Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

TO GET AN idea of the influence Michael Murphy has had on Donegal’s fortunes, consider their success before and after his arrival on the scene.

When he made his senior debut as a 17-year-old in 2007, Donegal had won just five Ulster titles in the previous 123 years of their history. It would be four years before he’d even play in a provincial final.

Murphy skippered them to his first Anglo-Celt crown in 2011 and now has five titles to his name, all won as captain. It’s a stunning achievement by the 29-year-old, who has been the central figure in Donegal’s decade of dominance. 

“It feels every bit as good as the first,” he admitted after the game.

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Michael Murphy, Donegal’s football leader and now 5-time Ulster senior winning captain. 👏 2011 v Derry 🏆 2012 v Down 🏆 2014 v Monaghan 🏆 2018 v Fermanagh 🏆 2019 v Cavan 🏆 #GAA #donegal #ulster #michaelmurphy

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Across the eight Ulster finals he’s appeared in over the last nine years, Murphy has scored 1-17. Just once, in the six-point defeat to Monaghan in 2013, has he failed to score in a decider. 

“In Michael Murphy, you’ve the best player of the last 10 years,” gushed Sean Cavanagh on The Sunday Game last night.

“Probably, if I’m honest, he’s the most influential player I’ve ever seen over any team in the last three decades.”

‘He’s probably the most influential player I have seen in the last three decades’ – @SeanCavanagh14 and @tomas5ky pay tribute to influential Donegal captain Michael Murphy

— RTÉ GAA (@RTEgaa) June 23, 2019

This Donegal team has a very balanced look to it. Declan Bonner’s side are deservedly being viewed as the greatest challengers to Dublin’s throne. The addition of Stephen Rochford into the backroom team is looking more like a masterstroke the longer the season goes on.

Their blistering counter-attacking team is built on the surging runs of pacey half-backs Ryan McHugh and Eoin Ban Gallagher. Crucially, they’ve got capable man-markers in the full-back line.

Goalkeeper Shaun Patton has one of the best kick-outs in the game and he has a rangey midfield pairing of Hugh McFadden and Jason McGee to target. McFadden showed against Tyrone that he can also act as a shield in front of his full-back line when required.

They’ve got scorers up front in Jamie Brennan and Paddy McBrearty, who hit 1-9 between them against Cavan. But Murphy is the heartbeat of this team and his fingerprints were all over Donegal’s good play in Clones. 

He scored 0-4, provided assists for a further two points and started the move that resulted in Jamie Brennan’s goal. He also completed every single one of his 18 passes by hand or foot on Sunday.

In the 31st minute, Murphy saw a point-attempt blocked by Oisin Kiernan. He strolled out to take the resultant 45 and spotting the Cavan defenders asleep, the quick-thinking Glenswilly man dinked a pass into Niall O’Donnell who was free in a small pocket of space on the Cavan 21m line. 

O’Donnell popped over the score to edge Donegal 0-12 to 0-4 in front. The play summed up everything that’s good about Murphy’s game: his awareness, intelligence and unselfishness. 

Murphy was man-marked by Killian Clarke, a fine athlete who tracked him all over the field. Murphy played a sort of roving full-forward role, opting to retreat out the field to get himself involved from open play.

His 21 possessions indicated just how involved he was in the game. When he did drift away from the edge of the square it left a gap for his team-mates to exploit. He was always moving, always looking to affect the game.

With speed demons McBrearty and Brennan in the attack, Murphy can operate as the conductor of the orchestra. Donegal don’t depend on him for scores and he’s just as happy to be back inside his own half putting in defensive work.

Murphy made an impressive nine tackles in the 70 minutes. When a forward of his calibre is back hassling and harrying opponents, it tends to rub off on the rest of his team-mates. 

With Donegal leading by 1-20 to 1-13 in the final six minutes and the game as good as wrapped up, Murphy was still prepared to go on lung-busting runs back to protect his defence.

(Click here if you can’t view the clip above)

Indeed, from the 65th minute on, Murphy stationed himself behind the Donegal half-back line to help his team control the final few minutes of the game. 

During that spell, he had six possessions, completed four handpasses, won a break and made two tackles – all inside his own half. Even with Donegal coasting to a victory, Murphy showed his willingness to put in the hard yards for the greater good of the team, content to allow his younger team-mates to run up the score at the far end.

Donegal have yet to use him in a target-man role at full-forward, but they may be keeping their powder dry for a crack at the Dubs later in the year. 

“What we’ve done in Ulster won’t matter a jot in the Super 8s,” warned Murphy.

“It may give us a small bit of confidence to push on but I know that the other teams won’t give a jot about it.”

It’s that attitude that makes him great. Donegal are back-to-back Ulster champions but they’ve plenty of work still to do this summer. 

One thing is for sure: Murphy will be ready.

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