Everyone at Edgeley Park is saddened by the new of the passing of our former manager Colin Murphy, who died on Saturday at the age of 79.
Arrived in August 1985, it was something of a coup, when County managed to persuade a Third Division manager to join a club who had finished the previous season in 22nd position. Murphy was a man who always backed himself and came to County when it was in a very precarious position, with limited funds restricting essential ground renovations, a first team squad numbering 12 players and morale at a low ebb. Things were not helped as delays to ground repairs, mandated following the Bradford City fire disaster, meant that County were forced to play their opening seven fixtures away from Edgeley Park.
In his typical fashion, Murphy implemented a brutal regime of afternoon and Sunday training sessions, as a means of improving fitness and discipline. Helped by the signing of loan striker Paul Smith from Sheffield Utd, his County side won a remarkable three of those seven away games, including impressive victories at Burnley and Preston North End.
With chairman Alan Kirk resigning and the board not prepared to strengthen the squad, his first spell as County manager was to last only 70 days. In November 1985 Murphy resigned to take a management position in Saudi Arabia, with County in 19th position but mitigated by the fact that the team has played 12 of their 16 fixtures away from Edgeley Park.
In the year following his departure, County were to hit their lowest position since the Club were voted out of the Football League in 1904. New rules were introduced at the start of the 1986-87 Football League season, meaning that the bottom team in the 4th Division would be automatically relegated to the non league Vauxhall Conference. For a club like County, who had applied for re-election on many occasions, this was a startling prospect.
The fears of County fans were confirmed, when the disastrous managerial appointment of Jimmy Melia, saw County bottom of the 4th Division by early November 1986. Fourteen games played, no victories, a humiliating 10-0 League Cup aggregate defeat to Sheffield Wednesday and County were facing a catastrophe.
But cometh the hour, cometh the man. A situation perhaps best exemplified by the Manchester Evening News headline “Madman or Messiah”, describing Murphy’s return to Edgeley Park. Somehow the new board at County, led by Josh Lewis and Grahame White had managed to persuade Murphy to give up half his tax free salary and a lucrative lifestyle in the Middle East to return to SK3.
Knowing of his imminent arrival, County players (familiar with his methods) were training at Woodbank Park watching planes fly overhead to Manchester Airport, and shared gallows humour as they discussed what was to come!
What followed for the rest of the season was nothing short of a miracle. Murphy’s first game in charge was the notorious first round FA Cup defeat to Caernarfon Town, but his impact was felt immediately as County beat Cardiff 2-0 in his first league game as manager. The players apprehension was confirmed as Murphy would drive discipline and accountability into a demotivated squad. This was exemplified by him telling the players to carry the goals posts to Woodbank Park and having to face Murphy as he went around the dressing room to address players in his legendary direct fashion, sharing home truths and giving feedback that would not pass current day HR standards!
In parallel to this, he reached out to County fans, who saw in him exactly what they wanted to see from a County manager. Very early in his reign he attended a Supporters Club evening, faced the fans and shared with them his passion and belief that County would avoid relegation. In Colin Murphy, the fans had hope.
Ever the eccentric, sat on the Edgeley Park bench in his deerstalker hat, wrapped in a sleeping bag, Murphy drove his team to improved results, delivered via a direct brand of football. A canny footballing man, he knew he needed to sign players who had the character and talent to help improve the results. In Chris Marples, Les Robinson, Ernie Moss and Phil Brown he found what he needed.
Breathing belief into existing players of the quality of Bill Williams, Levi Edwards and Trevor Matthewson, the County side were transformed. The hardy band of County fans who travelled to Peterborough on 4th May 1986, to see The Hatters secure a 0-0 draw, knew they had just seen County gain the point that guaranteed their place in the Football League. This was achieved with two games remaining and those who were there will never forget the relief and appreciation they had for Murphy and his team.
Colin Murphy was undoubtedly a complex character. Prone to eccentric behaviour: a great example being his insistence that he and his County assistant Gordan Simmonite drive to Torquay to watch a player, only to then leave during the warm up as the player revealed his sun tanned legs. Murphy’s comment as they left the ground “I don’t take a player with brown legs. It’s the middle of winter and he’s been on a sunbed”.
His unpredictability was further exemplified when at the end of his miracle season, he resigned and moved to Lincoln City (ironically the team who had been relegated from the Football League). If this wasn’t enough, he also took a number of County player with him.
In the time that has passed, it can be reflected that Colin Murphy saved Stockport County from plunging down into the non-league, at a time when the club was in a perilous position. Had County fallen out of the League in 1987, with average crowds of just over 2,000, it is unlikely that the club we know and love today would exists as it does. It needs remembering that only three years after this, Danny Bergara got County to the Fourth Division Plays-Offs, sparking a revolution from which the effects are still felt to this very day.
We send our deepest condolences to Colin’s family and friends at this very sad time.