Paul Murphy during his days playing with Dundalk FC in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division. (Pic: Sportsfile)
Leeds United’s link to Ireland’s north-east was strong 20 years ago. Gary Kelly and Ian Harte were in the Yorkshire club’s first-team, while a young Bryan McCrystal had headway made. And, in April 2000, the Elland Road outfit got their hands on another of Louth origin, a goalkeeper, Paul Murphy.
The Cluan Enda teenager had plenty of suitors, among them his boyhood favourites Manchester United. But the decision really lay between Liverpool and Leeds. He chose the latter and while he’s reluctant to highlight particular regrets, it’s clear that he’d make the Merseyside move if time were to revert.
As a 14-year-old he was taken by The Whites to an U18 competition in Switzerland. Deemed ineligible by tournament organisers on the basis of his tender age, he was thrust into the action against Boca Juniors under an assumed name, that of Chad Harpur, the team’s South African stopper who’d picked up an injury.
Murphy excelled against the Argentinians, earning plaudits and the man of the match accolade. It was there and then that Leeds decided that they had seen enough of the six-foot-odd Coláiste Rís prodigy to offer him terms.
And so two decades ago this month he put pen to paper on a one-year youth agreement with a view to a four-season professional contract. He was 16 and just over his Junior Cert when he said goodbye to home. A case of ‘I’ll see you sometime’ with five years at Leeds on the horizon.
Though, by 2004, the odyssey was over.
“I’m no longer playing - I haven’t played in eight years due to a back injury and I was 35 a couple of weeks ago. It was such a big part of my life, but as time went on I started to fall out of love with it. I don’t really miss it that much.”
It’s a cruel game, football. Murphy had been sold a dream by Leeds, groomed in a sense. Alan Hill, their academy director during the initial stages of his transfer, was a key figure in his decision to choose United over all others.
“Leeds were doing so well, in the Champions League and competing for the Premier League, in the seasons before I went over and the excitement and buzz of the whole thing, it was all very new to me,” Murphy recalls.
“I’d gone on lots of trials and while I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t prepared for what was coming, it was very scary at the time because I wasn’t used to being away from home.”
The setting he was relocating to was in contrast to what had been bargained for. Hill was no longer at the club, with his replacement, Brian Kidd, introducing his own players and philosophies.
“Straight away, I had a kind of inkling that something wasn’t right because in pre-season I’d noticed that they’d brought in a 14-year-old fella called Scott Carson! He was absolutely outstanding.
“I felt I could still give it a good shot. I got stuck into pre-season and played in my fair share of friendlies, but as time passed, I knew every week I wasn’t going to be playing. It had got to the stage where they weren’t even considering me. When I look back on it, it was very unfair for a young fella to be pushed aside like that.”
And with nobody to lean on, to confide in intimately, the daily routine was punishing.
“I knew it wasn’t going to end well because I didn’t feel as though they wanted me any more. I remember speaking to my father and saying that I didn’t think it was going to go the way I wanted.”
McCrystal was there as a support, taking him for a bite to eat on occasions, but they were apart most of the time before the Jenkinstown defender’s tenure at the club ended.
Instead, Murphy’s existence revolved around Leeds’ training ground, about a 45-minute bus journey from the city centre. He lived with Kildare native Andy Cousins in a hostel at the club’s base and while the craic was mighty among the players, they were really just a bunch of kids trying earnestly to get by in the company of strangers.
“If I was giving myself advice, at 15 or 16, now, I definitely wouldn’t have gone to Leeds,” says Murphy. “I made the wrong decision going there, I think, because at the time I did have a lot of options. I went to Liverpool and they’d offered me a similar contract and Manchester United as well.
“Under Alan Hill, when I was going over and back, the family side of it, I felt very welcome by the regime, but by the time I’d gone over the whole thing, the whole atmosphere, had changed. The way they made me feel wanted under Alan Hill, that was the special part of, it wasn’t there.”
His memories of training with the first-team are positive, getting up close and personal with England internationals Paul Robinson, Nigel Martyn and Rio Ferdinand, while Robbie Keane was a good influence on the budding Irish. But not playing was a source of consternation and cost him in other ways.
Brian Kerr, his manager at international level, told him so.
“Mentally, I’d to deal with a lot and in that season at Leeds, I got injured and I couldn’t go to the mini-Olympics that were being played in Spain with the Irish team. That affected me a wee bit and by the time we got to the European qualifiers, it turned out that my mistake, against Yugoslavia, put us out.
“It was a turning point for me. It was when I realised that the entire year at Leeds, it had killed me. Brian Kerr made the point in the dressing room afterwards, he said ‘you need to go somewhere and play’.”
A disastrous term ended in 2002. Due to sign his professional contract with Leeds, they offered him an out. Hill was now at Leicester and so there was a beacon of hope.
“They wrote off the contract and I moved on.”
“I played very well and we beat Arsenal. Jermaine Pennant was playing in the game; he absolutely roasted our left-back, but, thankfully, he didn’t score. Off the back of that they signed me; they offered me a two-year contract.”
His mentor met him at a train station in Leicester on a midweek afternoon.
“Leicester asked me to play in a reserve match against Arsenal on a Wednesday night at the old Filbert Street,” Murphy adds.
“I hadn’t been playing at Leeds and was still only 17, wondering to myself if I was ready. I needed the push, basically, and I got it. Alan Hill picked me up from the train station and showed me around. He got me together.
“I told him I was a bit nervous about the whole thing, but he said to me ‘all you have to do is impress the Gaffer’.”
Micky Adams was in charge of The Foxes and with finances tight, the ultimate decision over any incomer fell to his discretion.
He took a punt and Murphy flourished the following campaign, as Leicester’s first-team earned promotion to the Premier League, finishing behind only Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth in the Championship table.
He’d spent a week on trial at Millwall around the time he joined City, where he encountered his Ireland underage colleague Mark Quigley, but he preferred Hill, Adams and Leicester. Successfully so.
“My first season was probably my most successful in terms of games. I’d a very good year with the U19s in the academy league, got promoted to the reserve team and then I was on the bench seven times that year for the first-team; I got a squad number.
“But I never got that chance. I think had I got it, it might have catapulted me a bit and dictated how far I could have gone. It didn’t happen, we got promoted and things changed in the second year. They brought in more goalkeepers and my game-time went down a bit; I was more involved with the U19s.
“I went to the club in January and asked what the plans were. They assured me that I was part of them, but it was going to be based on whether they survived in the Premier League or not. I was hanging all my hopes on them avoiding relegation, but when they went down they called me in and said they had to cut the cloth, ‘we’re going to have to let you go’.”
The day the news was broken to him remains vivid in mind.
“I remember it like it was yesterday, in the office with Dave Bassett, he was the director of football at the time. It annoyed me a wee bit because I thought it would have been the manager who did it.
“I was being assured by Tim Flowers, the goalkeeping coach; he said he was confident they were going to keep me, but what killed me the most was the fact that I had to ring home - after being confident enough that they were going to offer me a new deal - to tell my parents (Gerard and Theresa), who were absolute rocks for me, that I was coming home.
“It was very late on in the season, so I hadn’t very many options. It wasn’t a case of going home for a break and then going back to look for trials. I didn’t see that as being an option.”
Where to next? Back in Dundalk by mid-2004, with two years to run on his scuppered arrangement with Leeds, wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
“It was very hard to come home and not be training every day; you were kind of just sitting around the house. When I look back, I didn’t do myself a lot of favours in terms of not looking into doing something else.
“The education side of it wasn’t really pushed on us when we were over in England. We used to do college one day a week, but if the day fell on a day where the first-team needed you, you had to train and you’d miss your college work. It took me a wee while to realise that I had to do something else.
“I started off doing painting and decorating with my cousin, Jim Treanor. He was very busy at the time and he offered me the chance to give him a hand. Thankfully, he was very patient at the start and to this day I’m still working with him. I’ve got a trade that I love now.”
“When I did hurt my back, it got to a point where I had to make a decision on whether to play on or else risk not being able to work. My work was becoming very important to me and my family - and football wasn’t.”
Hill, it’s clear, was hugely influential in Murphy’s time across the water. But so was Brian Kerr.
“It was outstanding to work under Brian because he was very good at getting players going and getting the best out of players that he knew were going into games as underdogs. But because of the way he geed us up, in a lot of games, we got the results.”
Present St. Johnstone supremo Tommy Wright and Oriel hero Stephen Kenny are others who would figure prominently as his career on this island unfolded. He joined Dundalk under Jim Gannon, before progressing north to Newry City and Portadown, where he won an Irish Cup medal in 2005, and on to Wright’s Ballymena. It was at the Antrim outfit that his injury trouble kicked in.
Knocked unconscious during a fixture with Lisburn, his outlook on football was fatefully altered.
“That’s the moment that I can pinpoint in my head, I was never the same again,” he contends. “You know the fear of coming for crosses? I couldn’t get rid of it.”
Murphy persevered and was back at Dundalk by 2011, linking up with Quigley in a decent squad assembled by Ian Foster. They reached the Setanta Cup final, but tailed off towards the closing months of the campaign as off-field issues began to manifest themselves.
Backache was a recurrent theme by this juncture, yet Kenny was willing to take a punt when assuming the Dundalk reins. A third spell was on the cards.
“When Stephen Kenny took over Dundalk, he asked to meet at the Crowne Plaza and I agreed to sign a one-year contract. He knew I was injured, but he felt we could manage it and get me back fit.
“But the day I was to meet him and sign, I got up off the sofa and my back went again; just randomly went. I had to phone him and tell him I couldn’t walk.
“The physio, Paul Cheshire, probably thought I was three-to-five weeks away from being fit, which probably left Stephen thinking that by the time the season would start I’d be fit enough to be No2 behind Peter Cherrie. But the setback would have set me back further and they didn’t have the time to wait. That was it.”
He adds: “I stopped watching a lot of football at that time. When the injury confirmed it for me, that I couldn’t be involved any more, running was even a problem, it knocked the wind out of me. As much as I loved every bit of what Dundalk achieved, there was still a part of me saying that I could have been a part of it at some stage.”
Yet, as strange as it may seem, Murphy isn’t angry or frustrated by his stint in football. He wishes he chose differently 20 years ago, though it would be a mistake to say that he’s rueful.
“I probably didn’t play as many games as I should have, but it was a helluva time.”
Rather, the father of two is happy living locally with his wife, Donna, and kids Lily-Rose (7) and James (5).
Catches he could never have pulled off in football.