Crystal Palace's in-form striker has bounced back from adversity after an ACL injury threatened to derail his top-flight career before it even began. Greg Lea chats form, misfortune and an unlikely rise with the man himself...
If, as they say, a week is a long time in football, then four months is an eternity. Back in mid-December, loanee Glenn Murray scored Reading’s only goal in a 6-1 defeat to Birmingham City at St Andrews, a thrashing that left the Royals looking nervously over their shoulders at the Championship drop zone. Fast-forward 18 weeks and Murray, now back at Palace, is one of – if not the – Premier League’s most in-form strikers. He has scored six times in as many games, with Sunderland, Manchester City, Stoke, West Ham and Arsenal all victims of his unforeseen hot streak.
Luminaries like Diego Costa and Harry Kane all boast inferior goals-per-minute ratios than the targetman from Cumbria; in fact, in Europe’s top five leagues only Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Sevilla’s Kevin Gameiro have netted more regularly than Murray and his average of a goal every 87 minutes in 2014/15.
“I never wanted to leave”
Bombed out by Neil Warnock with Kevin Doyle and Andrew Johnson ahead of him in the Palace pecking order, the 31-year-old now looks every bit the Premier League centre-forward under Alan Pardew.
“I’m just playing the same game I’ve always played,” Murray tells FFT as we pull up a pew at Palace’s Beckenham training ground. “I’ve been spending a bit more time in the gym lately, working on my upper body and making sure I’m ready to go when matchday arrives, but nothing major has changed in terms of what I’m doing on the pitch.
I had a private conversation with the gaffer [Warnock], and he told me that Palace wasn’t the place for me to be
“It’s just great to be playing a run of games again and getting my name on the scoresheet. I never wanted to leave the club in the summer, but when I had a private conversation with the gaffer [Warnock] and he told me that Palace wasn’t the place for me to be, I decided it was best to go to Reading. I wanted to play.”
This season is not the first time that Murray has battled back from adversity: not too long ago, it looked as if he might never play a single minute at this level. After a superb 2012/13 campaign that saw him lead the Championship top scorers’ list with 30 goals, the striker suffered the devastation of a torn cruciate ligament in the first leg of Palace’s play-off semi-final against former club Brighton.
The Eagles advanced to a Wembley final after beating their rivals in the return fixture, and then overcame Watford to secure a place in the top flight, but Murray, watching on with a pair of crutches by his side, wasn't sure whether he'd be involved in the trips to Anfield, the Emirates and Old Trafford.
“I knew immediately that it was a serious one,” Murray recalls with a grimace. “You’re used to hurting things in football but that pain was excruciating.
“You start to doubt everything when you’re injured for a long time. It’s not easy to stop things running through your mind when you’re staring at the same four walls of the gym every day. You question a lot about your career. I’m just glad I’ve managed to make it back.”
Up the ladder
It’s not easy to stop things running through your mind when you’re staring at the same four walls of the gym every day. You question a lot
But even before that cruelly-timed setback, a glance at Murray’s career history doesn't suggest he was ever destined for the glitz and glamour of the Premier League. His first contract came with non-league outfit Workington Reds close to his birthplace of Maryport, before the north of England was traded for North Carolina and a short-term deal with Wilmington Hammerheads in the third tier of US football.
Spells with Barrow, Carlisle and Stockport followed, until Murray made his first real breakthrough at Rochdale aged 24.
A return of 21 goals in 40 league starts earned him a move to upwardly-mobile Brighton, where the one-in-two scoring record continued as Guy Poyet’s side earned promotion to the Championship in 2011.
“I wouldn’t change the way I got to where I am today,” he says without hesitation. “You learn a lot about different types of players down in Leagues One and Two. I had the chance to work with experienced pros as well as talented youngsters. I absorbed as much as I could.
“Everyone has ambitions of playing at the highest level and I was no different; whether you fulfil those ambitions is a different story, though. You need luck along the way, but back when I was playing in America and clubs in the lower leagues, I probably did feel that the Premier League was out of reach.”
It's not just Murray’s goals that have attracted attention in recent weeks, though. His all-round performances have been superb, as pundits Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher were keen to point out after a terrific example of hold-up play and aerial prowess in the victory over reigning champions Manchester City.
Murray is a master at relieving the pressure on his side by shielding the ball from defenders, winning free-kicks and flick-ons, and bringing others into play.
Alongside flying wingers Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha, the same front three that helped Palace to promotion two years ago are relishing being reunited under Pardew this term.
“Those two are fantastic, aren’t they?” Murray exclaims, his face suddenly lighting up. “They’re a pleasure to play with. They put balls into dangerous areas, which is all you can ask for as a centre-forward. I just try to find a way to get on the end of as many as I can.”
When I was playing in America and clubs in the lower leagues, I probably did feel that the Premier League was out of reach
Murray signed a one-year extension to his Palace deal in January, lengthening his stay at Selhurst Park until summer 2017 when he will be approaching his 34th birthday. For now, though, the only thing on his mind is the remainder of this season.
“I’d like to see out my career here, but that’ll be up to the manager,” the striker says. “I’m just concentrating on scoring goals: that’s my job and it’s what I’ve always tried to do in whichever league or at whatever level I find myself. It’s what I enjoy doing, and I just want to keep doing it.”
It's precisely that attitude which has endeared him to Palace fans, who serenade him with chants of “Scoring goals for Palace, Glenn Murray” every time he finds the net. His conversion rate may fall just short of Messi and Ronaldo’s, but the Selhurst Park faithful wouldn't swap their No.17 for anyone right now.