Thursday 25 December 2014

Maher has a burning desire to feed the hunger within

Outside criticism stung Brendan Maher, but he tells Damian Lawlor that it's the feeling inside the camp that means most

Damian Lawlor

Published 17/08/2014 | 02:30

Tipperary's Brendan Maher
Tipperary's Brendan Maher

TWO weeks ago, Brendan Maher wrote to the Tipperary Supporters Club with a simple message for its members.

He recalled how the county senior team had held over 100 group sessions since December and that there were individual gym sessions as well as specialist training weekends away. Maher painted a picture of what is involved in preparing for games; from physical training to diet, from nutrition to analysis.

His message, though straightforward enough, went down extremely well around the county because a wedge had divided the team from sections of its support. In some cases the players felt the criticism had become personal.

"We make the effort because we love playing for Tipperary and we always do our very best on your behalf as supporters and on our own behalf as individuals and team members," Maher wrote. "Do we always get it right on the field? Of course we don't, but I can assure you that the attitude and determination to succeed were never stronger and we will be putting in another massive effort to beat a very good Cork team."

If the captain's move to directly address supporters achieved anything, it has helped galvanise the county again; the first of a string of differences the Borrisoleigh man has overseen since being appointed skipper.

Perhaps his first impact was to make a statement on behalf of their former Tipperary colleague Eddie Connolly, who is battling an illness. Last December, not long after Connolly began fighting his illness, Maher and his vice-captain Noel McGrath organised the team to support and compete in a 6km fundraiser event for local charities.

One evening Seamus Hennessy's phone rang. Maher was on the other end asking the Cloughjordan man to chat to the Tipperary team. Hennessy's top-flight career has stalled following a series of horrific injuries and the captain wanted to know if his old team-mate - they had won All-Ireland minor, under 21 and senior medals together - would come in and remind the others of what they still had in front of them.

There have been countless other behind-the-scenes examples of his leadership qualities, from medal presentations to chats with Supporters Club members, to media duties. At times, the list has been almost over-the-top, particularly when the team was not firing on all cylinders. But he soaked up each request as it came.

"It's not as if it's me talking and no one else," he points out. "We've lots of leaders in there, men with great experience. We have lots of lads who are capable of saying their few words and motivating others. It's not a one-man thing. I can't say a specific time when to speak - when you've something to say, you say it."

Maher shoots an incredulous look when he's asked if he spends time preparing speeches, or making notes on what to say in the dressing room.

"Jesus no," he exclaims. "If you're focusing on things like that you're in the wrong game altogether. My number one priority is to perform on the field. I'd rather be a captain that leads on the field by example rather than someone who makes fantastic speeches in the dressing room but goes out then forgetting about the game."

In hurling terms he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was young gentry, played minor for three years and won two All-Irelands, one as captain. Stocks in the next few years didn't prove as lucrative but his shareholding was still impressive. He played four years at under 21 level and signed off with an All-Ireland medal in 2010.

He played 
minor for three years and 
won two All-Irelands

It looked like the sun would never set. Each year's harvest was a rich one. The under 21 title came just six days after the Tipperary seniors had landed the senior championship. In the proceeding years Maher went on to tack on three Munster senior titles; he must have felt the privileged life - and the backslapping that came with it - would never stop.

But towards the tail end of 2012 the mood within the county changed. Since then there has been disdain directed at the players at frequent junctures. The players found it hard to accept that their commitment was questioned. Many supporters, though, argued that not every player showed respect to the blue and gold jersey during that period.

"I don't think anybody could question the commitment of a GAA player, whether he is a club player or a county player," Maher states. "How can you question anybody who gives up that much time for no pay. There is nothing to be gained out of it only to win games with your friends and people you have got to know. So for our commitment to be questioned that was something, it hit deep to be honest."

After carving out a win against Galway in this year's qualifiers and finally earning a first championship win under Eamon O'Shea, the skipper was surely tempted to have a pop back - even if that's not the way his settings are aligned.

His even temperament and solid upbringing would see him rise above all that but you could sense in post-match interviews that the squad was badly stung by the judgements made about them - on and off the field. Yet, all that Maher exuded after that win was a steely glare of defiance, a polite rebuttal of criticism from anyone outside the Tipperary dressing room.

"Earlier in the season there was a period of three to four weeks in the NHL when we had losses against Clare, Kilkenny and Galway and that was a tough time," he accepts. "You wonder, 'Are we doing it right, are we approaching this the right way?'

"Then we got a bit of luck against Dublin in the last round of the league (Niall McMorrow put a ball in towards goal when a point would have steered Dublin away from the trap door and sent Tipperary into the relegation zone). But our focus has not really changed all year.

"Yeah, there was that narrow defeat to Kilkenny in the league final and it was the same with Limerick in the Munster championship but that last setback was just down to our decision-making; it wasn't an all-out catastrophe."

It's put to him that the season has almost turned 360 degrees since they beat Galway, but Maher doesn't accept that.

"You're only saying we're playing well since that game but we had a run in the league where we got to the final, lost a game in extra time. I don't think we played that badly against Limerick. Obviously, we didn't perform the way we wanted to and lost a tight game. I mean, it would have been worse if we lost by 10 points. We were still working hard. Were still putting in the work on the training field. And that hasn't changed.

"I know that, externally, the criticism flowed and people had their say and I would admit that there was a period when I did openly doubt if we were doing it right, but since then, internally, we have been very motivated. We could never afford to worry what's being said about us; we need internal motivation and nothing else."

When it comes to hurling, the villages and towns of Tipperary are alive with stories and tall tales. Rumours abound, charges come and go but the one constant accusation was that Tipperary didn't have sufficient numbers of players to win their own ball in attack. That charge, gradually and unfairly, manifested itself into a perception that some players didn't have the stomach for wholesale war. The criticism was stinging, but evidence was put in front of the team at every turn.

The 2013 NHL final? Out-fought in the closing minutes.

The following month at the Gaelic Grounds? A four-point lead with 20 minutes left was rendered void by five unanswered Limerick points which knocked them out of the provincial campaign.

A few weeks later, they led Kilkenny by a point with half an hour to go but again their challenge faded in the last quarter.

This year's league final? Much-improved, but they still lost having been six points up after the first half-hour - and in their own back yard. That was followed up by another narrow home loss to Limerick in the championship.

Maher played at number six that day but tucked into a pocket in front of the full-back line which allowed Donal O'Grady to pick off two crucial points. The Tipperary captain's problem is that he can play at centre- or wing-back, midfield or wing-forward and while he was adhering to instructions to cover the full-back line, his man was able to roam free and capitalise. He knows they'll need to watch out for that this afternoon against Cork.

"Most number 11s now, that's the way they play," he notes. "Drop into midfield and pick up that short pass. That's something you have to try and counteract. Move around different players. You might find you're marking a different man for every ball there is so much movement.

"Communication is the problem," he adds. "That's the challenge you have in big games with big crowds - if you're any more than 10 yards away from a lad you probably won't hear him. You have to get used to that visual communication rather than verbal."

Just as well that there's a huge level of trust established within the set-up; perhaps fostered by the manager more than anyone else. Eamon O'Shea has remained steadfastly loyal to his men, even when many were telling him it was time to jettison some players to save his own skin. That protective layer allowed the camp to heal their wounds and forge through the qualifiers without any further sores appearing.

"It's like the old saying," Maher smiles, "it's never as bad as it seems and never as it good as it seems. That's one thing you have to give huge credit to management for; they didn't panic. They have 100 per cent trust in us and they knew we were good enough; they knew we were the men to lead Tipp forward."

He says that the Gaelic Players Association's 'We Wear More' campaign helped the public realise the effect the criticism had.

"People have to understand that we're as vulnerable as the next man beside you. A GAA player is no different to the person that doesn't play. No one is made of stone and inter-county players are not bulletproof. I admitted that the criticism hurt; there was no point in me coming out like I'm made of stone. I consider myself to be mentally strong so I can block it out but I can't speak for everyone. Some lads do take it in."

Against Galway, had they lost, careers would have come to an end. O'Shea could have moved on too and not all the younger crop might have been retained by the new boss. Looking down a cliff, Tipperary dug in, dug their fingers into the verge and climbed back up again. It was the character that had been questioned that saved them from falling.

"I never lost faith that we could come back," Maher insists. "No way. The scoreboard is obviously a huge factor but it didn't concern me that we were behind. We were geared towards a performance. I knew we would come back."

'There was no point in me coming out 
like I'm made of stone'

They subsequently made light work of both Offaly and Dublin and today stand just 70 minutes away from an All-Ireland final. This semi-final with Cork is one that many feel will be a shoot-out. The Munster champions come with the reputation of being a breezy, gunslinging, off-the-cuff outfit, but they're much cuter than that. Despite their undoubted flair, this season they have hounded in packs to get the ball back when they lose it.

Last Sunday, in the worst of conditions, Kilkenny put in 93 tackles and execute a 90 per cent passing completion rate - it's almost taken as read that Cork will bring similar ball skills (they had a 92 per cent completion rate last day out) but people underestimate their willingness to also get down and dirty.

In the Munster final, they made 67 tackles, 14 more than Limerick. They also won 20 of their own puck-outs and 11 of their rivals', as well as playing the ball on the ground 51 times. That swift, uncomplicated style could trouble the Tipperary backs today. Mark Ellis has tended to sit deeper in games and they are content to leave just two men inside, so they are a very rounded, balanced and finely-tuned side that averages just over 1-24 per game.

They've been off the carousel for five weeks, though, and one might imagine that Tipperary possess an edge in terms of game time and sharpness. The overall perception, mind you, is that Cork hold the aces in most other areas.

That suits Maher perfectly. He and most of his team-mates grew up in the full glare of the public. They were lauded before being doubted. These days they don't care much for what anyone thinks of them. It's the fire within that fuels their desire.

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