The peculiarity of Luke Murphy’s £1m transfer fee is that it was seen as his problem. If anyone was going to carry that cross it was the player who Leeds United chose to court, chose to bid for and chose to sign.
It never occurred, or not often enough, that in paying seven figures for a footballer and writing him off after 12 months, the cost and the joke would be on the club. The Premier League does not get out of bed for £1m – the Premier League gets out of bed for £5.1bn – but it is real money to Leeds, the sort of fee they rarely cough up.
Murphy represents one of football’s truisms: that a player is worth what a club values him at. It was his decision to join Leeds at a time when Blackburn Rovers wanted him but not his decision to set the price or to stretch either team to a certain sum. No doubt GFH liked the headlines (“a £1m deal”, this loan should cover it) but Leeds evidently thought he was worth it. The guilt here is not Murphy’s.
That said, the midfielder is worth it when he plays as he has since the start of January. Whether he looks like a £1m player is a moot point – no-one knows the definition of that anymore – but he has crossed the boundary between that grim world where people hang on your deficiencies to a place where they talk about your strengths. In this form you’d have him, whatever his true stock.
There is something about cash which skews perception. Matt Smith cost nothing so last season was a free run for him, a toe-in-the-water year. Murphy came in at the highest cost of any Leeds player for almost a decade and did not dare talk about settling in slowly. But they were both the same; signed from League One and hardened at a lower level in the Championship.
Smith and Murphy shared a room during United’s summer tour of Slovenia in 2013. Smith would talk about the culture shock of a Championship training schedule; of how he and Murphy spent “most of our free time sleeping” as they tried to adjust, recover and keep pace. Smith went onto have the better first year, in part because goals were the only thing of merit at Elland Road. If you weren’t scoring last season, you weren’t doing much.
There is nothing new to Murphy’s game now or nothing that wasn’t there at the beginning. He has a wider range of passing than any other Leeds player – short balls, crossfield switches, those long, hanging chips which have become his trademark – and a nose for the odd goal.
His reputation when he first joined United was that of a goalscoring midfielder, implying a level of prolific finishing which has never really been seen. One every 10 games was his rate at Crewe Alexandra so four for Leeds last season was standard. With Murphy, his strength is his string-pulling; the ability to nail Michael Hector, as he did at Reading on Tuesday, and set Leeds three-on-two with one look and a quick release of the ball. Neil Redfearn says Rudy Austin epitomises United’s resurgence. Murphy epitomises a team who have started to play forward.
Only Murphy knows where his form is coming form. He has kept his counsel recently, though an interview with him will run in today’s match programme. In footballing terms, there are some obvious factors: a proper period of acclimatisation in the Championship and the fact that Murphy patently has talent. It will help too that a front six made up of Lewis Cook, Sam Byram, Austin and Alex Mowatt has legs and the pace that he doesn’t.
The midfield picked by Brian McDermott on the final day of last season combined Murphy with Austin, Michael Tonge and Michael Brown. Certain individuals would outrun it backwards.
But there must be something in Redfearn’s comments about confidence and support. Before the new year there was nothing for Murphy to take encouragement from. Leeds would have let him leave in the last emergency loan window. They would have let him go had he not clicked so dramatically at the start of last month.
Every coach who works with Murphy says the same thing – he never sulks, he never moans, he never downs tools and never hides – but players can read signals and you wonder when Murphy was last told (or even given the impression) that he was better than a player who cost £1m and couldn’t cut it. You wonder when it was that Murphy last felt properly managed.
To have forked out and made nothing of him would have been a severe indictment of United’s recruitment and their ability to hone a footballer with potential. It would also have been symptomatic of the extreme levels of impatience at Leeds which manifest themselves in an obsession for change; a new squad and a new way each summer as the last batch of willing victims falls short.
If a Championship club spends £1m on a player, only to think about cutting their losses a year or so later, whose failure is that really? It sounds outdated or at odds with the modern transfer market but investment on that scale should be backed by a commitment to make the investment work, and to persevere when it looks like it won’t.
Murphy has plenty of quiet admirers – not least Steve Thompson, Redfearn’s assistant – and has done from the start.
They can’t all be wrong.