WHEN Jim McGuinness took over as manager of Donegal in the autumn of 2010, he rang Michael Murphy.
“I didn’t have a relationship with Michael, at that time,” wrote McGuinness in his autobiography, “but I knew enough to know I wanted him as captain.”
When Murphy led Donegal to last year’s Ulster title, it was his ninth piece of silverware as Donegal captain. Murphy is now in his tenth consecutive season as Donegal captain.
It’s unlikely that any other player has been captain of a top inter-county team that long.
Anthony Daly led Clare for eight seasons, between 1992 and 1999, while Kieran McGeeney also captained Armagh for eight seasons, between 2000 and 2007.
McGeeney retired at the end of his last season, while Daly’s last championship match for Clare was in 2000, but there is no sign of Murphy stopping. And the longer he goes, the more synonomous Murphy’s name becomes with the captaincy.
Despite Dublin’s dominance and array of talent, Murphy has long been considered one of football’s most influential players. Murphy will be 31 in August, but, at the other end of the age spectrum, football’s most exciting young talent, David Clifford, is also captain of his county, Kerry.
Even though Murphy was handed the captaincy at the same age as Clifford is now, the difference is that Clifford has been bestowed the honour through a long-held tradition.
Last Monday evening, the Kerry county board voted to uphold that tradition of the senior county champions selecting the Kerry captain. A motion from the Beaufort club, proposing that the Kerry senior football and hurling captains, from 2021 onward, be selected by team management, failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority to be passed.
Prior to the meeting, Kerry board chairman, Tim Murphy, revealed that Peter Keane’s management team were supportive of a new approach to selecting the Kerry captain.
“The current system is denying management an important part of their preparation of the team for big days,” said Beaufort’s Frank Coffey. “It is not fit-for-purpose.”
Clifford is a brilliant player, a nailed-on starter, and a natural leader, but the Kerry captaincy had become a curse. The previous six Kerry captains — Kieran Donaghy, Bryan Sheehan, Johnny Buckley, Fionn Fitzgerald, Shane Murphy, and Gavin White — all spent a significant part of those seasons on the bench.
The situation was near-calamitous in 2018: Burns was handed the captaincy before he’d even played a championship match; Murphy, in just his second championship start, captained the team to the Munster title; White assumed the role when Murphy was dropped during the Super 8s, and his first match as captain was just his fourth game for Kerry. White was captain again in 2019, but he was dropped for last year’s All-Ireland final replay.
Most counties now have transferred the power of picking the captain to the management, but Kerry and Kilkenny refuse to budge from tradition.
On Monday night, the motion won the support of 50 Kerry club delegates and top-table officials, but it was no surprise that almost as many — 48 — were opposed to the change.
Kerry are desperately clinging on to that tradition, even though it has too often led to complications. In 1953, Paudie Sheehy was the Kerry captain and their top scorer; his father, Johnjo, was a selector. At the selection meeting before the All-Ireland final, Johnjo excused himself from the room when they reached Paudie’s position; by the time he returned, his son had been dropped.
When South Kerry won the 1981 county title, a protracted saga to decide who would be Kerry captain in 1982 came to a head at a South Kerry board meeting on the week of the league final: 15 pieces of paper were put into a hat, with the names of John Egan and Jack O’Shea written on the other two. The local garda sergeant pulled out Egan’s name.
In 1995, Kerry had three different captains, from three different clubs. Austin Stacks were champions in 1994, but when Pa Laide got injured, Darren Aherne took over, captaining Kerry against Limerick, in what was his only championship match.
When Aherne was dropped for the semi-final, against Tipperary, Stacks transferred the honour to Anthony Gleeson, of Mitchels. When Gleeson was benched for the Munster final, Morgan Nix, from Kerins O’Rahilly’s, took the armband.
In 1997, Mike Hassett was injured for the All-Ireland semi-final and couldn’t reclaim his place for the final, so the captaincy reverted to his younger brother, Liam.
Mike wasn’t included in the official squad of 21, so he didn’t get a medal. The Hassetts subsequently pulled out, in 1998.
The issue has become increasingly controversial, but Kerry just refuse to give up on it. And it’s easy to see why.
In the history of Kerry football, 38 clubs have had the captaincy. With so many more clubs around the county, many of whom have never had power or prestige or a rich history of producing Kerry players, the chance to win a county title with their Divisional side is often their ticket to the big-time.
And that pathway could also provide the golden ticket to the Kerry captaincy.