December 29, 1995
DOWN'S BRILLIANT FULL BACK OF THE SIXTIES LEO MURPHY
There was something about Down. Thirty five years later, it is still impossible to define that something, but there are choices. Was it the sheer novelty of a team coming from the six counties? Was it the colour of their jersies? Or was it their bright and breezy brand of football? There are gaels who say that the team was full of personalities . there was the busting James McCartan, the deadly accurate Paddy Doherty, the multi-talented Sean O'Neill, the cool, calm leadership qualities of Kevin Moran, the style and calculated play of Joe Lennon and Kevin O'Neill, the opportunism of Brian Morgan, the versatility of Tony Hadden, the dependability of corner backs George Lavery and Pat Rice, the strength of Dan McCartan, the agility of Eamon McKay, the attacking talents of Patsy O'Hagan and the midfield mastery of Jarlath Carey.
And what about the man in the No. 3 jersey? Leo Murphy was, without doubt the finest full back of the era his youthful enthusiasm and intelligent defending was a key component in Down's emergence as a major force. He had some memorable tussles with Kerry's John Dowling. Offaly's Donie O'Hanlon, Cavan's Charlie Gallagher, Donegal's John Campbell and Dublin's Lar Foley, but he acquitted himself superbly in the very best of company.
The small fishing village of Kilkeel is situated in the shadow of the Mournes, about half-way along the scenic route between Newry and Newcastle. In Leo's school days at Donovan Primary School, the local club was known as the Young Emeralds but it was his teacher Sean Collins from nearby Ballymartin who emerged as a huge influence on Leo's career .. "he played with Ballymartin and was a sub on the county team he imbued in me a great love of the game and it was in the school leagues which he organised that I first experienced the team game. Those leagues, in the south Down and Mourne area, were something of an innovation at the time, about 1950, and they certainly played an influential role in improving the standard of football at underage level."
Like most of colleagues, Leo went on to receive his secondary education at St Colman's College in Newry where he was a boarder for six years. St Colman's had won the McRory Cup for the first time in 1949 and had retained the title in 1950 and when the young student from Kilkeel arrived, football fever was quite intense. The boys who had made the breakthrough in '49 were regarded as heroes Kevin Mussen, PJ McElroy, the late Stephen McKay and Sean Blaney (the captain) they had created their own tradition. The McRory Cup was not captured again until Leo's last year at Violet Hill when the arch-rivals, St. Patrick's of Armagh were beaten in the final of 1957.
Also included on the 1957 team were Dan McCartan, Patsy O'Hagan and several others who were to wear the county jersey with Armagh, Antrim or Fermanagh. Leo is in no doubt as to the part played by St Colmans and the team coach Fr John Treanor in his development as a player.
The progress continued at St Mary's Teacher Training College in Belfast where Derry's legendary Jim McKeever was the PE lecturer and GAA coach. Among the fondest memories of Leo's career is of playing with and against the great midfielder and of having him as a teacher as well.
There was no Higher Education League at the time but St Marys participated in the South Antrim League where the footballers education was enhanced in many tough encounters. Seamus Mallon of the SDLP was playing with St Marys and Armagh at the time and although he was a few years ahead of Leo, the Downman has fond memories of Seamus, both sporting and social.
Leo played for two years with Down Minors, 1956 and 1957, and in the latter year, the team was unlucky to lose to Armagh who went on to contest the All-Ireland final. The county's Junior and Senior selectors had taken note and in the autumn of 1957, the man from Kilkeel made his debut at Senior level in the Lagan Cup . the Ulster section of the National League. Down qualified for the final in which they met Tyrone at Casement Park on the first Sunday in December. Tyrone, the then Ulster champions, won by 0-11 to 1-4, but there was a growing belief that Down was the "coming" team.
Leo recalls that the men in charge of the destiny of Down football at the time were a particularly enlightened group. They were firmly of the belief that the breakthrough could be made "not only a provincial level but at national level as well. They put a great deal of thought into the business of team selection, deciding to get the best possible panel from the whole county and to persevere with them, and they also had a policy of arranging challenge matches outside of Ulster because there was nothing as crippling as playing inside a little closed circle year after year, with no experience of matches against order styles so that when we would get to Croke Park, we would not be at any disadvantage. The whole purpose of the exercise was to broaden our experience and develop further our football personalities. They also introduced all-year round training which was quite innovative at the time. Maurice Hayes was probably the great planner but he was ably assisted by men like Brian Denvir, Barney Carr and TP Murphy. Having any kind of policy was probably unique they were certainly way ahead of their time, both revolutionary and innovative. Indoor and outdoor training under the late Danny Flynn and the games against teams from outside Ulster played a huge part in our success."
Leo was at full back when Down captured the Ulster Junior title by beating Antrim in the 1958 final .. also on the team were Kevin O'Neill, Patsy O'Hagan, James McCartan, Tony Hadden and Paddy Doherty. Victories over Donegal at Newry and the holders Tyrone at Lurgan paved the way for a Senior Championship final clash with Derry at Clones on the last Sunday in July. Neither team had previously won the title but it was Derry who acclimatised the better and were worthy winners on a 1-11 to 2-4 scoreline. "It was part of our development and proved that a defeat now and again doesn't do a button of harm, as long as you can learn from it. We learned, despite the huge disappointment, and returned twelve months later to make amends.
One of the major factors in the 1959 breakthrough cam ewith the victory over Galway in the then-prestigious Wembley Tournament. Down defeated Derry at Lurgan on a play-off game and many observers believe that the victory in London was the catalyst which eventually led to Ulster and All-Ireland glory. The occasion was not without its panic situation this time it involved Leo, who forgot to check in at Nutt's Corner Airport in Belfast and had his seat allocated to a stand -by passenger. But he still managed to make it to London on the Friday night and went on to play a leading role in the Mournemen's exciting two-point victory.
The Championship soon got underway and a victory over Antrim at Newcastle was followed by an important challenge game against Dublin on a Tuesday evening Croke Park . In keeping with the policy of broadening the players' experience. On the following Sunday, they drew with Tyrone in the Championship but won the replay comfortably to set up a provincial final meeting with Cavan at Clones. "We had great admiration for our opponents and their proud tradition but we were never going to fall into the trap of showing them too much respect." It was one of Down's greatest ever displays as they swept to a convincing victory, 2-16 to 0-7. The breakthrough had been made.
The All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Galway was, like the Ulster final defeat by Derry twelve months previous, part of the learning process even though the immediate emotion was one of intense disappointment. "We were accumulating this great store of football knowledge, experience and know-how. We certainly learned from the Galway match and it was the best lesson ever we got . a defeat like that can be extremely beneficial if it can be used properly, which we did. The success of the following year provided ample roof."
The Wembley Tournament trophy was retained, and the team qualified for the National League final for the first time by defeating Kerry in the semi-final. And they went on to take the title for the first time by beating Cavan in an historic first All-Ulster decider. With a first National title under their belts, Down stepped out in confident mood in defence of their Ulster title. The Antrim and Monaghan challenges were brushed aside and recent superiority over Cavan was confirmed in the Ulster final at Clones.
Offaly had emerged from Leinster for the first time as the winds of charge continued to blow across the world of gaelic football.
A draw, not without its controversies, was the result and the referee was changed for the replay. The games have now gone into the GAA's folklore the attendance were unprecedented and it was Down that came out on top in a closely fought replay. In September, Kerry provided the opposition in the All-Ireland final but Down were not going to be outdone and the Sam Maguire Cup was on its way across the border for the first time.
"The games against Offaly in 1960 made champions out of us we gained invaluable big-time experience . they were extremely tough encounters with no quarter asked or given." There was an amazing reaction across the country to Down's victory. "It wasn't only in the county or indeed in the province that the breakthrough was welcomed. Everywhere we went, there was an incredibly affectionate welcome and a totally new respect for the red and black jersey, which has lasted to the present time." The Mournemen's incredible year continued in 1960 with a victory over New York in the St Brendan Cup.
The successful run continued in 1961 with a third successive victory in the Wembley Tournament and a third Ulster title on the trot, after difficult games against Fermanagh, Derry and Armagh (in thee final). Kerry were beaten in the All-Ireland semi-final following a majestic display by the Mournemen and the scene was set for an intriguing showdown with Offaly. The biggest crowd ever to attend a sporting event in the country, 90,556 saw Down retain the title by the narrowest of margins.
The League title was regained in 1962 with a one point win over Dublin as Down's ranking in the history books had been further enhanced but Cavan caused a major shock by inflicting a heavy defeat on the champions in the Ulster final. Down appeared jaded and had little appetite for the fare.
Leo played in the No 3 jersey in ten consecutive Ulster finals, winning six. He missed out on the 1968 All-Ireland success, arguably the only real regret of a career that saw him win all of the game's top honours. He now resides in Rostrevor and is Principal at nearby Killowen Primary School. Wife Sodilva is a native of Armagh which causes some problems when Down and their neighbours meet! Sodilva and Leo have four children, two girls and two boys, all with beautiful gaelic names, Ciara, Tara, Leon (pronounced Lon) and Donard.
Taken from Hogan Stand magazine
29th December, 1995
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