Marc Murphy is comfortable being in the sportlight. Photo: Jason SouthThe problem was partly one of Marc Murphy’s making. So consistent for so long that when his form betrayed him last year the only real variable to explain it was that he had become captain and couldn’t cope.
Which also provides proof that football might be a simple game but one that is best not distilled to simple assumptions.
Murphy had a knee injury last year that meant if he did everything right – trained only once a week and managed his pain – he would get himself fit enough to play games. He was not fit enough to play games the way he had ordinarily played them – he lacked the customary power in his run – but he was able to get out there. Well, until he broke a cheekbone. That was a setback, but not one that set him back as long as it should have.
“We finished sixth, which was no disaster, but from Murphy’s perspective he had his knee issues, then broke his cheekbone so it was a challenging year whatever the case, let alone being captain for the first time,” said the man he replaced as captain, Chris Judd. “I think he handled himself really well, and on the field as captain.”
In Murphy’s opinion, the captaincy had no impact on his form, save for the fact it created in him an insistence that he be out there playing when his body would otherwise have benefited from him not being out there.
“It was the first year that I really didn’t have a lot of confidence in my body,” he said.
“Some games I would be feeling pretty good, some games I would be feeling pretty average. But as leader of the club, I didn’t want to take weeks off here and there; I wanted to be out there as much as I could and not let anyone down. But, in saying that, you feel you might let the team down because you can’t perform as well as you would have liked.
“I was on the back foot all year trying to get it right. I don’t want to make excuses, it’s just an explanation.”
The idea that the burden of captaincy, plus having inherited the title from a game luminary who was still in the team, weighed too heavily on him is a point that irritates Murphy, for it so plainly overlooks the more simple explanation.
“The captaincy didn’t affect me from that point of view. People can say what they like from the outside, but my performance last year had nothing to do with being captain at all,” he said.
“It was more that I had an up-and-down year – in some games I was pretty good and in some games I was not as good. People were suggesting I couldn’t cop a tag, but I had been tagged nearly every game before that in my career.
“It is definitely a driving force this year to try to prove a few people wrong and make this club successful as well.”
The discussion of Murphy’s performance as captain was as strongly informed by who he took over from as to how he had behaved himself. Judd is the sort of figure who looms over the game, so there is a reflexive attitude to his status in the side.
Judd determinedly stepped back from the team to allow Murphy room to breathe as captain last year.
He became more mentor to the captain than leader to the group.
Judd is the sort of figure – more than others – who leads without title because of the reverence in which he is held. (Young players still sneakily elbow one another: “See what Juddy did? See how Juddy tied his laces? Hear what Juddy said to me”).
“From my point of view, I was conscious of giving him space to imprint his own style on the role,” said Judd.
“But having said that, I have been in the game so long . . . You’re a resource still for him and, particularly late in the year, we had some good discussions about leadership.
“As much as I stepped back to give him space, I also didn’t want to feel I absolved myself of a leadership role in the footy club. So it’s a balancing act between stepping back and giving space, but you also do not want to be disengaged.”
Murphy appreciated the balance.
“Juddy took a really big step back last year and almost said, ‘This is your side, take it from here’,” Murphy said.
“I had a lot of one-on-ones with him, talking about a few things that helped him when he first started and was captain of West Coast and then obviously coming to a new club and being captain straight away.”
They were familiar messages of not trying to be all things to everyone, not changing your game to be something you’re not; about the best way to help is be the player you are as well as you can, the best way to lead to set the example and be taxing on others.
“My best asset to the team has been bursting out of stoppages, winning clearances, getting a lot of the ball. He said don’t go away from that stuff, don’t think you have to go out there and get 10-15 tackles a game and lock down on blokes; that is not your best asset for the team,” Murphy said. “I feel a lot more confident in the role this year.”
He also feels a lot more confident in his body. The cartilage in his knee that was troubling him improved in the off-season with lengthy rest and without surgery. He has completed a fuller pre-season and the result is that he’s feeling buoyant about the team and his game.
Teammates have noticed a shift in him. Andrew Carrazzo observed that the captain has been louder, more assertive. Murphy believes this is because he is around the group more often and not limited to the single track session a week, rather than the idea of him feeling more comfortable that it is “his team”.
It is also true that all the leaders have been more exacting of their teammates in a pre-season Murphy considers the most difficult he has encountered.
It is an approach that reflects the idea of a team that finished sixth and recruited Dale Thomas and Andrejs Everitt to bridge the gap with those ahead of it and not a side that finished ninth and was gifted a finals place by another’s misbehaviour.
“We took a lot of out of the finals win over Richmond – I know I did and a lot of the younger guys did to come back in front of 94,000 in the atmosphere of a final like that gave us great confidence – but we also realised how far off we were from a top-four side,” he said.
The list, Murphy says, is the best in his time at Carlton. In his ninth year at the club and second as captain, he also knows that in football, it is later than you think.
“Like 14 of the 18 clubs, there are teams that want to play finals and don’t think of it as just another year, and we will worry about trying to win a premiership next year or the year after. We are trying to improve on last year. We have a lot of guys who have played a lot of footy together now. I am 26 and want to taste success as well.”