The 2000 League Cup final between Tranmere and Leicester was the 16th game of Joe Murphy’s first-team career. The goalkeeper was 18 and standing nervously inside the old Wembley tunnel when he was approached by his opposite number, Tim Flowers. “He said I must have balls the size of an elephant,” Murphy remembers.
Cup final memories have been flooding back to Murphy since Martin O’Neill, Leicester’s manager for their 2-1 win against John Aldridge’s Tranmere, drew the two clubs together in the second round of the Carabao Cup.
More than 23 years and 650 club appearances later Murphy, now 42, will again be in goal for Tranmere in the reunion on Tuesday, having been designated the League Two side’s cup goalkeeper by the manager, Ian Dawes. The former Republic of Ireland international’s last outing came in the first‑round penalty shootout victory at Barnsley, who were also Tranmere’s fourth-round opponents en route to Wembley in 1999-2000.
“It’s all a bit surreal,” says Murphy, who is both player and goalkeeping coach at Prenton Park these days. “I’ve been full circle club-wise with coming back three years ago to where it all started for me, and now this. It does make you feel old.
“When I got back into the team last season, eight of the starting XI weren’t even born when I made my debut. It’s crazy, but nice. This is the start of my fourth season back at Tranmere and it’s great to be back at the club that did so much for me when I was young.”
Murphy had not long replaced John Achterberg, now Liverpool’s goalkeeping coach, as Aldridge’s first choice when Tranmere, at the time in what is now the Championship, booked another Wembley date. They were beaten by two Matt Elliott goals, having had Clint Hill sent off in the 63rd minute, as the then Premiership team just about avoided an upset.
“I maybe didn’t take it all in because I was so young, I probably thought this is the way it’s always going to be,” Murphy admits. “I remember Tim Flowers saying a few nice words to me in the tunnel before we went out. He said I must have balls the size of an elephant. I’ll never forget that. He also said: ‘Fair play, you’ve done so well.’ That was really good of him. He didn’t have to say that. He could have got after me. I’d only just got back in the team after being out for six weeks after breaking my collarbone in the quarter-finals against Middlesbrough.
“There was a minute’s silence for an old England legend, which was really eerie and added to the nerves. It was very blustery and I remember a load of balloons and confetti blowing into my goal in the first half. My dad, my brother and a couple of friends came over and we had a bit of a shindig in Kensington afterwards with the club. It was a such a big achievement but just a pity that we couldn’t get over that last hurdle. But we did great.”
Murphy had made barely half a dozen appearances for Tranmere when the club started to receive serious offers for his signature, including from Liverpool, the team he supported as a boy in Dublin. He recalls: “I got a call from the Irish Examiner or the Irish Independent to say I’d won an award and would I come back to the Burlington hotel in Dublin to collect it? So I flew home, got my tuxedo on and went to the hotel with my mam and dad.
“As I got out of my brother’s old Honda Civic there were about 40 to 50 paparazzi around the car. I walked over to the hotel and this big burly guy pulled me to one side and said: ‘Gérard Houllier wants to talk to you.’
“I had no idea he was going to be there. He introduced himself and said: ‘We’d love to sign you. We have Sander Westerveld at the moment but I want you to come in and push him.’ It was a one‑minute conversation with all these photographers right in our face.
“It turned out Gérard was the guest speaker and when I went up for my award the guy presenting it announced Liverpool were interested in me. I flew back the next morning and John Aldridge was not happy. He’d found out and it was like I’d organised it, but I had no clue. Liverpool put an offer in, we rejected it, and nothing really happened after that. I think we wanted something like £4m, which was a lot of money back then for a lad who had only played 10 games. I’m a huge Liverpool fan so it was a big shock, but it wasn’t meant to be. I have a picture of me and Gérard having that conversation up in my lad’s room.”
Murphy’s career path took him to West Brom, Walsall, Scunthorpe, Coventry, Huddersfield and Bury instead, before he rejoined Tranmere in 2020. Now he, like Flowers at Wembley, is the veteran dispensing advice.
“I’d spoken to a lot of people over the years about whether dual roles work,” Murphy says. “Last year I got brought back into the team through a lack of form from our goalkeeper [Mateusz Hewelt] and that was difficult because I’m his coach and had to explain to him that I’m coming into the team. I found that difficult but then you have to get your game head on and do what’s best for the team. As long as I feel fit and strong enough, and the club feel I can still contribute, I’ll do it. You’re a long time retired.”