Alistair Hendrie salutes the career of a lower-league legend who looks to be quietly slipping into retirement.
Sunday 30th April 2006 was a memorable day for Reading fans. With the Championship title already clinched with a hearty sixteen-point cushion, Queen Park Rangers visited Steve Coppell’s peerless champions on the final day of the season. The match was played in a fine spirit and blue and white placards were held across the ground before kick-off.
Only one thing was missing from Reading’s unstoppable charge to the title. Every outfield player to play in league or cup had scored apart from one man. That man was Graeme Murty. Don’t be mislead, Reading’s rampant full-back and captain had been a linchpin at the heart of the campaign. However, he was of course desperate for a goal against QPR. The season went on and Reading swept aside their inferiors week in, week out, but Murty’s chip on his shoulder was the subject of training ground banter.
As luck, and this Cinderella story would have it, Murty’s time would come. With his side stunned at 1-1, the hosts were given a penalty on eighty-four minutes. It just had to happen. Reading’s fans showed their allegiance and cried for the inspirational Murty to take the spot-kick. He might be the first to admit that he would be last in line to take it under normal circumstances, with his one solitary goal in 280 appearances since joining from York City eight years ago.
Murty duly stepped up and dared not look at Jake Cole bobbing on the spot in his goal. He placed the ball with his back turned to the keeper, then turned again, standing on the arc of the box. With a powerful run-up, the former Charlton man pelted the ball with authority into the left hand corner. He finally had his goal. Just like everything else that season, the pieces of the jigsaw fell into place for the Berkshire side.
Murty kept to his promise if he scored, and sprinted over to club mascot Kingsley the Lion, jabbing a finger in his direction. The team bundled the giant mascot by the corner flag as Royals fans witnessed another euphoric win for their side. Not only did Murty’s goal seal the match for them, he also cemented their place in history. His team set a record after winning the league with 106 points.
With their lead unassailable for most of the season, the Royals enjoyed 5-0 wins over Derby County and Millwall, as well as a 5-1 rout against Brighton & Hove Albion. Their thrilling last-gasp victory against Sheffield United left a sweet taste in the mouths of Berkshire residents, as they got one over on their title rivals in an ill-tempered, fiercely contested clash.
The scenes after the QPR match were of unrivalled joy. Though they wouldn’t like to admit it, the champagne was on ice for most of the second part of the season, but now the eagerly awaited celebrations could begin.
The delirious fans, tasting the vibrant anticipation of top-flight football for the first time ever, swarmed onto the pitch to greet their unexpected heroes who were plucked from the likes of Cork City, Brentford, Leyton Orient and Cambridge United. Coppell’s untouchable squad raced to the director’s box above the 20,000 fans crammed onto the pitch. It was not Kevin Doyle’s name the fans were singing, the forward whose eighteen goals in his first season in English football were invaluable. It was not Bobby Convey’s name being chanted, after the American’s decisive runs and defence-splitting balls set up so many attacks in the previous nine months. No, it was the industrious Murty being worshipped, the engine room in the Reading back-line.
Despite being interviewed at the time, Murty quickly turned away from a local television reporter, cupped his ears at the adoring throngs below him, then outstretched his arms. He knew he’d done the hard work, and this usually modest full-back from Middlesborough found a chance to immerse himself in the praise of his fans. He, and of course Reading, had done it.
It must have been written in the stars that three months later, Murty would meet his home side Middlesborough at Madejski Stadium on the opening day of the season. Reading were 2-0 down after 21 minutes but a Leroy Lita-inspired Reading showed character to win 3-2 and overcome the odds. Coppell’s tenacious Royals won many plaudits in their first season rubbing shoulders with some of Europe’s elite. They drew with Manchester United and Chelsea, and beat Manchester City, West Ham United and Newcastle United, before finishing eighth in the table. Even Murty would admit himself; their achievements were beyond the expectations of their most wildly optimistic fans.
Reading’s rise to prominence and nationwide respect sadly coincided with Murty’s ongoing injury troubles which have now blunted his career and put it into a saddening jeopardy. Hamstring and calf injuries tore into his first season as a Premier League footballer, and ensured that he only played twenty-three times that term. He was also forced to pull out of Scotland’s Euro 2008 qualifiers, after first being picked for the tartan army in 2004.
Murty’s side were wide-eyed and ready for their challenge previously, but were struck with an awakening dose of reality in 2007-2008. The Royals struggled desperately and self-destructed between Boxing Day 2007 and March 2008, suffering a crippling eleven matches without victory. Their looming relegation was ultimately sealed on the last day of the season. Fulham’s winner at the death against Portsmouth meant they pipped Reading to the post on goal difference. What made it even more gutting was Reading’s non consequential 4-0 win over a dreadful, already relegated Derby County on the same sunny May afternoon.
When Reading were condemned to Championship football, the stocky Murty’s career never got off the canvas again. As many of Coppell’s heroic yet humble squad ventured off to Premier League clubs, Murty was left on the treatment table as a new look Reading side took shape. This was the end of an era for Reading.
At beginning of 2009, Murty still harboured ambitions of pulling on the hoops once more. Struggling for match fitness, his old friend and former Reading team-mate Phil Parkinson took him on loan at Charlton Athletic, and offered an ailing model professional a lifeline. The Addicks were however stuck in a rut at the time and were at nineteen games without a win by the time Murty played his second match for Charlton.
But again, Murty’s pestering calf injuries kept plugging away. He was sent back to Reading injured on Monday 2nd March 2009. The former Elm Park side had begun that season in fine form with Chris Armstrong slipping into Murty’s shoes at full-back as if he’d always been there. With the team later struggling on the pitch, Murty was a powerless spectator in the gym or treatment room. Reading won just four times in their last nineteen matches of the season and were easily outfoxed by Burnley in the play-off semi-finals.
Maybe it was poetic that after his harrowing injury battles he only made one more appearance for the Berkshire men following their slide down the divisions. Murty was not offered a new contract after the Burnley debacle and hobbled away from what became his spiritual home throughout his career.
During his time out, Murty built a reputation on BBC Radio Berkshire and frequently appeared on Andrew Peach’s morning shows discussing how Reading had fared. Despite his woes, he always stayed positive whilst talking on the show and revealed how his brimming friendship and camaraderie with squad members such as James Harper helped him elevate negative thoughts.
He was born over two hundred miles away from Berkshire but endeared himself to the public when on air with his refreshingly honest observations about his side. His profile in the local community came on further leaps and bounds when he became a patron of Swings & Smiles, a Berkshire-based charity raising money for families with special needs children. All proceeds from his testimonial match against Celtic were donated to the charity.
Ever the optimist and a determined character, Murty was taken on by Southampton in the summer of 2009, where he joined forces with his former Reading manager Alan Pardew. His body defied him again and he made just six league appearances for the Saints, amid a torrent of knee and ligament problems.
Murty’s fresh worries arose after he was badly injured in an awkward clash for a 50-50 ball involving Stephen Carr and Lee Bowyer of Birmingham City. It was only his fourth match in the red and white shirt. Three months later, Murty returned to the side as they overcame Wycombe Wanderers, Northampton Town, Hartlepool United and Walsall, a fine swansong for a lower league legend.
His deteriorating frame had its say and Southampton’s 3-1 win away at Walsall was the last time Murty graced a football pitch. For now. How fitting that such bashful, unselfish yet adroit player would quietly bow out for the season with four wins in a row. That’s how Murty goes about his game – quietly. You never see him shout down a referee or ask for the glory, but you do see him fight to the bitter end for his team, a trait which came in handy during the hours spent in the gym for the last four or five years.
Reports declared that Murty had a brief trial at Hartlepool United this summer and was unsuccessful. That was the last nugget of information to be heard about the Scotland international’s career, but somewhere down the line, surely a club will need another penalty taker.
Follow Alistair on Twitter @allyh84.