two league games might have taught manager Declan Bonner and his tactical sounding board Stephen Rochford plenty.

In compiling his own highlight reel with the goals against Armagh and Monaghan, Michael Langan served notice that he could be the type of player could step in to deputise for Murphy around the middle.

Plop a few other big units into that sector; Hugh McFadden acting as the defensive midfielder, Jason McGee alongside Langan and then Odhran MacNiallais at the head of that diamond, then the middle is well staffed and could allow Murphy to play closer to the opposition goal in a two-man full-forward line with McBrearty.

A redeployment of Murphy, who will reach his 32nd birthday on 4 August, would please McGee.

“In fairness I would have loved to have seen it when I was playing that we could have left Murphy on the edge of the square. Not even there, but a more central role rather than picking ball up around midfield.

“But Murphy had to fill a void, he has done that, become one of the best in Ireland at that.

“Murphy has been consistently operating as one of the best about.

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“Paddy has been up and down and that’s the thing. Maybe we need to see more. That Paddy consistently brings it day in and day out and that he is going to be like Murphy; a 9 out of 10, 8  out of 10. And we are maybe seeing Paddy get there and get to that level.”

Take a look at the big games the two have played together.

McBrearty started but didn’t score in the 2011 Ulster final. A year later, albeit just 18, he started the All-Ireland final but was first sub off and without a score, while Murphy set the tone with the early goal against Mayo.

In the 2013 Ulster final, both were held scoreless in a miserable defeat to Monaghan.

Come 2014, McBrearty started neither the Ulster or All-Ireland final as they captured their province but lost the Sam Maguire decider to Kerry.

It can be said that the 2015 final was the first time they played together and meaningfully contributed, with McBrearty hitting 0-6, 0-4 from frees and Murphy tapping over two frees in another loss to Monaghan.

Neither were impressive in the 2016 final loss to Tyrone, and in the 2018 final win over Fermanagh, McBrearty suffered a terrible cruciate ligament injury.  

Playing them together would require a leap of faith.

“I see Langan with that potential to fill midfield,” says McGee.

“Where Donegal can put all the possession through him and he becomes the ball carrier. And Hugh McFadden will fill that somewhat defensively. Hopefully now in the next few years, space is starting to become available.

“We might see Michael in the last four or five years of his career moving inside. That he doesn’t have to put in these massive shifts that he can. He has an opportunity to go toe to toe with a man.”

Alongside him, McBrearty can continue to do his impersonation of Arjen Robben, where opposition know that he will work the ball onto his left foot, but there is precious little they can do once he has it there.

“We all know what Paddy is going to do. Anyone with a video and a rewind button can see it,” laughs McGee.

“He has the power to go at you, he creates that loop so, so well. Creates that space for himself to have the shot.

“He is still hard to mark. You know what is coming but he is still able to do it and that’s because he is so good.”

Donegal’s hopes hinge on Murphy and McBrearty. Together, they have another three, four, possibly five years together. How they spend it is the key to Donegal’s hopes.

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Declan Bogue


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