Scenes from a sporting life



Pivoting out of an attempted tackle, Jimmy Barry-Murphy started swaggering towards goal. As is always the case with the very best players, those around him seemed frozen as he soloed on the spot before nonchalantly firing home his second goal of the 1973 All-Ireland final and finishing off Galway. The audacious shot was a tribute to manager Diarmuid O’Donovan’s bold decision to blood a teenager that summer. The tall, thin youth with the crew-cut raised his arms in triumph, once after the ball hit the net and again as he trotted back to his position. Each time, the crowd noise in Croke Park grew progressively louder and louder and somewhere in the cacophony of a September afternoon, a star was born.

“He used to arrive into the dressing-room with a skinhead haircut and wore all the gear – the short denims above the ankles, the denim jacket and wide braces, the Doc Martens, the lot,” wrote Billy Morgan. “Some of the older county board men couldn’t make head nor tail out of it all and that gave the players no end of pleasure.”


There is a popular, old photograph of JBM and Christy Ring deep in conversation at a training session in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. It isn’t quite the Ring-Mackey shot, yet for a generation, it is a picture that draws a line between the different eras, one sepia, one technicolour.  Nine minutes before half-time in the 1976 Munster hurling semi-final at the Gaelic Grounds, Barry-Murphy was sprung from the bench. It’s difficult to imagine now but that’s where he was. With their defence dominating, Tipperary had controlled proceedings to that point and the Cork selectors, among them Ring, felt his introduction might liven up the forwards.  Which it did.

A couple of months later, now a starter, Barry-Murphy was struggling in the All-Ireland final against Wexford. It was decided to move him from wing-forward to centre-forward where Mick Jacob had been imperious to that point. Barry-Murphy rattled over three points in 15 minutes to put Cork clear, Pat Moylan added another and the first step had been taken towards three in a row. At the final whistle, Ring ran onto the field, sought out Barry-Murphy and embraced him. A Glenman hugging a Barrsman in the middle of Croke Park, the icon of all icons giving his stamp of approval to the newcomer.


When John Fenton gathered a handpass from Dermot McCurtain in the second half of the 1983 All-Ireland hurling semi-final against Galway, there didn’t seem a whole lot on. Looking up, he drove the ball towards the 14 yard line where Conor Hayes was marking Barry-Murphy. The forward always thrived on the low, intelligent ball usually delivered by the centre-fielder but this time Fenton sent the ball in head high. Already a couple of steps behind the full-back, Barry-Murphy muttered, “Feck yeah, Fenton” as he noted the trajectory. Better-placed than his man, Hayes went up to block, at which point his opponent’s stick came across him in a flash and somehow directed the ball to the back of the net. It moved too fast for any television camera of that time to pick it up properly but RTE’s viewers voted it goal of the year anyway. A cameo of brilliance for the ages.

“In the following weeks – and years – there was no scarcity of sciolists to maintain that it was all ‘luck’ or ‘chance’,” wrote Kevin Cashman. “It is pointless to explain to such people about the patience and practice and concentration and the unique natural gift of co-ordination of limb and eye which went to make that stroke.”


After the final whistle of the 1999 All-Ireland hurling final, after Mark Landers had welcomed back Liam McCarthy, Barry-Murphy walked over to Hill 16 with his players. He clambered up the railings and, with one hand clinging to the fence, the other was raising the trophy in front of a sea of red and white that ebbed and flowed up and down the terrace. Minutes earlier, in the culmination of four difficult  years, he’d managed the youngest Cork team ever to win an All-Ireland, something that had seemed such a distant prospect just months earlier. The identity of the architect of the triumph, of course, just served to burnish the legend.

“If Landers made it clear just how much Jimmy meant to us, Jimmy then made it clear to us just how much we meant to him,” wrote Brian Corcoran of the pre-match ritual before that final. “He came over to us one by one and presented us with our jersey with a shake of the hand first then a hug. It was simple, spontaneous, special.”



Never go back. One of the old truisms of management appeared to be borne out by much of what has happened during Barry-Murphy’s second stint in charge of Cork. Controversy, something he studiously avoided throughout his playing and managerial career, has been a regular visitor. The county has hummed with rumours and whispers. There has been too much talk of falling-outs and acrimony. Forty summers ago, there was no Twitter to fuel intrigue and spread rancour.  Forty summers ago, there was a lot less hype. It’s a long way from impromptu choruses of “Six foot two, eyes of  blue…” washing across the field to radio stations blaring a song called “Do the Jimmy Barry-Murphy.”

Yet, as he takes charge against Clare this Sunday, not everything has changed. In the style of hurling played, in the way that new stars have come in, announced themselves and taken ownership of the jersey, we can see the handiwork of JBM and the imprints of those he worked with in times past. This is obvious too in the way he has conducted himself. Never reacting to the criticisms made in the media, his conduct after every game (win or lose) has been exemplary. No excuses. No buck-passing. And, on the good days, no desire to gloat at the critics. Some call that classy. Others might describe it as doing the Jimmy Barry-Murphy.


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