Thursday 17 August 2017

Fit-again Maher a good man in reserve

Brendan Maher is fired-up again after a frustrating campaign, writes Damian Lawlor

Brendan Maher: 'I just asked how long until I'd be able to hurl again and they told me I'd be eight weeks in cast alone. It was rotten news. Photo: Tony Gavin
Brendan Maher: 'I just asked how long until I'd be able to hurl again and they told me I'd be eight weeks in cast alone. It was rotten news. Photo: Tony Gavin

It's late March, just a few weeks before the start of this year's Munster championship and Brendan Maher has a feeling this might not be his summer.

"There's a nurse coming at me with a wheelchair," he recalls. "I go in with a suspected sprained ankle and then there's a wheelchair coming at me. No matter what was wrong, I wasn't leaving in that."

Since coming to national prominence with the 2006 All-Ireland minor-winning team, he had barely paused for breath in a manic accumulation of honours, landing four All-Ireland medals across the grades before he hit 22.

There was always a realisation of how lucky he was. His older brother Martin, one of the most promising corner-backs Tipperary produced in the past 10 years, featured in the 2002 and 2003 All-Ireland semi-finals before his inter-county career was cut short by a succession of knee injuries.

On the first Sunday of last September, Brendan thought of Martin. He remembered him again when he broke his ankle six months later. "I suppose what Martin went through ran straight through my head," he says. "I was thinking, 'Jesus, will I have to go through all he did now'."

Because of the younger Maher's huge profile, word of his injury spread instantly. He was walking out the door of the casualty department at Nenagh Hospital when his phone rang. "Well, I hear there's bad news . . ."

There were so many stories around as to how he had been injured. He had broken down on the peak of the Devil's Bit at a training session. He had hurt the ankle pucking around at half-time in a local underage match the next day. He had a tyre thrown at him.

"It was a Friday evening and I was out pucking around in the yard at home, delighted with myself because I'd rediscovered my best form. I'd always be out tipping away against our shed wall and there's a concrete slope in our yard, so I turned around to jog after a ball and went over on the ankle. Now, I've done that 20 times and it didn't feel any different this time around."

There was no pain but there was a click. He went inside, iced the ankle and rang the team's physio John Casey who talked him through the stabilisation process. Throughout the night, he pressed hard on the ice pack but panicked when the ankle swelled. He met Casey for tests and was sent for an X-ray. The doctors diagnosed a break at the end of the fibia.

"I just asked how long until I'd be able to hurl again and they told me I'd be eight weeks in cast alone. It was rotten news."

Tipperary fans were left to offer a prayer for summer that Maher would heal but that freak accident has essentially reduced his championship to a mini-series.

"A right tough spell. I'd gone from cloud nine to wondering what I did to deserve this. I thought the whole world was against me even though lots of people are way worse off. I spent three weeks on the couch not wanting to get off it. Lads kept calling and the likes of James Woodlock was always there to help -- I listened to him because it took him 12 months to recover from an awful leg injury. It was only then that I knew what Martin really went through.

"Everyone was saying, 'God I hope he doesn't have all the bad luck Martin had' and, yeah, Martin had an awful amount of bad luck. But I didn't really speak to him about it; 'tis not something either of us would have liked to talk about."

Another team-mate, Seamus Hennessy, damaged his cartilage around the same time as Maher's ankle break, denying Declan Ryan the services of two bright young stars for most of the season. Hennessy was set to command a starting berth at either half-back or midfield but experienced a further setback along the way, reminding Maher once again how lucky he is.

"Fez (Hennessy) and I were in contact all the way through rehab. We had the same targets and comeback dates and bounced things off each other. I felt so sorry that he had a setback after he returned and I soon stopped feeling sorry for myself."

In the Munster final, although on early as a blood sub, he only received seven minutes of official air-time. He got 35 against Dublin because Declan Ryan hoped his toughness would help steer their ship clear of choppy waters but by his own admission didn't hit the lofty heights he wanted to.

That innocuous knock left him scrapping for his All-Ireland final place. When the starting 15 was named last Tuesday night, he wasn't there, a surprise to many. On TV last Wednesday night, for instance, John Mullane said not selecting Maher could ultimately backfire on Tipperary.

Maher, though, always knew breaking back into a winning team would not be easy.

"We were brought back down to earth against the Dubs and I'm glad of that. I was actually very happy coming away from Croke Park that evening because we'd lots of work to do. As a result, there was some drive for places these past three weeks and the competition was as good as it's ever been. Management left the whole thing open by telling us that the 15 best players over those weeks would be picked for today. We all knew where we stood.

"It was hell for leather in training games, with good intensity and that will help the team overall. I was champing at the bit to get back in but so was every man on the panel. It was a serious battle for places."

It says something that Tipperary could afford to leave such a swashbuckling performer and last year's Young Hurler of the Year aside these past two games and approach the final with him still in reserve. Yes, it's taken him time to resume normal service but in the past month he has reinvigorated himself on the training ground.

"I love games and the continuity you get from them," he reflects. "But Dublin was the first decent spell of championship hurling I got this year and truthfully I was disappointed. It passed me by. A couple of things that could have gone right didn't.

"If I get a chance today I'll have to make it happen. I've had a few club games and training matches so hopefully it will stand to me. I was able to express myself against Kilruane whereas in the weeks before that, psychologically, maybe I was watching myself."

He is, in some respects, a victim of his own standards, although expectation levels for this team have generally escalated. A primary schoolteacher, Maher was holding a summer camp after they beat Dublin when someone asked why they had almost capitulated.

"I asked if we had lost the game," he shrugs. "Because the question was posed as if we had lost. Expectations have risen further since the Waterford game. Okay, we had a goal-blitz but Waterford had a very bad day. Kilkenny did that to a load of teams in 2009 -- sometimes it all just clicks."

He can't explain why they were so subdued against the Dubs, a game they were strangled out of at times, even if they always looked like winning it. Tipperary fans were already making final arrangements and some of the players had even been contacted for final tickets before they played Anthony Daly's men.

"We had to block stuff out," Maher admits. "When people were talking about another Tipp-Kilkenny final it's hard. You're only human. We tried to remind ourselves that the All-Ireland final was the target; that Dublin were our fourth target off a list of five but it wasn't easy. I never saw lads as sore afterwards. It was very physical and they were very in-your-face."

He was happy with the game-time, if not his performance. Some action, at least, after two months on the margins. And he wanted to do it for the family.

"My father Johnny would have been a good hurler but his own dad died when he was only nine months old. It left himself, his older brother and their mother. Dad had to become the man of the house at 15 or 16. Hurling had to go because he was training to be a carpenter as well. He wasn't a bad hurler and still says it's one of the biggest regrets of his life. That's why he loves to see his own lads hurling away.

"My father drives us on a lot and he's very determined that we achieve things. So you're doing all this for the family, not just yourself. The likes of Martin came close to tasting glory; Seán is playing 19 years senior hurling for Borris' and Deccie played for Tipp the whole way up as well. There was never escaping it. You're led into things in life, aren't you?"

Last October, with the medals tucked away and the clan glowing with pride, he headed down under on the night Borris' lost the North Tipp under 21 final to Kilruane. He'd had his fill of celebrations and the idea of getting away appealed. Along with his cousin, Paul, he headed for Sydney where years earlier, Martin had visited along with Larry Corbett.

"You see soccer players getting carried away with the exposure and social life and we definitely got a taste of that," he says. "Everyone was being really nice but no one was telling you what you were doing wrong and I don't know if that's a good thing.

"There was something on every weekend but the backslapping would make you soft. If you've someone constantly telling you how good you are it subconsciously creates softness. You start wondering 'do I actually need to work this hard anymore?'"

They stayed in Sydney for 10 days and hired a camper van to spin up the east coast. Their first destination was Port Macquarie, a quiet resort for surfers. From there they headed on to Byron Bay and Frasier Island. They did Surfers Paradise, the Sunday Islands and stayed on the road for five weeks. "It was not something that would really appeal to me here in Ireland," he says, "but I was half happy to be away from home where there seemed to be a celebration every night."

His team-mates were also fed up with the festivities and once December arrived they sought pre-season fitness tests. Putting back-to-back titles together, something Tipp haven't managed since 1964-'65, was the target.

"Our motivation probably comes from the 2001 team and what the older lads remind us they didn't achieve," Maher says. "We're learning from the past, lads like Brendan Cummins, Paul Curran, Larry and John O'Brien keep drilling it into us. From that fitness test in December everyone agreed that 2011 wouldn't be a success unless we were there on the first Sunday in September."

Last year, he was washed up after 50 minutes, ready to be taken out of the firing line. "There were 20 minutes left but I was barely able to run and that's what it's going to take again today; another massive effort," he reckons.

"Unless we bring the same ferocious pace and hunger we're in trouble. They were still driving forward at us after 70 minutes last year, that's their mentality. They'll be even hungrier now. This year is a failure unless we win.

"Losing today will be one of biggest regrets of our lives. We know we have a good team but it won't last forever. We have to make the best of it."

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