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Former Ireland goalkeeper still producing ‘exceptional’ performances at 40

Erik G

THE AUTUMN OF 1999 was a time of impending apocalypse.

As Westlife prepared to release their debut album, an even greater threat to civilisation was seemingly being posed by the ultimately innocuous Y2K bug.

In other news, Pat Kenny was assuming Late Late Show hosting duties from Gay Byrne, Brad Pitt was briefing cinemagoers on the rules of Fight Club, and Joe Murphy from Glasnevin was playing the first game of a professional football career that’s still ongoing.

“Probably every year since I’ve known him he’s told me that he’s going to retire at the end of each season, but then it pops up that he’s signed a new deal somewhere,” says Eoghan O’Connell, a former team-mate of Murphy’s.

“He just loves playing and I think he has finally given in and accepted that he’ll probably keep going as long as he’s physically able to.”

If this season does transpire to be his last, Murphy’s professional playing career will end in the same place where it began. The veteran goalkeeper, who turned 40 last month, made his first-team debut for Tranmere Rovers at the age of 18.

“I’m not sure I ever remember hearing one of our fans say a bad word about Joe,” says Martyn Corrin, a committee member of the Tranmere Rovers Supporters Club. “For people like me who were teenagers watching his debut, it’s a little surreal taking our own kids to watch him now.

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“We’re a club where ex-players do seem to have a tendency to return; sometimes this is met with groans and sighs, but in Joe’s case everyone was glad to see him back. It was a long time ago when he left, but the minute he was back with that badge on his chest it just felt right.”

Having started the 2021-22 campaign by keeping three clean sheets in succession, Murphy has continued to reach performance levels that have eased any concerns Tranmere fans may have had over the ailing powers of a man who’s in his 23rd season.

Last February, Cambridge United’s Wes Hoolahan became the oldest player to be named League Two Player of the Month, but the 39-year-old’s record soon came under threat from a fellow Dubliner.

Although he was eventually pipped by Forest Green Rovers striker Matt Stevens, Murphy’s form saw him chosen as one of the four nominees for the August award.

Joe Murphy on duty during his breakthrough season with Tranmere Rovers.

Source: Allsport/INPHO

With club captain Scott Davies sidelined by injury since March, Murphy’s run of 19 consecutive League Two starts for Tranmere was only broken last weekend when a concussion forced him to sit out a 2-0 win against Salford City. 

“Joe has had an excellent start to the season,” Corrin adds. “He has pulled off some exceptional saves, marshalled his defence and reads the whole game well. He also wears his heart on his sleeve, which us fans always appreciate.”

Now working under Jurgen Klopp as goalkeeper coach at Liverpool, John Achterberg was Tranmere Rovers’ number one when Murphy began to play his way into first-team contention after joining the club as an apprentice from Stella Maris.

For a third-round fixture against Oxford United in the 1999-2000 League Cup, the teenager was given his first chance to impress Tranmere manager John Aldridge.

Murphy, who saved a penalty in a 2-0 win, produced a debut so impressive that it convinced the former Ireland striker to keep the youngster in his team at Achterberg’s expense.

Although he was unavailable for a couple of months due to a fractured collarbone that was sustained during the quarter-final victory over Middlesbrough, Murphy made 27 appearances that season for Aldridge’s side, who were competing in the Championship (Division One in old money).

He recovered from the injury in time to reclaim his place for Tranmere’s first-ever appearance in a major final: a meeting with Martin O’Neill’s Leicester City in the last League Cup decider to be played at the old Wembley Stadium.

Veteran Ireland international David Kelly cancelled out Matt Elliott’s first-half opener for Leicester, but the top-flight side prevailed after Elliott scored his second with 81 minutes on the clock.

In spite of the outcome, Tranmere’s 18-year-old goalkeeper succeeded in enhancing his reputation on a day when his opposite number was Premier League winner Tim Flowers.

“I remember being impressed with Joe from the very start,” says Brian Kerr, who was already familiar with Murphy by the time he began to establish himself at club level in England.

Fewer than 18 months prior to his Tranmere debut, Murphy was the goalkeeper on the Ireland U16 team who defeated the likes of Spain, Portugal and Italy to win the European Championship under Kerr’s management. 

Brian Kerr celebrates after Ireland’s triumph at the U16 European Championship in 1998.

Source: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

“Joe played a key part for that team,” Kerr adds. “There was a bit of presence about him and he had good physicality. He had a confidence about him too, his concentration was good and he was quick off his feet – a really sharp goalkeeper.”

In the wake of Murphy’s outing at Wembley, newspapers carried reports that the late Gerard Houllier was preparing a £3million bid to coax him across the Mersey to act as understudy to Sander Westerveld at Liverpool.

For a young Liverpool fan like Murphy, being the subject of back-page transfer gossip represented another dizzying development in his exceptionally rapid rise. He soon learned that there was substance to the speculation too. 

At an event hosted by the Examiner at the Burlington Hotel, where Murphy was collecting a Junior Sports Star of the Year award, Houllier was a guest of honour.

The Liverpool manager used the opportunity to confirm to Murphy his interest, before asking for his agent’s phone number. He expressed his admiration for the player later in the evening when collared by the members of the press who were in attendance.

“I think he is very promising and very talented, especially at such a young age for a goalkeeper,” said the Frenchman. “I rate him very highly.”

After Murphy produced another eye-catching display to help Tranmere to a league win over Blackburn Rovers, John Aldridge sent an unequivocal message to potential suitors for a young player who had quickly become his club’s most valuable asset.

“I don’t want the lad to get carried away, but Joe Murphy was absolutely fantastic,” Aldridge said following the 2-1 victory. “But if anyone wants to sign Joe, they will find it very difficult to get him. He has a contract here for three and a half years. He was outstanding for us today.”

Murphy eventually made his Premier League debut at Anfield, but he did so while representing West Bromwich Albion. When his Tranmere deal expired, Gary Megson brought him to The Hawthorns on a free transfer.

Still only 21, Murphy joined the Baggies to provide back-up for Russell Hoult. He was subsequently restricted to just two appearances, the first of which came during a 2-0 loss to Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool.

Following the showing of a red card to Hoult for a foul on Michael Owen, Murphy came off the bench and saved the England striker’s penalty with his first touch as a Premier League player.

Michael Owen reacts after having his penalty saved by Joe Murphy.

Source: PA

On the international stage, a senior debut came in a 2-2 draw with Turkey in a Lansdowne Road friendly shortly after Brian Kerr’s appointment as manager in 2003.  

“I would have looked on Joe favourably because I knew he had done well for me previously and I knew he was reliable,” Kerr explains.

“But I never capped someone because I liked them, I capped them because they earned it. He didn’t get many opportunities at senior level overall because there was just so much competition.” 

Shay Given’s status as first-choice goalkeeper was undisputed, and with Paddy Kenny, Nicky Colgan and Wayne Henderson also vying for the role of chief deputy, Murphy featured intermittently in Ireland squads over the next several years.

A former FAI Player of the Year at U18 and U21 level, Murphy – who was Given’s reserve on the infamous night in Paris when Ireland were denied a place at the World Cup by Thierry Henry and France – earned his second and final cap on Giovanni Trapattoni’s watch during a 3-0 win over Algeria at the RDS in 2010.

On the club front, he had worked under another ex-Ireland boss when Mick McCarthy signed him at Sunderland in 2005, but chances to play were yet again scarce.

In an interview with The42 in January 2020, Murphy offered a candid assessment of why he didn’t accumulate more international and Premier League appearances.

“A few more [caps] would have been great but Shay [Given] was one of the best in the world at the time,” he said. “It was still just a pleasure to be involved in that set-up.

“Was I international quality? I don’t know. When I was playing well I felt I deserved to be in the squad, but was I Premier League quality? Probably not.”

The spells with West Brom and Sunderland yielded frustratingly few opportunities for Murphy, so his move to Scunthorpe United was exactly what he needed in the summer of 2006.

While making 227 appearances over the course of five years, Murphy played a key role in ushering in a period of relatively considerable success for the Lincolnshire club.

Shay Given watches on as Joe Murphy is put through his paces during an Ireland training session.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Promotion to the Championship was achieved at the end of his first season, as Scunthorpe returned to the second tier of English football following a 43-year absence.

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“Joe Murphy is still very much a Scunthorpe United legend and deservedly so,” says journalist Max Bell, who writes for the Scunthorpe Telegraph. “He returned to Glanford Park with Tranmere only last month and got a rapturous reception from the Scunthorpe fans.

“Due to the combination of the town’s steelworks bringing many workers over, local Catholic schools, and a very active and well-respected Irish Supporters Club, Scunthorpe has always been very proud of its Irish links and heritage. Joe fitted into that perfectly and, above all, he was a quality goalkeeper.”

Three of Murphy’s five seasons as a Scunthorpe player were spent in the Championship. Both campaigns in League One ended with his selection in the PFA Team of the Year.

Scunthorpe were relegated in 2011, but Murphy stayed in the Championship courtesy of a transfer to Coventry City, for whom he played 156 times during a three-year stint.

Bell adds: “Perhaps more so than any other player, he really did typify the glory years for Scunthorpe. His signing was a massive catalyst for it and his departure was also a sign that the good times were over.

“The likes of Ray Clemence [who started his professional career at Scunthorpe United] obviously went on to have massive success elsewhere, but if you take their achievements at Scunthorpe in isolation, Joe Murphy has an incredibly strong case to be voted as the greatest goalkeeper in the club’s history. I doubt many fans would disagree.”

From Coventry he moved to Huddersfield Town, before joining Bury in 2017. Another PFA Team of the Year honour followed as Murphy and his team-mates defied their club’s financial collapse to secure promotion to League One.

Eoghan O’Connell had come up against Lionel Messi in the Champions League during his time at Celtic, but for all intents and purposes he was a rookie when he joined Murphy at Bury.

“I was only 21 at the time so he had a huge impact on me both on and off the pitch,” says the former Ireland U21 centre-back, who’s now club captain at Rochdale. “I can speak for a lot of lads I know who also played with him and regard him as a great lad and a big character.

“If you go to a game that Murph is playing in, you’ll probably be able to hear him above the crowd because he never stops shouting. As a goalkeeper I haven’t come across many better than him.

More than 20 years since his Tranmere debut, Murphy’s career came full circle.

Source: PA/Tranmere Rovers FC

“I’m 26 now and I feel like I’ve been doing this forever. He’s 40 and you wonder how someone can keep at it for so long. To see him still going at this level is something I take huge inspiration from.

“He’s been over here since he was 15 or 16, so to keep playing for that long is an unbelievable achievement. It’s something I’d definitely be looking to replicate – if I can.

“We played against Tranmere recently and he had conceded only two goals in the five games before that. He was flying around the goal, still shouting as loud as ever.

“The hunger still seems to be there for him to play more games and to achieve more things in the game, so it wouldn’t shock me at all to see him still at it next year.”

For the 2019-20 season, which was hindered by the Covid-19 outbreak, Murphy was with League One side Shrewsbury Town. A campaign that was left in limbo for three months might have presented a logical retirement point for a 38-year-old, yet he persevered.

Tranmere Rovers announced his return in August 2020, with Murphy going on to help his first professional club reach last season’s EFL Trophy final and the League Two play-offs.  

“That group of lads from the U16 team who won the European Championship are all still in touch,” says Brian Kerr. “John O’Shea was with Reading up until a couple of years ago but Joe is the only one who’s still playing.

“He’d probably tell you himself that he looked after himself better as the years went on than he did when he was in his prime. He’s been taking care of his body, which is why he can still play at 40.”

Among his current team-mates at Prenton Park is compatriot and Celtic loanee Lee O’Connor, who hadn’t yet been born when Murphy made his Tranmere debut.

“As both a goalkeeper and a person, Joe was a fantastic young lad,” John Aldridge says. “I knew when I first signed him that he had every chance of going on and playing for Tranmere and Ireland. I’m very proud that I had the privilege of bringing him into the game.” 

In the case of a career that has already survived the end of the world and a global pandemic, don’t be surprised if there’s another chapter or two still to be written.

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