AFL 12 months ago

From Skinny Schoolboy To A Club Legend: Celebrating The Career Of Robert Murphy

  • From Skinny Schoolboy To A Club Legend: Celebrating The Career Of Robert Murphy

    MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 15: Robert Murphy of the Western Bulldogs announces his retirement from AFL during a press conference at Whitten Oval on August 15, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Paul Rovere/Getty Images)

About four months ago, I wrote an article about Western Bulldogs captain Robert Murphy as he reached the elusive 300th milestone game ahead of the Doggies' round five clash with the Brisbane Lions. He became just the seventh player in the history of this football club to achieve such a feat.

But as announced on Tuesday, Murphy will call an end to what has been a very storied football career at the conclusion of the Bulldogs' 2017 season after 18 seasons and over 300 games. Whether or not the Bulldogs play finals footy or not remains to be seen, but maybe it could be the fuel to propel the ninth-placed Bulldogs into the finals this year.

But lets travel back to before Bob got drafted by the Bulldogs. He was a skinny kid from Warragul - which lies over 100 kilometres east of Melbourne, Murphy was a very skinny 17-year old playing for the Dandenong Stingrays in the TAC Cup in 1999, and like many future Bulldog players ahead of him, was noticed under the eye of recruiter Scott Clayton, who believed that he was going to be the next AFL superstar.

So much so, that Clayton quoted him as a player that could win a Brownlow Medal when he reached his potential. So despite his physical flaws, Clayton persuaded Western Bulldogs coach Terry Wallace to take on Murphy with the club's first pick in the 1999 AFL Draft, selecting him with the 13th overall pick. Nobody would've guessed at the time that the skinny boy from Warragul would be the last active player drafted from the 20th century.

1999 was a stellar year for the Western Bulldogs in terms of their recruiting, as they also selected Daniel Giansiracusa, Mitch Hahn, Lindsay Gilbee and Ryan Hargrave - all four forging great careers at the Bulldogs, but Murphy was the pick of the bunch. However, his AFL career didn't start the way most kids dreamt of. 

Instead of a round one debut, Murphy was struggling to get a gig at VFL level. It wasn't because of his work-ethic or that his skills, it was because of the concern that Murphy's rather slender frame would be snapped in two by the bigger bodies of VFL footy. The concern was that bad that Terry Wallace had to beg to the coach of the Doggies' VFL affiliate at the time, the Werribee Tigers to let Bob play. The coach was none other than a future premiership coach in Alastair Clarkson, a man that would go on to win four premierships with Hawthorn and would form a legendary career as a top-tier AFL coach.

Another reason it took Murphy so long to make his debut, was that he was still in high school in 2000, doing year 12 at Footscray City College. But when round 19 came along, Bob was given his chance and made the most of it, kicking a vital fourth-quarter goal for the Bulldogs as they recorded a thrilling three-point win over Carlton at Princes Park. Keep in mind that Carlton were a top-two side at that time, so for an 18 year-old to feature in that fashion could speak volumes about his future.

A year later, Murphy would feature more consistently for the Bulldogs, playing 16 of a possible 22 games for the Bulldogs in 2001, including an AFL rising star nomination, and would established his spot in the Bulldogs' defence for the next few years, as the Bulldogs slowly descended down the ladder. However after the Bulldogs sacked Peter Rohde and appointed Rodney Eade, Murphy's place in the team changed from defence to attack.

And it worked for Bob and the Bulldogs, as Murphy would play an integral role as a much smaller and lighter centre-half forward. In his first year at the helm, Eade took his side from 14th to 9th - just half a game outside of playing finals. Murphy would kick 33 goals and average just under eight marks a game. A couple of years after he fully recovered from a knee reconstruction, Murphy was back to his best, averaging close to nine marks a game and kicking 34 goals as the Bulldogs reached the preliminary finals in 2008.

Every Bulldog supporter will tell you that Murphy's best position is when he comes from half-back - and it showed in the latter stages of his career. In 2011, he would get a spot in the half-back line in the All-Australian team for averaging 20 disposals and five rebound 50s per game, ranked fifth in the league for rebound 50s per game that year. 

But as talented as he was back then, it didn't help the Dogs that year as they missed the finals that season and had sacked Eade before the season ended, to be replaced by Brendan McCartney. The following couple of years had seen the Bulldogs develop some of their younger players, but Bob was one of the rare few that stayed at the club provided the old head for many of the pups to lean on.

But things changed once the 2014 season ended. The Bulldogs had only won seven games and the club was in a bit of trouble, having lost then captain Ryan Griffen to GWS followed by the resignation of Brendan McCartney. The Dogs needed a leader to step up, and the time was right for Murphy to tackle the reigns as the new Bulldogs' captain. Some would've said that he should've been the one to replace Matthew Boyd as captain instead of Griffen.

But under a new coach, Luke Beveridge breathed life into many of the Bulldogs' players - a 33-year old Bob Murphy wasn't immune to this as he turned in one of his best seasons in his ageing career. Watching Beveridge and Murphy co-exist as coach and captain, I'd know from the start of the 2015 season that they were a perfect match, without trying to sound too romantic here. Murphy's leadership and passion for the game connected with the passion that Beveridge had. Murphy would finish the 2015 year with a spot in the All-Australian team as well as being named captain of that very team.

This achievement highlighted what an outstanding season he had as captain of a side that many so-called footy experts predicted would finish dead last in 2015, instead, the Dogs would play Finals football for the first time since 2010, and whilst the Bulldogs would suffer heartbreak in the Elimination Final from a familiar foe in the Crows, an even bigger heartbreak came the following year.

Round three of the 2016 AFL Premiership season saw the Bulldogs host Hawthorn, however a serious knee injury in what seemed like an innocuous contest in the final minute meant that Murphy would miss the rest of the season. But that would not keep Murphy's spirits down, as he would continue to play a huge role off the field and motivate fellow team mates, in particular the stand-in leaders that were Easton Wood and Marcus Bontempelli - either of those two could very well be the next leaders of the club in 2018.

At that point, nobody would've predicted that the Bulldogs would go on to win the flag, Murphy was one of their most important players, but the Bulldogs went on to win the premiership in what was one of the greatest Grand Final victories in recent AFL history, unfortunately due to his knee, Bob wasn't one of the 22 men who ran out on the field that day - but he was just as deserving as anybody, given the journey that he had been put through since day one.

But it didn't stop there, Murphy signed on for one more year, citing he had 'unfinished business' - that being a premiership player in his own right. There was Luke Beveridge's act of selflessness on Grand Final day, handing over his Jock McHale medal over to Bob in a sign of respect to all that he's achieved at Whitten Oval, but he simply couldn't keep it. Murphy was one of those players who had worked hard to earn everything he deserved: a spot on the list, a regular spot in the Bulldogs' 22, the All-Australians and the captaincy.

If he was going to get a premiership medal, he wanted to earn it. Unfortunately, football can sometimes be a cruel game, and with the Bulldogs captain, injuries meant that he had been restricted to 15 games, with hamstring injuries hampering his 2017 season, but he showed very few signs that he had lost any of his skill or any of his decision-making abilities that made him such a respected footballer.

Which brings us to this week, after 310 games, Murphy announced that this season would be his last, calling an end to what has been a remarkable career, given that he had such a thin frame when he came to Whitten Oval at the end of the 1999 season. Murphy's retirement is just one of a long list of high-profile players retiring at the end of this year.

While he may not have the multiple premierships like Luke Hodge, or multiple club best and fairests like Nick Riewoldt or even that predicted Brownlow Medal like Sam Mitchell, Bob has always been a true fan favourite at the Western Bulldogs and will be forever recognised as a real Bulldog through and through who had forged an outstanding AFL career - Something not many people would've believed back in 1999, when the skinny kid from Warragul became a Bulldog. 

In his own words from his announcement the other day, Robert Murphy has "Lived The Childhood Dream".

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