Murtagh's memorable year

April 30, 2009
A memorable year for Brendan Murtagh was capped recently when he was named the overall winner of the Westmeath Examiner Sports Star of the Year awards. It was a richly deserved accolade for the Clonkill man, who achieved major success with his club, county and province in 2008, and also represented his country for a second time. Westmeath's top hurler Brendan Murtagh received long overdue recognition on January 30 last when he was named as the overall Sports Star of the Year at the Mullingar Park Hotel/Westmeath Examiner-sponsored awards night. It was a fitting honour for the 26-year-old carpenter who is fast becoming the Lake County's most decorated hurler and who illuminated last year's National League Division 2 and Christy Ring Cup campaigns with a series of breathtaking performances. Murtagh's displays for Westmeath earned him call-ups to the Leinster and Ireland squads, while he was also selected on the Christy Ring 'Champion 15' and as the Gaelic Players' Association's player of the tournament. "It was a great year alright," the powerful and stylish centre half forward says. "I suppose the only downside to it was that I was on the go all the time and didn't get a break. But I managed to get a few weeks off before Christmas and I was able to recharge my batteries in that time." Murtagh saw off the likes of Martin Flanagan, Dessie Dolan and John Keane, as well as Olympians Johnny Joyce, John Joe Nevin and Martin Fagan, to claim the Westmeath Examiner Sports Star of the Year award. The accolade capped a magnificent year for the gifted caman wielder, which began with him helping his beloved Clonkill to an historic All-Ireland intermediate club victory over Galway side Tommy Larkins at Croke Park. The Westmeath captain's commitment to his county was underlined when, along with Clonkill team-mates Enda Loughlin and Adam Price, he flew down to Tralee by helicopter the following day to play in the Lake County's opening National League Division 2 victory over Kerry. Westmeath went on to lift the Division 2 title with Murtagh leading by example in their 2-12 to 0-12 win over Carlow at the Limerick Gaelic Grounds. An accomplished free-taker, Murtagh continued to rack up big scores during Westmeath's march to the Christy Ring Cup final. They were widely expected to repeat their earlier victory over Carlow, but despite the best efforts of Murtagh, who scored two goals in the dying minutes to force extra-time, the Barrowsiders gained sweet revenge to run out 3-22 to 4-16 winners and deny Westmeath their third success in the competition. "It was Carlow's day," remembers Murtagh, who was the best player on view by some distance. "They were more up for it than we were and deserved to win. We had one eye on Laois (who Carlow went on to face in a Liam McCarthy promotion/play-off game), and that was a mistake. It was a disappointing end to Johnny Dooley's reign as manager. He had been with us for two years and I thought he made a big impact, especially in his first year when he was team trainer." In between the National League and Ring Cup campaigns, Westmeath suffered a crushing Leinster championship defeat to Dublin in Portlaoise after leading by a point at half-time. Brendan, who was unable to start the game due to a broken bone in his hand which he had sustained in a challenge match against Laois a fortnight earlier, regards that defeat as even more disappointing than the Ring Cup final. "All of our preparations last year were geared towards the Dublin game and to collapse like we did in the second half was very disheartening. We were in a strong position at half-time, but they got a run on us in the second half and we couldn't keep them out," he ruefully reflects. Not surprisingly, Murtagh is critical of the GAA's decision to allow Galway and Antrim to compete in this year's Leinster championship while Westmeath will be plying their trade in the Christy Ring Cup. In the meantime, the Lake County will face high quality opposition in the likes of Wexford and Offaly as they battle to make their mark in Division 2 of the restructured National League. "Playing in a stronger league is some consolation for not getting the chance to play in this year's Leinster championship. It will be a good test for us and we're looking forward to it. But it's frustrating to think that we can't play in our provincial championship when Galway and Antrim can." The Lake County have made a bright start to 2009 by winning the Kehoe Cup, and Murtagh has been highly impressed by the impact of their new manager Eamonn Gallagher. "Eamonn knows his stuff and he's brought in a very good trainer in Poggie (Padraig) Lynn, who worked with the Westmeath and Longford footballers before this. We've made a good start by winning the Kehoe Cup and our aim for the rest of the year is to give a good account of ourselves in Division 2 and win the Christy Ring Cup." Having previously missed out on selection for the Leinster inter-provincial squad due to injury, Brendan was delighted to get the call-up late last year. He lined out at centre half forward in the wins over Connacht and Munster, and thus joined a select group of Westmeath hurlers to have won Railway Cup medals. He also represented his country in the hurling/shinty international against Scotland for a second time, lining out alongside Kilkenny stars Tommy Walsh, Eddie Brennan and Derek Lyng, and Cork's Sean Og O hAilpin. But despite scoring 1-3 in a rain-soaked clash at Nowlan Park, Murtagh couldn't save Ireland from a 1-9 to 1-10 defeat. While his selection on the Christy Ring 'Champion 15' team came as absolutely no surprise, there was disappointment in Westmeath hurling circles that he failed to receive an All-Star nomination. "I didn't expect to get an All-Star nomination, despite what some people were saying. In any case, I'm not sure if I would have qualified for one because Westmeath played in the Christy Ring Cup last year," he says. Although he's associated primarily with hurling, Brendan is also an accomplished footballer, having won senior championship medals with The Downs in 2003 and 2005. His performances didn't go unnoticed to Westmeath football manager Tomas O Flatharta who drafted him into his squad in early 2006, but he has since devoted all his energies at inter-county level to the small ball game. A two-time senior hurling championship medallist with Clonkill, Murtagh's skills first came to notice in 1999 when he was a member of the Westmeath minor side that came within a whisker of beating Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final. He soon established himself as a commanding full back on the Westmeath senior team, with his huge, relieving clearances being a feature of his game. He played in defence when Westmeath claimed the inaugural Christy Ring Cup in 2005, but had switched to centre half forward by 2007 when they won the second tier competition for a second time. Murtagh's ultimate goal is to help Westmeath break into hurling's elite. He concludes by saying: "The Christy Ring Cup has been good for Westmeath in that it gave us something realistic to aim for. But having won it a couple of times now, we want to move on to the next level and compete against the best teams. It's the only way we will improve as a team."

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