Friday Profile: 'Bonner is a guy you would bring to war with you'
Published 05/09/2014 | 02:30
In his post-match TV interview after the All-Ireland semi-final win against Cork, Tipperary manager Eamon O'Shea spoke about a wide range of topics: his side's confidence, the players' belief in the system, the trust they have in themselves, his firm belief that Tipp can be better.
Tipp had a host of big performances but O'Shea only mentioned one player.
"I just want to single out (Patrick) 'Bonner' Maher who was playing with an injury for most of the game," said O'Shea.
"For me, he was just outstanding. He typifies what Tipp spirit is all about. I think the rest of the players responded at half-time in giving a performance for him."
It was a vintage Maher display, with one play neatly encapsulating everything O'Shea was referring to. In the 47th minute, Maher emerged from a ruck of players before taking four Cork defenders out of the equation with a devastating handpass to Seamus Callanan, who drilled the ball past Anthony Nash. Game over.
Maher's value to Tipp has always been incalculable. The glory for him has usually been vicarious but he has started to feel the buzz and live the vibe more this year. He is still the same dependable player: of his combined 69 plays made in this Championship, he has had 15 scoring assists. Those figures are probably below Maher's assists average during his career but he has begun to press on the accelerator more often this summer.
Prior to this season, one of the great anomalies of this Tipp team was that their most influential forward had scored just 1-4 in 16 Championship games.
Maher had made his name as hurling's most celebrated domestique but he had gone nine games without raising a flag in Championship. He showed a new dimension to his game in the League semi-final against Clare when scoring two brilliant goals and Maher has now scored in four of Tipp's five Championship games this summer, his tally of 2-3 exceeding his previous total from four seasons.
"I probably changed my mindset," he said in July. "I'm working harder to get into positions for the chances to score. I will lay it off if someone else is in a better position but I'm growing in confidence that I can take my own scores more. I have worked on it myself a good bit. It comes with time too."
Maher developed into Tipp's most important hunter-gatherer because he learned that value from day one. On his Championship debut against Wexford in 2010, Maher's shot at goal was saved when a pass was a better option, and Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly scolded him. In the dressing-room afterwards, Kelly and Corbett sat Maher down and clinically discussed the option he should have taken.
After Maher set up Kelly for the opening goal a month later against Galway, Kelly pointed to his temple and shook his fist at Maher.
"That moment against Wexford was the turning point in Bonner's career," says Brendan Cummins.
Maher came through with a golden generation of gifted Tipperary players and won an All-Ireland in his first season but he always knew his place and his function. In that year's All-Ireland final, he reduced Tommy Walsh to five pucks in open play. Walsh played a lot more ball in the 2011 All-Ireland final but seven Tipperary scores came directly from Maher's play.
He was solid and unspectacular but he always came up with brilliant scoring assists. Against Cork in 2011, he played a key hustling role in two of Tipp's goals. He came on against Limerick in 2012 and single-handedly turned the game, being directly involved in 1-3 from just eight possessions. In the first half of this year's League final, he provided the last or second-last pass for eight of Tipp's 11 scores.
He created John O'Dwyer's goal against Limerick too last year but the 2013 season was effectively a write-off for Maher. He had joined the Irish Defence Forces the previous November and work commitments forced him to miss the early rounds of the League.
Maher only trained collectively with the team around ten times during the campaign. O'Shea used to regularly meet him for individual sessions but Maher's touch and form had still deserted him and he never got it back.
He just put it down to a run of bad form, and the job has ideally suited Maher this season.
"I've never been as fit," he said before the Dublin game. "I've never felt as strong. Mentally, it has helped me something fierce."
Based in Galway now, joining the army sated his lust for fitness. Maher used to work as a fitness instructor and his endurance levels form the central plank of his personality as a hurler. When the Tipp players were fitted with GPS tracking devices a few years back, the average distance covered was 8km. Maher covered 11km. Doing extra running training this year has made him faster.
"Bonner is one of these guys you love to train because he is a 100per-center," says Ross Dunphy, Defence Forces physical education co-ordinator, Dublin hurling trainer for the last two years and Tipp trainer in 2012. "Not every player will maximise their potential but with Bonner, you are guaranteed that he will."
Growing up, Declan Ryan and John Troy were inspirations. He doesn't play like either but Maher has always been unique. Every other Tipp player has their name stitched onto their tracksuit, just above the crest, but 'Bonner' suffices for Maher.
He got the name from his grandfather when he was five, from trying to copy Irish soccer goalkeeper Packie Bonner during the World Cup in 1994.
Behind the nickname and the hurler is an extremely humble and down-to-earth person.
"Bonner is the guy you'd love to see coming home with your daughter because he is such a gentleman," says Cummins. "He is very unassuming. Even if you meet him now, he won't stand in the centre of the room, he'll move to the side and chat away there."
On the pitch though, he is a different animal. "There are very few guys who get their kicks from working hard and getting walloped the whole time," says Cummins. "Scoring isn't really where he gets his thrills. There are very few blessed with Bonner's work rate and determination but he knows what he's good at and he loves it. That's what makes him so good. He plays with complete freedom."
Outside of hurling, cars are Maher's passion. Vintage cars. Modified cars. Rally cars. A couple of years back, he bought a Ford Mark II escort, a 1979 model, one of the world's most famous rallying cars. Growing up, Maher travelled the back roads of Ireland with his father to follow the sport and he still retains that passion. He will regularly sit into his Mark II and let the road take him wherever the mood allows.
His enthusiasm for cars is almost a neat metaphor for Maher's sporting career. In a team loaded with speed racers and fancy models, Maher is Tipperary's Audi - Vorsprung durch Technik: solid, dependable, reliable, durable. As Tipp's season oscillated before finally hitting a high speed, Maher has consistently been in the same gear, eating up the open road at the same pace.
They're all back on the road again. After the 2010 All-Ireland final, Rathcabbin National School made a presentation to Maher, a montage of his connection with Tipperary's All-Ireland triumphs over the previous decade.
The principal at the time, Tom Kennedy, excavated a photograph of Maher with the Liam MacCarthy when it came to the school in 2001. Kennedy had also snapped Maher when he came back with the All-Ireland minor trophy in 2007. When he returned with the Liam MacCarthy in 2010, they put him sitting in his old seat with the trophy for posterity.
Maher hopes to add another photograph soon to that collection but Tipp have to pass the ultimate challenge first.
"If I was going overseas with the army in the morning, Bonner is the type of guy I'd bring with me," says Dunphy. "If I was in Syria at the moment with bullets raining down on me, I'd like Bonner to be under my command. He is just a guy you would bring to war with you."
When the battle rages on Sunday, and the shelling and the shooting are at its fiercest, Maher will be leading the Tipp charge.