29th May 1999. It’s a rainy morning in the outer South-East of Melbourne. I’m one of just 26,063 people braving the elements to what will prove to be the final State of Origin game contested at AFL level, between Victoria and South Australia. En route to the game in my Uncle’s Ford station wagon, we have to make one stop; a work-related matter. My uncle, a process server for the court, has to deliver a summons to someone to appear in court.
Heading up the huge driveway to this huge Brighton mansion, and seeing the figure hiding behind the couch pretending to not be home, was how I managed to get the jump on the rest of the football world and discover that Robert Harvey was a late withdrawal from the Victorian side that day, and instead, was spending his time hiding behind his couch in his dressing gown.
That incident, funny as it was at the time, shaped my image of Robert Harvey. The guy that had no trouble routinely running his 30km a game, revolutionising the expectations of midfielder endurance in the process, was hiding from an overdue rates-notice. Avoiding an awkward situation. Between that, his enduring need to keep that ridiculous boofy haircut of his for 30 years, and the lengths the Saints went to diminish his role in the unjust sacking of senior coach, Stan Alves, I concluded over time that Robert Harvey was the sort that lived in room temperature. He avoided conflict wherever possible, and was ill-equipped to deal with the high-pressure moments in the big games that defined great AFL players. When teams went Robert Harvey, Robert Harvey went missing. The 10 touch-game against Brisbane in the Qualifying Final of 2005 most evident, numerous games against Geelong, who saw Harvey as easily distracted from his task with a bit of dedicated niggling, also produced similar results.
When Matthew Scarlett told him after the 2008 Qualifying Final that “'You're just a selfish old c---. You're never going to win a flag. Your career has been a total waste.”, there were plenty who found it disrespectful to speak that way to a legend of the game. But it was hard to dispute. Harvey’s legacy to me wasn’t that of the only AFL player of the 90’s not named David Schwarz who would bother to come to clinics on the Mornington Peninsula, and was far from selfish with his time. It wasn’t the two Brownlow medals. It wasn’t the ridiculous standard of footy he was playing in his 20th season at the highest level. I think of his empty Premiership cabinet, and I see that same bloke in his What’s New dressing gown hiding behind his couch.
And it’s difficult to not see the same characteristics in Marc Murphy. With an opportunity of free agency at season’s end. It’s baffling to see why Carlton and Murphy don’t see a change of scenery as a win for both parties.
At 238 games for Carlton, only seventeen players have played more games for the club. His teammate, Kade Simpson the only other one in that cohort not to have played in a premiership for the Blues. This writer has seen the majority of those 238 games. If Murphy were to retire tomorrow, I don’t envy the club IT worker tasked with providing a highlights montage fitting of a long term club skipper, and a 200 game player/#1 draft pick, or more surprising in retrospect…..the AFL’s Most Valuable Player of 2011?
My favourite Murphy moment was his first game against Melbourne at Etihad in Round 1 of 2006, where the Blues recorded an upset win. Murphy showed all the promise in the world - smart positioning, quick ball movement, prepared to take a whack for the cause and was a beautiful finisher. The rest is perhaps unfairly overshadowed by the brilliance of Chris Judd at the same time, the often woeful scoreboard outcomes for the team, that those he got the ball out to, the likes of Bryce Gibbs and Brendan Fevola were that much more spectacular with it than the way they received it in the first place. Nonetheless, a reminiscent beer at the pub pre-game with a conversation filler of “Remember that time Murph…” is going to be hard to follow.
It was this difficulty to describe the specifics of Marc Murphy’s game that began the downfall of Graham Smorgon’s presidency of Carlton in 2006. Famously asked by a journalist what he enjoyed most about seeing when Carlton played, Smorgon was quick to indulge in his love of Marc Murphy’s high-flying marks to the puzzled response of Carlton members everywhere, perhaps more accustomed to the silky skills of Cain Ackland, the ruckwork of Eddie Betts or the dour stoic yet consistent play of Brendan Fevola.
There are plenty of other less than memorable moments that define Murphy. A quick GIF search for the youth of today will quickly bring up his famous picture tucking into a pink sticky bun, taken with the good intentions of promoting women’s health initiatives, but used to unfairly further the myth that Murphy is a soft footballer. He isn’t. By any stretch of the imagination. The shoulder injury suffered from a head on collision with Paddy Dangerfield in 2012 and the broken cheekbone from a clash with Luke Hodge in 2013 both came as a result of him being first to the football and a ball player.
But that is the nature of Murphy’s image. People remember who won and who lost. Not who was first to the football. And Murphy and his light frame come off second best more often than not. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a contest where an opponent has been injured in a contest with the Carlton captain.
Which makes it difficult not to stifle a snigger when he’s made suggestions in the past, about his want to “take one of theirs out with me” upon realizing that he had dislocated a shoulder in his debut season after a crunching tackle from Brisbane’s Robert Copeland. Or that payback would be dealt out to Essendon, and in particular, Sam Lonergan after the Bomber midfielder put Andrew Carrazzo on the shelf with a broken collarbone after a dangerous tackle in the Bombers’ infamous season of 2012?
Murphy talks the talk, and certainly has a particularly exaggerated walk – the arms in a constant huffy marching formation, as if Napoleon met Connor McGregor at his most exaggerated, chest out, the legs moving rapidly like John Howard’s walking routine had been studied. All adding up to try and evoke an image of a leader, or what he perceives as a leader to be, to his credit, he seems to have a very good idea of it. He says the right things, he puts himself in the right position to do the right things, and that’s where it appears to end.
Rarely is there talk about the culture that Murphy sets inside the club, as people speak of a Tom Harley or a Brett Kirk. There’s no praise of the on-field leadership and barking instructions to his much younger teammates (of which there are plenty this season) the way Riewoldt, Maxwell or Hodge did or still do. There’s no ability to lead by example, and impose himself on the game the way Voss or Hird were able to when their sides needed them. The essence of Murphy’s captaincy 100 games into it remains a mystery. But Murphy remains the good sport, happy and willing to take the promotional photos for sponsors, to appear with all the other-run club’s Good Sports on the Good Friday Appeal and do their bit. No-one can fault his tireless efforts in these respects.
One wonders whether the poorly timed ACL injury to Sam Docherty robbed the Blues of a much needed chance for leadership renewal this year, or similarly, the need for Paddy Cripps to concentrate on a pre-season after a season ending leg injury late last year, and a pre-season prior marred by hot spots in the back. Instead, the tireless Murphy assumes the baton again, taking the beatings like this, for little gain in the face of the team’s poor performances.
At the start of the year, the media heralded the pending signature of Murphy to another contract at Carlton, signifying the likelihood of remaining a Blue for the entirety of his career. The Herald Sun reported that the club were keen to have this signature locked in before the Round 1 clash with Richmond. Two weeks after this game, the contract has not been signed.
Marc Murphy is currently an unrestricted free agent. He currently commands a salary in the vicinity of $800,000 a year. The argument proposed against the club allowing Murphy to leave is the probability of a second-round pick in return at best and the added difficulty of being able to attract the right age bracket of players to a playing list capable of challenging for a premiership.
I see $800,000 better invested in Cripps, Dow, Fisher and Curnow. I see a need for renewal of leadership at Carlton, and arguably, a need to move past the Murphy era of Carlton, an unfortunate era of front running play, poor decision making and leadership that Murphy deserves little to have it named after, yet as the long term club captain of that era must take some responsibility for it.
Friday night’s game against Collingwood saw the captain hide behind the couch as Collingwood piled on 10 goals to none in a quarter and a half and did their best impression of a debt collector. Carlton lacked that ability for a leader to step into the centre bounces and wrest control back. It lacked inspiration.
No-one would begrudge Murphy a veteran spot on a team capable of chasing a premiership, and I feel it’s time to let that happen.