Vincent Hogan: Growing up in the fast lane
Maher determined to come back stronger after Aisake 'experience'
Published 13/08/2010 | 05:00
That afternoon hangs in the memory like an incoherent rumour now. Gulliver going to town on Tipperary in 'The Park'. Air traffic on red alert down by the marina. The sun blotted out by a huge, fetching hand; the earth jolting each time the giant's shoes landed.
Aisake O hAilpin's big day seemed to have drawn a line through hurling as we knew it. Tipp, the great light-fingered wizards of '09, were undone -- essentially -- by a reversion to the game of the 1970s.
Cork planted a great, square-shouldered target on the edge of the square and rained ball after ball down upon him.
Imagine. All that mind-crunching sophistication of forward lines turning sleight of hand into an art form and, in 70 startling minutes, science got trumped by the high ball and the sticky palm.
Tipp fell out of Cork in turmoil that evening, collateral damage reaching into every corner of their being. And no one had taken a bigger hit than Padraic Maher, the teak-tough Thurles kid who, eight months earlier, stepped from his first senior championship as the All Star full-back.
Maher lasted maybe 25 minutes on Aisake before a humanitarian hand pulled him to the wing. And, in the blizzard of recrimination, the easy line was that old Hollywood cliche of "too much, too soon." He had barely turned 21, after all. What else could it be but the carelessness of youth?
Full-backs, historically, meet ignominy with stoic faces.
Brian Lohan, famously, once stopped himself mid-sentence during a TV interview for RTE's 'Breaking Ball'. "Are you still rolling?" he asked the producer. "I was going to say it (losing) hurts, but we can't say that.
"Full-backs don't say 'hurt'."
Padraig Maher certainly doesn't use the word either. Since May 30, he has played his way back to championship form at wing-back and also managed to anchor a Tipp Munster U-21 triumph wearing the No 6 jersey.
If Aisake took him to a bad place that strange day in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Maher isn't inclined to embroider the story with much detail. "In a way you'd be kind of happy that you got that experience because you can learn from it," he says flatly now.
"That's all you can do from these things, learn from them and use them to better yourself. Things just didn't go right that day."
And the vitriol that came cascading Tipp's way on the back of one bad day in Cork?
"As young lads, we were surprised," he admits. "It turned so quick. I mean none of us went out against Cork to play bad. We went down and gave it our all."
"T'was an eye-opener," he agrees. "Just shows how quickly things can change."
Trouble is, people come to presume upon things with kids like Padraig Maher. His hurling life has been such a one-way street of progress and confident delivery, it sometimes gets overlooked that you're talking about someone who was 12 years old when Tipp last won the Liam McCarthy.
His first two years in blue and gold ('06 and '07) mined All-Ireland minor medals and, when he first graduated to the U-21s ('08), they made the All-Ireland final.
Ken Hogan, Tipp's All-Ireland winning goalkeeper of '89 and '91, manages this year's U-21s. He played behind Padraig's father -- Paddy -- on the Tipp minors that won an All-Ireland in 1980. Ken points, too, to the fact that Padraig's uncle, Paddy McCormack, was involved in coaching a lot of Tipp minor teams across the years as well and had a distinguished career in goals with Thurles Sarsfields.
"So he has a great pedigree and grounding in hurling," explains Hogan. "Once you have that type of background, you will recover. Paudie has that inner belief in himself that he can always move on."
And it is perhaps worth considering what exactly he was moving on from.
Aisake O hAilpin is tall as a garden shed and armed with a great catching hand. That day in Cork, the quality of ball coming his way was all but radar-guided. Short of a double-barrel shotgun, it's a little hard to know how Maher might have been expected to subdue the Cork full-forward.
Conor O'Donovan, Tipp's All-Ireland winning full-back of '89, believes the Thurles kid was simply presented with an unsolvable puzzle.
"I wouldn't know what to do with a guy like him (O hAilpin)," explains the Nenagh man. "People might say get in front of him, but Padraig got in front of him for one or two balls and Aisake just caught it over his head.
"Go behind him and try to bat the ball as hard as you can, yet he'll protect his hand and still catch it. Try and come at him from the side and you're leaving yourself vulnerable because, if he still catches it, all he has to do is peel away to the other side.
"I don't know what you can do to stop a fella like him when his catching hand is on fire. I mean I don't think you can say Noel Hickey had a good game on Aisake (last Sunday) simply because that quality of ball didn't go in."
Tipp have, since, picked themselves off the canvas and mined a redemption route with big qualifier wins against Wexford and Offaly and, of course, that momentous quarter-final against Galway. And Maher looks to have grown again on the journey. He was outstanding in the recent Munster U-21 final against Clare and Hogan admits that the management even consider him a viable inter-county option at midfield where "he can be a great driving force".
Ken argues: "I was at a Kilkenny county final a few years back where DJ (Carey) destroyed Noel Hickey. Hickey was actually an established county full-back at that stage. But, again, Noel Hickey would be made of the same sort of steel as Padraig Maher.
"He would recover from that and move on. If you play full-back, a day will always come where you just come up against a huge flow of superiority from the opposition. Tipp just hit a very poor day in May, where the flow was totally against them and John Gardiner was raining ball down on Aisake."
Maher insists that he remains as comfortable at full-back as in any other position, albeit Tipp are uniquely resourced in the area, with two other All Stars, Declan Fanning and Paul Curran, available. Aisake, meanwhile, is out of the whirling summer dance. That game on May 30 barely ripples on the distant edge of memory now. And O'Donovan, for one, is startled that Cork didn't use it as a template.
"I cannot understand why they didn't continue delivering that kind of ball in to Aisake," he says. "Cork just seemed to totally abandon the long-ball game after playing Tipp. But I'd love to have seen a ball drop into Aisake last Sunday, one-on-one with Hickey like he got with Padraig Maher.
"After the Tipp game, I thought Aisake might have been ready to set the championship alight, a bit like Dan Shanahan in 2007. Cork had a player that no other county had, but they just didn't exploit his height and catching ability any more after the Tipp game."
Maher, himself, has no qualms about being the only one really exposed to the Na Piarsaigh giant. Actually, he has filed the experience away under the heading 'educational'.
"You know," he says, "maybe in the long term it helps you to have seen both sides of the coin. You can't allow your confidence to suffer. You're playing against top-class inter-county teams. Things are going to go different ways.
"Like the last ball that came into the square against Galway. It could have gone anywhere. There might have been up to 10 players fighting for it. And the ref just blows the game up.
"I thought maybe he was going to throw the ball in. Thank God for us he didn't."
The extraordinary intensity of that game set this championship ablaze, albeit Maher insists he would have been "happy to win a terrible game by 0-6 to 0-5". He chuckles that he could "hear the bones crunching" the morning after. Not that he is expecting anything less this Sunday from a "never-say-die" Waterford.
"They almost pipped us in last year's Munster final," he recalls. "And, if anything, they look stronger now."
The same might be said of Padraig Maher.