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Highlights on Off The Ball

Sligo tempts Niall Murphy home after mad year travelling during COVID

One among a few higher profile county players that had opted out of the 2020 season before COVID-...

Sligo tempts Niall Murphy home...

Sligo tempts Niall Murphy home after mad year travelling during COVID

One among a few higher profile county players that had opted out of the 2020 season before COVID-19 wreaked its havoc, Niall Murphy talked to OTB Sports about travelling the world during a pandemic and what he wants from his Sligo return.  

Niall Murphy won't make many decisions without considering their impact on his football.

Had his departure from the Sligo panel in late 2019 not required such serious deliberation, he may well have felt a greater urgency to return home as COVID-19 scuppered his best-laid plans for 2020 anyway.

Yet, as Leo Varadkar delivered that first nationwide address in March from Washington, Murphy and his girlfriend watched on in the early hours of an Indonesian morning unsure of what to do.

From the moment Murphy ruled himself out, he was aware that this opportunity was - if not once in a lifetime - something not to be repeated in his prime footballing years - between a Connacht championship with Sligo and a county title with Coolera/Strandhill, there's too much to fight for.

Sitting in a Bali restaurant with his girlfriend frantically searching for flights home before putting the phone away again, he wanted some excuse to make the most of an unforeseeable situation.

"It had gotten to a point then where all the Irish had left and gone home," he explains from his family home in Sligo a few weeks after returning to Ireland. "We were really panicked to be honest.

"I just remember us sitting in this restaurant not sure what to do when I spotted some fella shouting out to me, 'Murph, Murph', and it was this neighbour from Sligo who had been teaching in Beijing and ended up in Bali after getting out of China. It was mad.

"We thought he seemed happy enough there and after seeing that familiar face we all ended up having a few pints and sure we just decided to ride with it - whatever happens, happens."

In far less time than it took Murphy to decide that he could live a year without Sligo football, he opted to embrace the unknowable and travel the world throughout a pandemic.

From spending a few months in Bali where the COVID-19 restrictions proved more relaxing than what was happening in Ireland, the pair travelled through South America to eventually reach New York City.

Using valid U.S. visas from an earlier trip, Murphy even found the time to play a little Gaelic football with Sligo of another continent in the New York Senior Football Championship.

One of a few higher profile county players who had opted out of the 2020 season at home before the pandemic, Murphy openly admitted that he had grown tired of the imbalance between what inter-county life was asking of him and what he was getting in return.

Personally, he feels the benefits of having been away and is excited to return when conditions allow it. The added promise of a serial winner like Tony McEntee taking charge of Sligo's senior footballers brings a new level of excitement, also.

However great his fondness for the game has become again though, he is under no illusions that those issues which wore him down before have not been resolved.

"For the likes of ourselves in Sligo," he explains, "we will still put in maybe seven or eight months for about nine games in a year - and seven of those are in the winter!

"A lot of that comes down to Sligo not achieving what we ought to be achieving, but it seriously does frustrate you."

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Indeed, the 27-year-old falls into a frustrating category of inter-county player.

A Sigerson Cup winner with DCU (2015) who represented Ireland in the 2017 International Rules series, he has first-hand experience of playing with the game's very best players.

Deeply unsatisfied with Sligo's Division 4 status yet resolutely assured that the county can perform to a higher standard, he struggles toiling in the darkness.

"Coming from Sligo I would have always assumed I wasn't up to that level," he recalls of first making the move to DCU in 2012 and a mentality that soon shifted.

"When it came to the International Rules team too, I remember having conversations with people and saying, 'Look, my chances here of making it to the squad are about 5, 10%.'

"But then you get involved and see that there's not much between players in terms of skills. Even between lads in Divisions 4 and 1, it is the things outside that make the difference: commitment, professionalism, looking after yourself.

"I think the skill level between a Sligo and Dublin footballer is similar enough broadly speaking, but it is those other aspects - I think nearly it is a confidence thing."

Niall Murphy 13 March 2016; Niall Murphy, Sligo. Picture credit: Sportsfile

As has been demonstrated with the Sligo County Board's treatment of their over-performing hurlers in recent years, on-field success is easily mismanaged and taken for granted.

With only three Connacht football titles on Sligo's roll of honour, even the more cherished game of Gaelic football has hardly been given adequate opportunity to thrive within the county.

In possession of an impressive crop of young players, Murphy, whose childhood involved watching Sligo play championship football in Croke Park and winning the Nestor Cup in 2007, wants the county's administrators to match what he expects of himself and his teammates.

"I would sometimes question if Sligo GAA is at the heart of the thinking in certain quarters," he suggests. "There are good people involved and a clubman of mine whom I know has Sligo GAA in his heart is now in as Chairman.

"Down the years though, you would worry sometimes about the politics going on. I mean, I don't have the answers to everything but you just want what's best for Sligo football.

"When I was young, I always looked up to Sligo footballers. I don't want it to sound big-headed, but I want young lads coming through to look up to us too."

It might be some time then before this returning inter-county player can absentmindedly sit around a table with friends drinking pints and not worrying himself too much about the consequences.

Confidence, professionalism and a willingness to literally devote your life to Gaelic football.

For the renewed enjoyment of playing and the potential of success with club or county, Niall Murphy is back and willing to do it all over again.

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Coolera Gaelic Football Niall Murphy Sligo GAA