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'I didn't have the same love for AFL as I had for Gaelic. It wasn't the sport I thought it would be'

Young Sligo footballer Red Óg Murphy chats about his decision to return home after a stint with AFL side North Melbourne.

afl-kangaroos-training Red Óg Murphy of the North Melbourne Kangaroos runs with the ball during a training session last month. Source: AAP/PA Images

HAVE YOU HEARD the one about the Sligo and Derry teenagers who were interviewed by an American for an Australian channel?

Red Óg Murphy and Oisin McWilliams were on trials with AFL side North Melbourne in August 2018 when the club’s American media coordinator spoke to the pair for their in-house social media channels. 

McWilliams, the star of Derry’s run to the 2017 All-Ireland minor final, couldn’t make out the interviewer’s accent, leaving Murphy to answer the majority of questions by himself. 

By the end, even the person in charge of the subtitles had given up on trying to make out what the duo were saying.

Source: North Melbourne Football Club/YouTube

“God, that was difficult,” said the interviewer afterwards. “You guys’ accent is hard!”

The video was posted on 30 October 2018, the same day Murphy’s two-year rookie contract with the club was announced. The accent aside, he spent a good deal of time explaining his unusual name to the Aussies during his early days Down Under.

“I’d to explain it a good bit out in Australia,” Murphy tells The42.

“They didn’t understand that ‘Óg’ means ‘young’, so I’d to explain that alone to them. My dad is Redmond, so my name on my birth cert is Redmond Óg Murphy, but everyone calls me Red Óg.”

Murphy flew out to Melbourne to link-up with the club for the second phase of their pre-season in January, yet by September he was sitting in the classroom of St Attracta’s Community School in Tubbercurry, Sligo starting the first week back as a Leaving Cert student.

What happened in the intervening eight months that caused Murphy to give up the AFL dream? His answer is simple – the sport didn’t tug on his heartstrings like the GAA.

“Ultimately it was just that I missed playing Gaelic,” he admits.

“I didn’t have the same love for AFL out there and I wasn’t really enjoying sport, it wasn’t the sport that I thought it would be.

“I think I got caught up in the whole professional lifestyle. Obviously to make it at the game you have to actually like the sport and in the back of my mind (I didn’t).

“I didn’t mind the physical side of it out there. I didn’t mind getting tackled and that, that didn’t really bother me at all. I think it was more the game, the way the game is played. I just didn’t enjoy it, you don’t have as much opportunity to express yourself.”

His father proved a useful sounding board when Murphy was weighing up the decision to pull the plug last month.

“My family were the first people I told and I was talking to them about it. It kind of came about that my Dad said, ‘We’re not going to be disappointed in you if you want to come home.’

“Then straight away I was like, ‘If they’re not going to be disappointed in me then….’” his voice trails off. 

“So then we kind of started coming to a decision, over the space of maybe two weeks we came to a final decision.” 

He showed good form by scoring two goals for the club’s reserve side on the last of his 12 VFL appearances against Footscray on 18 August. Yet a couple of short weeks later, Murphy had swapped the Aussie Rules guernsey for the St Attract’s school uniform. 

“Originally I was told I’d get the equivalent to the Leaving Cert out there. I left last January so I’d already done half my Leaving Cert and then I was supposedly meant to get the equivalent out there but that kind of fell through after a while.” 

Murphy admits the transition from professional athlete back to secondary school student has been a little strange.

“The people in the school – the vice-principal, principal and all the teachers were so nice to me. They helped me get back into everything and back into a routine.

“I’m in the same year as my brother and I knew a few of his friends so that made things a bit easier as well. But it was definitely a bit of an adjustment going from a professional lifestyle back into school again. 

“Even different people I’ve met who I went to school with were like, ‘Oh you’re home! You’re home for good?’

“And I’ve been just like, ‘Yeah, I wasn’t enjoying the sport and I missed playing Gaelic and I just didn’t have the same love for it.’ That kind of stuff.

“I’ve been lucky in a way because I haven’t been coming back into nothing. I’ve got back into my school work, that’s something to focus on and trying to get back up to playing that high level of Gaelic again.

“They’re two focuses so I can keep my head down with that. So I’ve been lucky in that kind of way in that I haven’t had to come back into something where I’ve had to go looking for a job and you’ve time to be thinking about it and all that.”


1365645 Red Óg Murphy scored 0-11 against Derry during the 2017 minor championship. Source: Oliver McVeigh/SPORTSFILE

Rated as one of the hottest attacking prospects to emerge in Sligo in recent times, Murphy famously kicked 11 points in the county’s All-Ireland minor quarter-final defeat to Derry in 2017. Earlier that year, he bagged 1-3 as St Attracta’s saw off St Jarlath’s to seal the Connacht A schools title.

Murphy had the world at his feet and looked destined for a long career for his club Curry and the county side. He knew little of the AFL before he was invited to attend a combine in UCD in December 2017.

A talented natural left-footer but more than capable on his right too, his athleticism, vision and ball skills impressed visiting scouts and North Melbourne’s Nick Byrne in particular. He was invited to trial at the club in August 2018 where he underwent a series of physical tests in addition to a character assessment that’s standard for all potential recruits.

His running capacity ranked him in the top echelon of players at the club. He agreed on a two-year deal and North Melbourne delayed announcing the news until after Murphy played for Curry in the Sligo intermediate final replay, which they lost by three points. 

He landed in Australia for the second block of the club’s pre-season training at their Arden St facility in January. “It is pretty tough,” he says. “You’re running up to 12km in a session and the sessions are up to three hours long.”

Ever since he put in a disappointing display during one of his first games for the club’s reserve side back in April, returning home was on Murphy’s mind.

“I was pretty upset after the game. Then the club ended up putting me through a development phase and I ended up getting moved to the forwards.”

afl-kangaroos-training Murphy and Lachlan Hosie look on during a North Melbourne Kangaroos training session. Source: AAP/PA Images

A brief return home during a mid-season break only served to further cement the idea that the AFL wasn’t for him. 

“When I came back in June I hadn’t touched a Gaelic ball since the previous November because I’d been putting all my time into practicing with the footy.

“When I came back in June me and my brothers went up to the pitch and we were kicking the Gaelic ball around and it felt familiar. I was a lot more comfortable with it and I missed it. Then when I came back to Australia for the second-half of the season, I got back into things again.

“But then towards the end of the season again I was missing playing Gaelic. I knew at the back of my own mind I didn’t have the same love for AFL as I had for Gaelic. I was trying so hard to make it work.

“In the VFL especially, it might be a harsh phrase to use, it’s a bit of a kick and catch. You’d kick the ball and the big man goes up for it. The smaller forwards as we were called, we’d get in around and follow the ball.

“You’re more playing as part of a system, it doesn’t give you much chance to use your ball skills and that kind of stuff.”

230819_RedLarge Murphy during his season with North Melbourne. Source: North Melbourne FC

As the VFL campaign neared its conclusion, the size of his impending decision started to weight heavily on the youngster even though he hit form by scoring four goals and one behind in his final five games.

“I was having sleepless nights before we played Geelong in one of the last games of the VFL. 

“That week, I was contemplating the whole thing. Leading up to that game, from the Monday and we played on the Saturday, I wasn’t sleeping at night.

“On the Friday night, Dad said to me, ‘Go into the game as if you’ve made a decision in your own head. Whether it’s that you’re going to stay and push on for another year or you’re going to come home and get back into Gaelic, school and all that.’

“I ended up making a decision in my own head and I slept that night,” he adds.

North Melbourne suffered a resounding 137-36 beating to Geelong. After the game, Murphy put his exit plan in motion.

“I was talking to other people about it, like the psychologist at the club. That was helping me through that whole phase. Then I had to tell different people at the club that I wasn’t going to be coming back.”

Watch the first goal Murphy (#45) scored in his final game during the opening seconds of the video below

Source: AFL Victoria Comps/YouTube

Despite his decision to return home, Murphy has fond memories from his stint in Melbourne. He couldn’t speak more highly of the Irish AFL contingent who reached out and made him feel welcome in a new city. 

“I was good friends with the majority of them,” he says. “I was very good friends with Mark Keane and Stefan Okonbur in particular because they were around my own age.

“I’d gone for lunch and dinner with Zach Tuohy, Conor McKenna, Conor Nash, Conor Glass – they’re very good for looking out for you. There is a Whatsapp group and every so often they meet up for a meal and that just to see how everyone’s getting on.” 

afl-geelong-training Ireland's Zach Tuohy and Mark O'Connor alongside Geelong team-mate Scott Selwood. Source: AAP/PA Images

His former county minor team-mate Luke Towey looks set to join the Gold Coast Suns according to local reports. Murphy’s advice to his friend was simple: “The most important thing is for him to be himself and do what ultimately he wants to do. That was the only bit of advice I gave him.” 

From our conversation, you get the sense the Australian experience has greatly benefited Murphy even if it only lasted eight months. He retains a very positive outlook. 

“I’ve learned so much,” he says. “Before I went out there I hadn’t done much gym. Even that alone, since I’ve come back I have a bit of a routine now with gym and my recovery, my skills then up on the pitch and training as well.

“So it’s helped me understand what I have to do to get to the level that everyone wants to get to.” 

Sligo boss Paul Taylor has been in touch but for now, Murphy is fully focused on regaining his feel for the round ball and his club duties. 

“I’m still not where I’d like to be, I still have a good bit of improvement to do just to sharpen the skills and all that but hopefully now I can keep the head down and keep working.

“We’re into the intermediate quarter-final with the club now on Sunday so that’s what I’ve been focusing on at the minute.” 

Onwards and upwards.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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