Friday profile: Brendan Maher - Striving to put his name and face beside the greats
Tipp’s standard-bearer and captain has always led from the front
In the middle of Borris-Ileigh, a small town between Nenagh and Thurles, there’s a mural on Stapleton’s pub of the club’s three All-Ireland-winning senior captains – Jimmy Finn, Seán Kenny and Bobby Ryan. Brendan Maher is also up there as an All-Ireland minor-winning captain but there will always be an asterisk beside Maher’s face until he gets there for real. How long more before he does?
The countdown to that possibility began in earnest in 2006. Galway and Joe Canning were chasing three All-Ireland minor titles in a row but they were routed in the final by Tipperary. Pádraic Maher kept Canning scoreless from play but he had quality help beside him; Mickey Cahill was in one corner, Brendan Maher was in the other. When Galway were struggling and they started bombarding the square, Brendan Maher plucked five balls out of the sky, each one an expression of defiance, each one a louder statement than the last about Maher’s projected future.
Maher had played midfield/half-forward throughout that campaign but Tipp had coughed up a big score in the Munster final against Cork and Liam Sheedy was looking to strengthen the full-back line.
Before the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny, Sheedy arranged to meet Maher one evening in Borris-Ileigh. The full-back line was alien territory for Maher but Sheedy asked him straight out if he’d play corner-back. “Brendan never batted an eyelid,” says Sheedy now. “He just said, ‘I’ll play anywhere you want me to’.”
Sheedy wouldn’t have expected anything less. For Tipperary, losing that year’s Munster final to Cork was more than a defeat – it was a collapse. Ahead by five points early in the second half, Tipperary were outscored by 2-11 to 0-4 for the remainder of the game. For a side with big ambitions, their season was on the floor.
Six days later, the players and management met in Dr Morris Park Thurles. “I was looking for something, anything, to come from the group and Brendan delivered exactly what we all needed to hear,” says Sheedy. “I couldn’t believe it. Here was a 17-year old who showed unbelievable maturity. He really rallied the troops. I remember saying to myself, ‘My God, here is a real leader’.”
Captaining Tipperary always appeared to be Maher’s destiny. When Tipp retained their All-Ireland minor title in 2007, Maher was their captain. It was a uniquely talented bunch, with nine players that would later play senior championship for Tipperary. Maher, though, was unquestionably their leader.
That trait has always been part of his personality. Maturity was a quality imposed on him early from home. “I was always described as being mature,” Maher once said. “As a young fella in school, teachers would always have said that I was mature beyond my years. It would be a trait that’s in our family. We’d be known as stubborn or whatever way you want to describe it.
“I suppose from the experience of the All-Irelands at a young age (two minor finals) you have to learn how to deal with it. I suppose I’d be lucky enough in that I think I can deal with the hustle and bustle of championship hurling. Once the ball is thrown in you just go out and do your stuff.”
When Maher was appointed Tipp senior captain last year, he was the perfect captain for this group at this stage in their lives together. The older crew had retired, drifted away or were struggling to nail down a starting place. That minor crop of 2006-’07 had taken ownership of the group and Maher was the natural choice to lead Tipp forward.
“Brendan would have always wanted to captain Tipperary at a young age,” says Eoin Kelly, who retired last year. “As a captain, Brendan would have big goals set for himself. He’s very mature and very ambitious. He has all the boxes ticked from winning All-Irelands at minor, U-21 and one at senior but Brendan wouldn’t be happy with that. He would not want this year to roll on without him and Tipperary lifting silverware.”
Maher was always set for the top. He was still U-16 when Sheedy played him with the minors in 2005. In the same season, he was sent on for the Borris Ileigh seniors in a North Tipperary final. They hadn’t won it for 18 years and Maher swung a narrow victory against Nenagh with three points from play.
He was still a minor when he played with the Tipp U-21s. By 2010, Maher was Young Hurler of the Year and a close runner-up to Lar Corbett for Hurler of the Year. When Tipperary annihilated Galway in the U-21 All-Ireland final a week after the senior decider, the future looked set to belong to Maher and Tipperary.
The journey just never followed its anticipated path. After travelling Australia for a few months over that winter, Maher returned for the league in 2011. Yet in mid-spring, he fractured his ankle, a simple turn on a concrete slope while pucking around at home in the family yard.
Tipperary waited two months for him to come back but when he did, management didn’t really know what to do with him. The team was flying and they could afford to play Maher off the bench. He only made a token appearance in the Munster final before coming on at half-time in the All-Ireland semi-final. He didn’t make a huge impression in that game against Dublin but it still seemed inconceivable that Tipp would leave him out of the final against Kilkenny. They did. He was introduced five minutes before half time and Pádraic Maher was the only Tipperary player to end the match with more plays than his namesake.
Maher was back on the team again in 2012 but was never quite himself. He was taken off against Cork and substituted against Kilkenny when Tipp were being racked. He was far better in 2013 but Tipp’s championship season was over after only two games.
Last year, Tipp settled on him as their centre-back and Maher ended the season as an All-Star at number five. He won his first All-Star in 2010 at midfield but he’s spent this season in the half-forward line.
Maher plays as a forward for his club but his current role sees him fulfil a number of different duties. When Pádraic Maher sat as a sweeper against Limerick, Brendan sat into the pocket for long stages as an auxiliary centre-back. “He’s been given a job to play deep, to create space, to deliver pinpoint passes and work hard for the team,” says Sheedy. “That’s a job Tipp need someone to do and Brendan is doing it, and doing it really well. With Noel (McGrath) out there is a need to get a better balance across the half-forward line and Brendan brings that.”
Fulfilling that role so effectively underlines Maher’s versatility but it’s also a measure of his immense character. “To me, Brendan is a natural midfielder/half-back,” says former Limerick player Ollie Moran. “At centre-forward, he’s playing a real unselfish role but that’s the type of guy he is. Brendan will always put the team first.”
Moran got to see him up close last year when he coached Borris-Ileigh. The management used to do possession stats during games and Maher always expected himself to be on the ball 30 times, really high numbers for 60-minute matches.
“On a bad day, he was still on the ball 20 times,” says Moran. “With the club, Brendan probably felt he had to do over and above what was expected of him but he’s one of the most dedicated guys around. Brendan sets very high standards for himself and he expects to deliver those standards the whole time, almost to the point of being fanatical about it.
“He’s one of the most focused individuals you’d ever meet. He’s a natural leader. He’s vocal, he speaks from the heart. He’s a passionate clubman and a passionate Tipp man. It’s no surprise he’s Tipp captain. He looks on it as a massive honour and he wants to carry that honour with distinction.”
Despite his profile and status, Maher has always been guided by that deep love and affection all the great players have for the game. “Brendan was always down in the field, regardless of where Tipp were in the championship,” says Moran. “When he played with the club, Brendan always left it all out there. He wasn’t one of these guys who said, ‘I’m the county man, I can take it easy here’. He never held back but that was him in every match.”
His passion for Borris-Ileigh cuts deep into the marrow of his bones. Maher’s parents John and Anne are both from the area. His father was club secretary for 15 years while his mother has always been just as heavily active in the club. His three brothers, Seán, Declan and Martin all played for Tipp at one stage but Martin was the only one to play senior. “The matches out in the back garden where he probably got the lard beaten out of him didn’t do him any harm,” says Sheedy.
Maher’s cousin Philip was full-back on the 2001 Tipp All-Ireland-winning team but there was inspiration everywhere around Borris-Ileigh. Two years before Maher was born, they won an All-Ireland club title but Borris-Ileigh haven’t even contested a Tipperary county final since 1988. They reached a semi-final two years ago but lost to Loughmore-Castleiney. All of his brothers are retired now but the good fight continues for Maher and everyone else.
A schoolteacher, music is another passion of Maher’s. “His father would have a background in music and Brendan is well able to play a tune too,” says Sheedy. “He can sing away with the guitar. He’d give you a good blast of Ed Sheeran if you wanted it. Not a bother on him.”
Eternal championship summer Sundays though were always Maher’s real stage. The journey is still ongoing. There have been good and bad days but there has always only been one destination where Maher has wanted to end up.
“I’m sure Brendan would have heard all those stories around Borris-Ileigh,” says Kelly. “And I’m sure he would have always said to himself, ‘Why can’t that be me?’ He’d love to win more All-Irelands with Tipp and join that select group in Borris-Ileigh.”
Maher is already on Stapleton’s wall. But now he desperately wants to get up there for real.