What Makes Martin Murphy Tick
In What Makes You Tick I get the chance to pick the brains of some inspirational people from all walks of life, in the hope that by sharing ideas we can continue to progress, push our limits, and inspire each other.
Martin Murphy is one of the top Gaelic football managers in the domestic club game in Leinster. A native of the midlands town of Portarlington, he hails from the Offaly side of the River Barrow.
“We’ve always lived local. I went to school in the CBS, and after doing the leaving cert I had an opportunity to go to college, which I didn’t take unfortunately, but having said that I don’t have any regrets with the way life has panned out for me. I’m quite satisfied that I did what was best for me at the time, and it’s worked out reasonably well.”
After finishing school, Martin joined the prison service, and has enjoyed a long and successful career up to now.
“I joined the prison service in ’86, and last year marked 30 years of service, having worked at Mountjoy, Portlaoise, Midlands and in latter years, in the Operational Support Group. I worked my way through the ranks from basic grade officer, to assistant chief officer, chief officer 2, chief officer 1, and at present I’m deputy governor of the OSG. I’ve enjoyed those 30 years immensely, it’s done well by me and my family. At the moment I work in Operational Support in the prison service, which deals with prison intelligence, searching and screening of all persons entering the prisons, the IPS confidential phone line, and incident scene preservation within the prisons. The OSG are a support group based at 10 of the 14 prisons within the Irish Prison Estate.”
Outside of work, Martin finds solace in sport, and he has influenced the lives of many through his exploits on and off the pitch, as both a player, and a manager.
“Sport provides a comfortable release from the stresses and tensions of day to day work, and it has done so I suppose, for most of my life. Within a year of giving up playing football, I went into coaching both at underage and adult level, and I’ve found a great release in getting out onto the park for an hour or two in the evening. I had played Gaelic football, hurling, rugby, and basketball for many years, and to be honest it’s a poor second best really when you go into management, but it’s the next best thing; that’s the way I looked at it at the beginning, and I probably sometimes wish I could still play.”
“It’s that release and that connection that I had as a player, I just wanted to elongate it, and to continue to be more involved in sport. I love sport, I lived for sport as a young lad going to school, and that’s followed through over the years.”
“As a manager, I’ve been involved with quite a few clubs: Timahoe, O’Dempsey’s, and Stradbally in Laois, Daingean and Gracefield in Offaly, and Tinryland in Carlow. I won an intermediate championship as manager with Daingean in 2002. That was my first success as a senior manager in football terms. I was involved with Tinryland in 2011, and we got to the Carlow senior football county final, which was the first time they had done so in 20 odd years. I saw that as a great achievement too, but unfortunately we were beaten by a point in the final. It was probably the biggest disappointment in my coaching career, losing that final.”
“I suppose the highs outnumber the lows, and having managed and coached Stradbally in 2005 to win the Laois championship in my first year with them, and then to return 11 years later and achieve the same feat, while in doing so preventing Portlaoise from winning the 10-in-a-row, that was really special and an immense feeling of achievement.”
“I really owe a great deal of gratitude to my very supportive, patient and understanding wife of 30 years, Niamh. Likewise, my three children, Barry, Adrian and Rachel, all of whom have found their own niches, playing Rugby, Gaelic football and hurling. Without their support and love I would never have been able to elongate my own involvement in sport for as long as I have done.”
Martin was kind enough to take the time to share some of his insights and experiences.
How has sport shaped the person that you are today?
Lots of people see me as a hard sort of a whoor; I am somewhat driven. I like to think that I’m more of a facilitator though than a manager really. I try and get people to work with me and to adapt to systems, to work within their limitations and try and improve.
I am driven. I love success like everybody else, but at the end of the day, I suppose you have to lose a few before you really appreciate those successes, and you learn more from your losses and your mistakes, and from the near misses; the likes of the county final in 2011 down in Carlow. That was a disappointing defeat but I learned a great deal from losing that final, and I think it stood to me this year in particular, in that I could bring that experience to both the management team and also more importantly to the players themselves, when we reached the county final against Portlaoise.
Would you say you are more introverted, or extroverted?
I think I couldn’t be introverted due to the job that I do everyday. I’m dealing with people constantly, giving advice and direction and managing others; it’s a difficult enough job, but you have to be out there and you have to be able to interact with people and address things, and speak to people at a higher level and so on and so forth. Although I wouldn’t say I’m introverted, at the same time there would be times that I do appreciate a bit of solitude and time on my own, just to reflect and think about things, so I wouldn’t be completely extroverted.
I can’t say that I’m halfway between one or the other because I’m probably not; I’d be comfortable enough talking and mixing with people but at the same time, I like to have a bit of time to myself, maybe go for a walk with the dog in Garryhinch, and reflect on the day and whatever is going on in life in general. I suppose I don’t see myself as one or the other, but certainly leaning more towards extrovert.
When do you feel that you are performing at your best?
I suppose I perform at my best when I have good people around me, and people that work with me rather than pull against me. I find that some modern day club footballers in particular have a slight tendency of losing sight of what you’re trying to achieve. I put this down to the long, drawn out GAA calendar year, whereby the club team are training and playing from the end of January until the end of September or October, because they’re waiting for months for the county players to return from the inter-county series. It’s at this stage in the season that I feel I really have to perform at my best as a manager to keep players interested and enthused, variation is key. I am very fortunate to have a very good back room team at Stradbally.
So, I think I’m at my best when people are working with me, and I thrive in that sort of atmosphere. When people rally around what you’re trying to achieve and believe in what you’re trying to do, that’s when I’m at my best. When people don’t believe in it, or if you feel that they don’t believe in it, and there’s something pulling against you, that irks me something serious, and it rattles me in one sense; it’s only a small few and I try my best to deal with any issues early if and when they arise, but at the same time it does sometimes torment me if I don’t get full buy into what we are trying as a group to achieve.
What are some things you do as a coach, to make that initial effort to get people to rally around you?
Basically, there’s no point talking down to players. What I do is I try to talk to them at the same level and explain what it is we’re trying to do, in order to achieve what’s best for the team. 99% of the time it works, but you will have one or two that might not buy into what you’re trying to do; modern day footballer’s are smart guys, they’re third level educated most of them, so there’s no point bitching or throwing shots across their bow, or trying to be something you’re not. I try to work with people on the same level, as a facilitator more so than as a manager, and try and get them to buy into whatever plan you put forward. I think it’s also important to give the players an input.
I think it worked very well with Stradbally last year. They had been in two relegation near misses the previous two years; they were in the doldrums and I knew the quality of player that was there, but they perhaps hadn’t been buying into what people were saying. I’d say they weren’t driven enough. When I went to them we sat down and had extensive meetings, we spoke about the problems over the previous three of four years, we explored why they hadn’t really done well, and just asked them to try and buy into what I was trying to do; I put forward my philosophy, and in fairness to them they did buy into it.
I think the added bonus was having a player of the calibre of Colm Begley coming back into the team, from having the experience of having played professional football in Australia, he is extremely committed and very direct, and very professional in his approach, and the rest of the group bought into that. When he came in and the rest of the group saw how he reacted, and how he conducted himself– the way he listened and the way he spoke– it served as a buy–in for the group as a whole. That was a huge bonus, and I would say that was one of the reasons Stradbally pushed on last year, going from relegation candidates the previous year to county champions in such a short time frame.
Now my job this year is to try and maintain that level. It’s difficult with the distractions, Stradbally being a big soccer town, players tend to think, “Ah sure I’ll go play soccer, and go back to the football when the season is over”, well that doesn’t really work when you’re on the top of the food chain, and you know Portlaoise are back already and are hungry; you know they are sore about losing last years final having missed out on 10-in-a-row, which had never been achieved before.
How does your approach change now, entering this campaign as champions?
My message doesn’t change in terms of how we play football, last year lots of teams had looked at Portlaoise’s threat and played defensive. That wasn’t something I was going to do because it was never my philosophy. What we needed to do last year was match Portlaoise in terms of fitness and football, and we worked really hard on our fitness levels last year; we got players who were perhaps carrying excess weight, to lose the weight and get fit and in fairness they worked hard on it, and they did what we asked of them.
Albeit there were some people in some quarters who felt we needed to be more defensive against a very talented Portlaoise outfit in the county final, I still felt what we needed to do was simply work harder than them, and believe in ourselves as footballers. That’s what we did, and that was the only philosophy I brought to the table. We worked right up until the final whistle in that game and our reward was to score a winning goal with 20 seconds left on the clock.
That hard work approach won’t change this year; that’s what we’ll look to do.
I am happiest when…
People around me are happy, and I feel that I am contributing to that happiness. At the end of the day, a happy dressing room is a winning dressing room and I think the same can be said for family life; a happy home is a healthy home.
What’s the best book you’ve read, and why?
I’m big into history. I love history, and I suppose looking back over the years, if it had anything to do with history in general, those were the books that I’d tend to have read. My particular interests lie with the First World War, where five of my grandfather’s brothers all fought, and two of them were killed. One of them won the military medal before he died, in a place called Cantay in France, and another was killed at the battle of Messiness Ridge; you could say that looking back, their involvement sparked an interest in me to read more into the history.
Incidentally, they were all postmen in the Portarlington area, and they joined a regiment in London called the London Post Office Rifles in 1914. I read quite a bit on the First World War, and in particular the Irish involvement. On the other side of the family, my wife Niamh’s family were all involved in the 1916 rising, so I would have quite a few books, and other bits and pieces on WW1, the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. When you look at both sides of the family, my side and all my great granduncles were fighting in the great war, while Niamh’s side were all fighting in Dublin’s Northumberland Road and the GPO against the Brits. It would make interesting reading if someone were to put a story together, but again getting the information is the biggest thing, because most of the people who were connected to it or who were related, when they came back they never spoke of their involvement for obvious reasons, and there’s very little information of their involvement in the Great War.
But no, the majority of books I read would be of modern Irish history and also the Irish involvement in WW1.
What is your passion?
Life. Life in general. I’ve seen so many people around me at a young age suffering from cancer and heart disease; there are people who I’ve worked with who have died in their 50’s and 60’s, and I suppose stress in general has had a major part to play. You can say what you like about what causes cancer and heart disease, I believe stress is a major contributor. We all need to realise this and minimise our stress levels and practice mindfulness when we feel stressed or under pressure. There is no doubt that your health is your wealth.
Family is very important in my life and the support of family, making sure everyone is cared for, and doing what’s best for my family is a priority. Sadly my dad died when he was 74, he had Parkinsons. He was the strongest man that I’ve ever known, the hardest working man I’ve ever known, and he was someone that I’d always aspired to, and listened to. He was the person that I listened to most in life, and in spirit, and everything in general; he did so much for me. He was passionate about his family and I believe I have followed him in this regard, I would do anything for my family.
Who had the most influence on you at a young age, and why?
In life I wouldn’t look any further than my father. He done a lot for me, and we did a lot together; we cut turf on the bog by hand for many years, went shooting together, and I even played junior championship football and hurling with him. He was a very fit man and was always involved in sport; he played football for 30 years, and played hurling late in his career when a new hurling club was formed in Gracefield in 1982. He loved the GAA. He was a great influence on me, he was tough and straight talking. It was black and white when he talked about football, and there was no fluffiness about it.
Apart from my dad, I’ve come across quite a good few people who have been coaches, or managers of teams that I’d been involved in, who have influenced me. I was fortunate to have been part of teams managed by Eugene Magee and Greg Hughes in the 1980’s.
Dare I say, the Christian Brothers had a huge influence on me. That wouldn’t be popular with many people I’m sure but for me, I think it was having that grounding that comes with going to a school of that nature from the age of 8 up until 18; that 10 years in the CBS did have an influence on me and it shaped the person who I am, and have become over the years. It’s hard to say exactly what it is, it’s just a grounding; I won’t say it’s overly religious, because I’m not an overly religious person. I believe in God and I certainly say my prayers, I like to look deeper into what we are and where we’re going; life is all too short. I feel that the Christian Brothers gave me a grounding in terms of not just education, but also my beliefs, and my standards, and the person who I am today. It’s quite hard to put words to it, but I feel that they did really have had an influence on me.
The overall influence though, has been my dad certainly. Some would say to me that the way I speak, and my mannerism’s and the way I go about things, apart from the way I look of course, that I’m very like him. I hold firm to the belief that he really did influence my life and the direction I’ve taken, and the person I am. I respect him for that.
What are some of those standards that you mentioned, that you set for yourself?
I think a person has to be up front and honest about things. Honesty is huge for me, I need to be honest and respectful to players and people in general, and I expect this to be reciprocated; respect for each other, and an acknowledgement of the huge effort and time that is put into preparing and playing, by both the management team and the players themselves. In sport, I find that a small number of players lack the honesty that I would look for. Albeit they have the ability, and they know they have the ability, they just don’t bring that honesty to the park when you need it. It sometimes appears to me that they can’t wait for a game to finish, so as they can be somewhere else. When I was beaten in my day, I wouldn’t head to the pub or the nightclub, I’d be gutted; nowadays some players can’t wait to get off the field after losing, and to get out of the dressing room and down to the local.
There’s a great scene in the Baseball movie Moneyball, when Brad Pitt’s character is walking past his losing team’s dressing room and he hears music blaring, and players shouting,
What are some of the differences between the successful teams you’ve coached and the teams that perhaps haven’t achieved as you’d have liked?
I haven’t really noticed any huge difference in terms of group dynamic, and I’ll be honest with you, if I were to take my own club as an example, Gracefield; the players in the Gracefield dressing room and the Stradbally players are not all that different in terms of their attitude, but I felt that you know, some players and some teams have it in their head, that if we get to the quarter–final or semi–final or even just make the county final, it’s huge. They think that’s our year done, that it’s successful; they are delighted with that, and believe they’ll come back next year and go again. Stradbally were different in that regard last year in that when they got the scent of playing Portlaoise in the final last year, nothing but winning was acceptable amongst the players.
The problem in general is that many players don’t realise that there’s a short window of opportunity to achieve in any sport, and ten years can go by in the blink of an eye.
I can remember in ’84 as a 21–year–old winning an Offaly senior football county championship at centre back; I was sitting in the dressing room after the match, and Sean Lawlor was sitting beside me. He got man of the match at 33 years of age that day, and he put his arms around me and he said to me, “Young Murphy, I sat beside your father in this same dressing room in 1974, and he put his arm around me after we had been beaten by Ferbane in a county final replay. Your father said to me, “Don’t be sad young Lawlor, you’ll learn from this, because you’re only a young man. You’ve 10 or 15 good years ahead of you, and you’ll win many a championship between now and then.” And here I am ten years later, and I’m winning my first championship. If I could impart anything to you, make sure you try every single year to win more. It’s easy to sit back on your laurels now that you’ve won one, but don’t do that.”
I didn’t win another senior medal as a player, and was beaten in two senior county finals in 1990 & 1991. Granted I didn’t take as long to get back to a final as Sean Lawlor did, but it proved how hard it is to win finals. People need to realise that it doesn’t come around too often, and you know yourself coming from O’Dempsey’s, that it hasn’t come around too easily for them either, and that’s what happens with small, rural clubs; unless you’re a big town like Portlaoise, or Tullamore, or Edenderry, who figure in county finals every second or third year, you won’t always get that chance.
I would say to up–and–coming players to grasp the chance while you can, because your 10 or 12 year career will go by in the blink of an eye.
What was the most significant learning experience you can recall having?
That’s a tough one. In sport, I suppose I would have to go back to when I was involved with the county back in the 80’s; it was a real lean period of time. I had it in my head that I was going to be an inter–county footballer; I had played two years with the county minors, and four
I can remember we played a game against Roscommon before the National Football League was scheduled to start in late ’87; my first son Barry had been just born, and I was delighted with myself. I went on the next day to the match and played well. Afterwards, the team was picked for the first round of the National League against Sligo, and I wasn’t in the starting 15. Incidentally, the guy who replaced me at corner back was centre back the previous day against Roscommon, and he got
I told the county management that I was opting to play for the prison service, and I remember getting a knock on the door the following Tuesday night, and w
I suppose I learned not to take too much for granted, which I probably did back then. I’m not saying I would have been much good as an inter-county footballer, but it was a disappointment in a sense that I had been involved with the county from minor in ’80, all the way up to senior in ’87; I perhaps took too much for granted in thinking that I was in some way indispensable. As it proved, I wasn’t and I got the bullet. That was it, and I never got another chance after that.
How do you deal with adversity or self-doubt?
I’ll be honest with you, and that’s a very good question because you know, there are occasions when you’re involved in team management when you are faced with moments of self-doubt. It comes across sometimes when you’re questioned by somebody that has maybe, a high profile let’s say. For example, an elite inter-county footballer questions the way in which you do things. Players of such a high calibre tend to be very strong individuals in terms of grounding, and their attitude towards training and their discipline; they have to be to get to that level. When the high-profile player comes back in to a club set up where Martin Murphy finds himself, he imposes himself on the players; he may say something to the group that in some small way might contradict something that I was trying to achieve, or maybe he will say it in a different way, or propose something different; that has sometimes inflicted a small bit of self doubt upon me, if I’m honest.
Like, let’s call a spade a spade, in that situation the other playe
But overall, I suppose my background in the prison services has shown me that yes, you must listen, but at the same time you must lead, and you must push on. You’re the manager, you’re the leader, you’re the one that takes the hit when things go wrong. It’s not the disruptive or awkward player, or the player who is trying to impose their line of thought into what we should or shouldn’t be doing, who bears the brunt of the backlash. I suppose that is the only time that it has really come across; driving home in the car after training thinking, Maybe he’s right and I’m wrong. Maybe I’m not doing this right. Maybe I should concede and go that direction, or whatever the case may be.
Now I have to say, 99% of the time I don’t concede, but at the same time there is that 1% of the time where I do believe that you have to concede, for example giving players a say in gameplay, and so on and so forth. I did last year, and perhaps overly gave one or two strong minded players a bit more leeway than I normally would have, and that came as a consequence of probably questioning myself a little bit on occasion.
It’s just those strong minded, high-profile players who probably have a more refined background than I have had, or who I suppose have more extensive experience of the modern game at a higher level than I have had, that sometimes when they speak or come up with something different within the group, it somewhat brings about a slight element of self-doubt. It’s not too often, but it does happen.
How has the prison service contributed to the person you are?
Well by virtue of the fact of the nature of the job that you do, I suppose it can be somewhat hardening. I always saw myself as being firm but fair; that’s my motto, and I think I carry that through to team management. It’s to be firm but fair, and to not impose yourself upon a team to an extent that players become
The humanities side of things that apply in the prison services, also transfer to the football field in one sense; you have to be understanding of people’s lives in general, and of how people think; life goes on. It’s not all about sport at the end of the day; sport is just a sideline, a release for people, the same as it is for me.
What are some moments to remember or defining moments from doing what you do?
In sport I suppose it was being in Croke Park in 1982 when Offaly beat the great Kerry team of the late 70’s early 80’s, and stopped them going for 5 in–a–row, that is a moment that will live long in the memory. Just being present that day and witnessing the thrill that it gave to not just Offaly people, but I’d say to the whole country that Kerry had been beaten.
Apart from that, sporting wise? As a player it was winning a senior county final with my own club Gracefield. Subsequent to that, as a manager, training Stradbally to two county championships in separate tenures.
In work, I suppose my progression in the job promotion wise. Having gone through the ranks, and working my way to where I am today, I suppose has been somewhat of an achievement for me. For somebody that had only come through secondary education, to achieve what I have achieved, well it gives me a great sense of satisfaction in doing that, to be honest with you.
When you think about the direction your life has taken, what has helped you along in terms of your mentality?
My father was a hard worker, and he instilled upon us hard work. In fairness, we worked physically very hard, as youngsters we all did at home. That was a huge grounding for me in terms of when I got the opportunity to join the prison service, where there was no manual labour or heavy work involved in that sense, it helped me to focus on what I had to do, and how I had to achieve it. I just put it down to hard work and graft in my early years.
I suppose, look, it was a desire to achieve which is another factor. I’d be conscientious in that when I go about doing something, I’d like to do it well, and I will focus on doing it well. Certainly when I start something I always want to finish it, and complete it to the best of my ability. Also, it’s a focus on finishing the job I started.
When I started in the prison service, granted I probably didn’t have that drive and ambition in my early years to seek promotion and push on, but then the family comes along, and you start to get older, and I said to myself, Look it, I want to better myself here and do what I can for the betterment of my family. That was a huge drive and incentive for me to do better things, and to push on.
You mentioned achievement, and success. What does success mean to you?
I suppose success is not all about winning. It’s not all about having come out at the top all the time. I think success is being happy in the knowledge that you have done what’s best for yourself and your family. And if you’re involved in sport or a team environment, it’s not all about winning trophies, it’s about seeing improvements. Improvements in life, in performance, and realising that you have contributed to those improvements. I see that as success.
Certainly, the ultimate success in sport is to win. In life in general, I suppose it’s going back to being happy and healthy. Seeing your family progress, and improve their standards in their life, regardless of whatever route they take, that’s the only thing I can focus on in terms of success.
What advice would you give to the younger generation, who may find themselves at a crossroads in life, unsure of what path to pursue?
I suppose if I was to go down the route of paraphrasing the great Muhammad Ali, A person who is not courageous enough to take risks, will achieve nothing in life. I think everybody has to be willing and courageous enough to take risks in life, and if you’re not willing to do that, well, you know you’ll likely sit back and vegetate over the years, and perhaps one day look back and say to yourself when you’re 50 or 60, Fuck it, why didn’t I take the chance.
So I think when you come to a crossroads, or a fork in the road, take a chance. Follow your heart, follow your head, do whatever you need to do, but take the risk. People who make mistakes can learn from them, and they can look back and say that they rectified it later on. But if you don’t take the risk, you’ll never move forward, and will never learn or progress to realise your full potential. You’ll likely end up regretting it in the long term.
I don’t believe I have taken the wrong road at any one time, maybe I didn’t have too many risks to take. I went into the prison service at a time when the country was in a recession; there wasn’t too many jobs out there either, and the money at the time was quite good, and as I said to you earlier, it’s done well by me and my family, and I’ve no regrets at all.
What do you think it is about your personality, that brings about that huge level of respect that players have for you?
Jesus. I don’t know, I think you’d have to ask the players themselves. But from my point of view, what I see in the type of player that I can work with, is that incredible honesty that I spoke about earlier, and the willingness to listen and a desire to succeed.
I suppose it’s reciprocated in a sense that I have that same respect for them also, and when you have that mutual respect between a player and a manager, that’s when great things tend to happen. I see a lot of me in these types of players, and I see a lot of characteristics in the many players I have worked with over the years, that perhaps I would like to have but don’t, and aspects of their personality that I admire and can learn from.
It heartens me to see players develop and grow, and just to see what sport does for them in terms of setting standards and instilling beliefs. I’ve learned a great deal from the players I’ve managed, and I owe them a great deal for which I am eternally grateful.