'We need to win as much as we can, while we can'
Published 26/03/2011 | 05:00
Two weeks after they lost to Cork in last year's Munster championship, Tipperary played Waterford in a challenge game in Semple Stadium. When Tipp coach Eamonn O'Shea told Padraic Maher beforehand that they were starting him at centre-forward, Maher just nodded, immediately asked for his instructions, and then carried them out to the absolute letter of the law.
At the time, Tipperary were experimenting with options around the structure of their forward play, but some dogs on the street had a different take on Maher's redeployment. He had been destroyed by Aisake O hAilpin in the first 20 minutes of the Cork match and his selection at No 11 was loosely interpreted as a player whose confidence had been so shattered that management were trying to rewire a career-defender as a forward.
The reality was the complete opposite because management's trust in Maher was absolutely implicit. He performed so effectively that day against Waterford that he discreetly helped draw up the blueprint for how Tipp attacked Michael 'Brick' Walsh when the sides met in the All-Ireland semi-final and Noel McGrath took him for five points from play.
"Padraic Maher is a total giver," says O'Shea. "He is just the ultimate team player."
Although his form was patchy coming into last year's championship -- and O hAilpin had given him huge problems during the opening half of their league meeting in April -- Maher had set such high standards in 2009 that 20 difficult minutes last June suddenly became a mini-crisis.
O hAilpin won three of the first four balls before Maher fouled him for a converted penalty. Although he made the fatal mistake of trying to out-jump O hAilpin, Maher was given limited cover, both from Tipp's defensive structure and their lack of pressure on the strikers out the field.
Maher did well when he was moved to wing-back because the statistics showed afterwards that he was Tipp's third most productive player. His recovery had begun immediately because he was solid against Wexford and Offaly, fine against Galway, much better against Waterford and absolutely brilliant in the All-Ireland final. "Apart from the Cork game, I thought I had a relatively good year," says Maher.
In his mind, the O hAilpin experience was the making of his season: "In a way, I was actually glad it did happen. A lot of us were still very young and it brought us back to reality after things went so well for us the previous year.
"Being honest, Aisake did dominate that game while he was on me. A big part of my game is taking every single ball on its own merits, but the ball was coming in so thick and fast that I got sucked into a negative mentality. I was worrying about the last ball instead of focusing on the next ball. I learned a lot from it."
It was always going to be difficult for Maher to repeat what he achieved in 2009. He really came of age in the league final defeat to Kilkenny when lining out at centre-back. It was only his third start for Tipperary and Maher's two experienced wing-backs, Declan Fanning and Shane Maher, were gone off the field by the first quarter. Maher, though, was still able to front up to Henry Shefflin and deliver an outstanding performance on the greatest hurler of his generation.
Maher didn't arrive with the same precocious background or expectancy as Noel McGrath, but his immense talent had been well signposted -- if you were keeping an eye out for him. He kept Joe Canning scoreless from play as a 17-year-old in the 2006 All-Ireland minor final and was the outstanding player in the 2008 All-Ireland U-21 final.
Talented forwards always enjoy more celebrated underage careers than defenders, but Maher conformed to the classic, but understated profile he enjoyed as an underage player. In the last 30 years, only two defenders in their first season reached a standard which compared with or exceeded Maher's form in 2009 -- Pete Finnerty and Brian Corcoran.
Maher's huge potential has always been complimented by a level of versatility that has already hinted an all-round defensive capacity comparable to Corcoran, JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh. He won an All Star at full-back in 2009, but was selected at wing-back on the GPA Team of the Year that season. In the combined five-year history of the two schemes, no other defender managed that feat. He was man of the match in the 2009 Tipp county final at full-back before winning the award in last year's final at centre-back.
At the core of every great player is an iron-will confidence and fireproof attitude and Maher has both. "Padraic is a leader and that makes him stand apart," says O'Shea. "When you walk around the dressing-room before a big match and you see this guy ready to play, the vibes he gives out are so strong that they improve the players around him."
Maher has the confidence of youth and an expressive personality. He dyed his hair orange before last year's county final, but radical hairstyles are his ritual before county deciders. Being currently out of work has been a huge lifestyle change, but Maher sees it as an opportunity to reflect on his future options.
His attitude off the field reflects his play on it; he has ice in his veins. "People ask me if I get nervous before a match, but what's the point in worrying?" he says. "I just go out relaxed and play my game. Our attitude is to play with no fear and to enjoy our hurling."
Tipp have produced a rich stock of decorated young players over the last few years and they have brought a fearlessness and panache to Tipp's style. Maher was also part of a crew that never had any truck with Kilkenny, having beaten them in successive All-Ireland minor semi-finals in 2006 and 2007. In their eyes, they'd no fear. No deference -- to anyone.
"The league final in 2009 was the first time I ever saw Tipperary people happy with a defeat," says Maher. "People were just happy that we stood up to Kilkenny, but that didn't sit well with us, especially the younger players. You'd hear people talking about this fear of the black and amber, but we never feared Kilkenny. We knew that we could have beaten them in the 2009 All-Ireland final and we knew if we played to our ability that we could beat them in 2010."
Maher has always played well against Kilkenny, especially in big games. He had his best game of the 2009 championship in the All-Ireland final, making 16 separate individual contributions from full-back. After Lar Corbett and Brendan Maher, he was the most influential player in last year's final.
He absolutely dominated the last quarter, when he went in centre-back. In time, that's where he will probably settle with Tipperary. "Honestly, it doesn't bother me where I play, but I prefer to be out in the half-back line rather than the full-back line," says Maher. "I'm equally as comfortable at wing or centre."
With an average age of a little over 25, this Tipp team's best years should be ahead of them. Youth, though, is no guarantee of anything. When Tipp last won the All-Ireland in 2001, the average age of the team was under 24 and that side disappeared without winning another trophy.
What may be different this time is the mentality of their young colts, eight of whom won All-Ireland U-21 medals six days after the senior final. That side was captained by Maher.
"The fact that we are so young, loads of people came up to us after the senior All-Ireland and said: 'Ye have to try and get more of them now'," says Maher.
"You are never allowed to rest on your laurels in Tipperary and the people are right, because they want you to be as successful as you can.
"We can't wait for the year to get going. We're looking forward to all these big league matches now and I think we've been improving with every game."
The immediate focus is on picking up enough points to put themselves back in contention for a league final place. The long-term goal is to win successive All-Irelands for the first time since 1964-65.
"That's why this year is so important for us," says Maher. "Tipp haven't won back-to-back All-Irelands in a long, long time and we want to try and achieve that. That's a huge motivation for us.
"It's about time that we take the mantle off Jimmy Doyle and these lads and get our own names up there. That's what we're aiming for; to win as much as we can, while we can."
Maher certainly has the potential to become a great player while on that crusade. His physique and power are awesome for someone who just turned 22 in February.
Being so young, Maher is still a work in progress, but the canvas is becoming more colourful as the brushstrokes of his class get wider.
His foot-work has improved while earlier in his career with Tipperary, he was prone to driving the ball long, but he has clearly become more aware of his playmaking abilities and developed them.
As Tipp return to Pairc Ui Chaoimh tomorrow to face their great Munster rivals, O'Shea is in no doubt as to how good Maher can actually become. "He has kept on learning about the game and he can be spectacularly good," he says. "Once he keeps on learning, this guy will be the Real McCoy in terms of the history of the game."
Already, he is starting to look like the Real Deal.