No holds Barred... Fionan Murray reflects on the ups and downs of his Cork career

No holds Barred... Fionan Murray reflects on the ups and downs of his Cork career
Cork's Fionan Murray is tackled by Kerry's Tomás Ó Sé during the All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park in 2002. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Barry O'Donovan talks to former St Finbarr's and Cork forward Fionan Murray about playing for the Rebels, the changes in the game and unfulfilled potential.

IT hasn’t been a match that’s conjured many unforgettable moments over the years and yet when we think Cork and Waterford football encounters, one image and one score stands out fairly emphatically.

The Páirc, May 2001, an uneventful mismatch (Cork won by 15 points) lifted by a goal of such curiosity and sheer creativity that anyone watching live had to check their TVs that night to make certain they’d seen it right and anyone who saw on TV ended up having to press rewind for a second look. A goal that really could only have been scored by one Cork footballer of the last 25 years.

Step forward Fionan Murray, owner of the only Gaelic football championship bicycle kick goal in living memory and the only player I can imagine both having the gumption to try it and the skill-set to pull it off. This is a player I once saw marking Declan McCrossan, a fairly tough no-nonsense corner-back from Tyrone, in a minor game and as the ball came in low between the two, Murray stepped out in front, dummied the ball to allow it run through McCrossan’s legs and ran around the other side to collect.

Still, ask him if he can describe the Waterford goal now and he’s more than a little sheepish. Can he recall?

“Barely. I was marking Niall Geary actually, who came down to Cork the following year. I think Joe Kavanagh kicked it in and the ball flicked off the other corner-back and popped up perfectly.

“I had my back to goal and I just thought, ok, here goes. It wasn’t a bullet of an overhead, it sort of rolled into the corner. But I was playing soccer at the time as well and I wouldn’t have been the best to catch it anyway.

“I just remember Larry (Tompkins) after wasn’t happy! He came in and he was saying, Murray, what were you doing? The lads were egging him on then, which made him even madder.”

He moves on and if all that seems an age ago now, well there are reasons to look back this last few weeks. He was down at the Cork minor game in Páirc Uí Rinn last week where his young lad Cillian came on after 20 minutes or so and with the mixture of the red jersey and his friends talking of the similar on-the-field style of father and son.

“He’s better than me though and much quicker,” he laughs.

He could hardly help think back. Two goals (almost identical one-v-one finishes from memory) in a Munster final for Cork minors against Kerry. Playing U21 against Kerry while still minor and scoring 1-2 in both the drawn game and a classic replay.

The first time he played with Philip Clifford at a Cork minor trial down the Mardyke.

“I’d heard about this guy and the first ball he got was over the bar before anyone knew. I gave him a pass then and went for the return but he had the ball in the net. Ah, Clifford was special then, his kicking was unreal.”

It just all took off for a while and the trail of goals moved to senior level in that breakthrough year of 1999. A goal against Limerick after coming on as sub. A shot of those U21s sweeping Kerry aside in a monsoon of a Munster final, another Murray goal to clinch the game.

Can he remember that one? He can.

“I think it was Mark O’Sullivan palmed down a high ball, my left leg kind of went from under me as I hit it, but the keeper went the other way. That was a crazy day, the crowd, the rain definitely one of the best memories.”

Fionan Murray takes on Mayo's Kenneth Mortimer. 
Fionan Murray takes on Mayo's Kenneth Mortimer. 

Another goal v Mayo to round off the semi-final, put through on goal by Clifford, the other part of the twosome that terrorised defences and looked like it would for a decade, both just 19 and in an All-Ireland final.

He’d put a lot of the credit to Tompkins by the way, whose cleverness and influence on Cork football has been underrated Murray reckons.

Still, they lost to Meath and never got back to another and it became mainly a tale of underachievement and being beaten by Kerry year after year.

2000 never got going. 2001, Kerry and then Galway. Another Murray goal in Croke Park though. 2002, Murray blitzed Kerry for 0-3 in winning in Munster, 0-5 in the Munster final win over Tipp and then got a hammering in the All-Ireland semi by Kerry (another Murray goal in Croke Park though). 2003 and 2004 were disasters and by then a new generation was coming along.

The old unfulfilled potential question? Murray wouldn’t disagree in the slightest.

He says, “I don’t think Cliff would mind me saying it – at least he had two good years senior with Cork, I hadn’t two good years put together – but 100% unfulfilled potential.

“Minor and U21, won nothing either. It was application, simple. I wasn’t disciplined, on or off the pitch.

“I didn’t do any extra training and I thought I suppose I was talented enough I didn’t need to do it, that ability would get me by. I was happy to be at that level in a way, but could I have pushed on with hard work, probably yeah.

“It’s only when I was gone off the scene really that I realised, 'Jesus, I could have been involved for longer, done so much more'. I trained better with the club after than I ever did with Cork.”

He just sort of drifted away in the end and Clifford and Brendan Jer followed soon after. Murray spent some time in the US away from the Cork scene at one stage.

Suspensions ate into time. The game became more demanding and less enjoyable.

Kerry are still the benchmark and still just do certain things better than Cork he reckons.

With the teams he’s been involved in (he’s been a manager for CIT freshers this last year) he can see the mentality of the Cork players and the Kerry players and the little extra details and focus the Kerry lads bring to their football, small things like getting in early to prepare for games.

He watched David Clifford last week - who he references as the best minor footballer he’s seen in 20 years, ever possibly - yet couldn’t get over how straight-forward Cork made it for him on the night, leaving him isolated one-v-one when they’d know he was coming down the tracks for ages. He talks of what Kerry would have done to a similarly talented Cork forward.

It’s not all better in my day talk though. Ask if being a forward was more enjoyable in his era and he reckons he’d prefer to have played in current day football, where the likes of Dublin and Kerry are still able to use the simple kick-pass to effect games and the football has more pattern and thought to it than in his time. He’s hopeful Cork football can get going again and that there’s a Munster final in them at least and who knows from there.

The Barrs have a shot of young lads coming through who’re very into their football and can be dragged into a new era by Ian Maguire, someone Murray rates really highly as a footballer and even more highly as a leader.

So does Murray junior ask the father for advice?

“Nah,” he laughs. “It’s all Shields and Maguire now. He was playing last week with the seniors and Ian Maguire gave him some praise after the game and it was all, 'did you hear what he said to me?'”

Fionan Murray the player might have been a while ago – as a coach he’s involved now with the U21s and intermediates this year and has his own ideas on playing the game - but we can still remember the goals.

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