Wednesday 18 September 2019

Dermot Crowe: Small things made a big difference to Pádraic Maher's mission

Tipperary players, from left, Séamus Kennedy Padraic Maher, James Barry and Ronan Maher celebrate after last Sunday’s final. Photo: Brendan Moran
Tipperary players, from left, Séamus Kennedy Padraic Maher, James Barry and Ronan Maher celebrate after last Sunday’s final. Photo: Brendan Moran

Dermot Crowe

'You get sick of losing'

Pádraic Maher, May, 2018

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The Friday after the Sunday before; early afternoon to be precise, in the deepest recesses of the Anner Hotel in Thurles. Our table is chosen with privacy in mind, a fanciful preference in a week like this, in a town like this, in the company of Pádraic Maher. Two ladies are having their lunch close to where he is seated. For most of the time, well into the second hour, they appear indifferent to his presence.

In the meantime, two different people have come forward to offer congratulations and gratitude to Tipperary's three-time All-Ireland winner. One man comments on his appearance, mischievously, the inference ("you look rough") being that he hasn't seen too much of the bed of late.

At a later stage another group of ladies approach.

"Pádraic is it?"

Padraic Maher. Photo: Sportsfile
Padraic Maher. Photo: Sportsfile


"Congratulations, well done. It's tough on us, we're living within 100 yards of the Kilkenny border."

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But the two ladies closest to us keep their counsel until, eventually, one leans over and - confirming it is Maher - offers to buy him a cup of coffee, probably noticing that the one before him is long empty. He politely declines. The lady offering is a nun and her lunch partner is a Thurles native; both are strangers to him. When you win an All-Ireland, men will buy you drink; nuns buy you coffee.

"You'll have another cup of coffee?" she says again.

"No, I'm good thanks."

One of them asks if he thinks Davy Fitz will give it another year in Wexford. She says she thinks the journey down from Clare could be too much. It is a long journey, Maher admits. She mentions the recent TV programme which featured Davy and an 11-year-old visually impaired Kerry boy, Michael O'Brien.

"Great programme, wasn't it?" Padraic Maher nods.

And this is a kind of calm, where ladies ask him polite questions and offer him coffee and nothing stronger, after the madness of the days that have just passed. Between last Sunday and now. There has been the Burlington Hotel banquet. The homecoming in Thurles on Monday evening. The trip out to the Ragg, in a salute to the captain Séamus Callanan, the same night. A return, if they ever left, to the Ragg on Tuesday night. Portroe ("Liam Sheedy country") on Wednesday night and into the small hours of Thursday morning. Bonfires, songs, good times.

"The body is fairly battered now at the moment," he says, "but it was a great few days."

A great deal has happened since we met last, 15 months ago, when he spoke of losing - the wretched and brutal nature of it. Where time stood then, they had promised more than they'd delivered. In 2010, when he won an All-Ireland senior medal at 21, Maher was part of the lavishly talented team that demolished Galway in the under 21 final six days later in his home town. The false dawn that followed has been well documented. More often than not, Kilkenny stood over them looking down, seeing if there were any remaining signs of life.

When we spoke last it was May, a time of hope and possibility. But already they had been beaten by Kilkenny in a league final, the fifth loss in a league final in his time, the fourth to Kilkenny. "You get sick of losing," he said. He might have added that you get sick of losing to Kilkenny. But that might be too honest and too raw an admission to make.

A Kilkenny team losing altitude. A Tipperary team soaring to win the All-Ireland in 2016 in what looked a definitive shift in the rivalry's course. In the 2018 league final it was tight at half-time and then on the restart, a familiar sight; Kilkenny accelerating into the distance with Tipp disappearing in the rear-view mirror.

Early in the second half, Walter Walsh won a ball and took off. He cut through with a kind of ingrained disdain and the net shook. From there it was nearly all on Kilkenny's terms. Tipp, beaten savagely by Galway in the league final the year before, lost again. Pádraic Maher was their captain, having been appointed in 2017. When he spoke that day in May last year, looking ahead to the summer, he'd lost two league finals. The side he captained had also been beaten on the opening day of the Munster Championship by Cork. They had lost an All-Ireland semi-final to Galway by a point, a stupendous score from Joe Canning. He was not a lucky general.

"I suppose '17 and '18 were very tough. I was made captain. You want to drive the team on as best you can and unfortunately, Joe (Canning) got that unbelievable score and we lost out in the All-Ireland semi-final. And last year didn't go to plan at all. That really hit hard, personally, those two years. You are thinking: you are the captain of the team, why aren't you (doing better). You are just trying to drive on as best you can but unfortunately it did not work out."

They went into the newly formatted Munster Championship last year and lost the first match to Limerick, drew with Cork and Waterford, before losing to Clare in Thurles. The match swung on a Tipp goal effort coming off an upright, ending with a goal at the other end in the same sequence of uninterrupted play.

So, for the man tired of losing, there would be another summer of losing to digest. Only in 2013, when beaten by Kilkenny in Nowlan Park in the qualifiers, did a Tipp team exit so early since Maher came on to the team in 2009.

When Thurles Sarsfields went out of the local championship in the semi-finals last year, it left Maher in deeply unfamiliar territory. "Yeah look, it was tough going. I went to a lot of the games myself. I went to the All-Ireland semi-finals, and the final. While you are going as a hurling supporter it's hard when you see Galway or Limerick celebrating and you are not involved. I suppose that's why we were extra motivated this year coming back. We wanted to be involved in the thick of it, right up to the 18th of August."

He re-familiarised himself with life outside the cocoon that modern inter-county players create for themselves. "Myself and the girlfriend, we went to Malaga for a week. I actually remember - like it's gas the difference a year makes - being in a bar in Malaga with two or three young lads in Kilkenny jerseys, and a few Tipp lads sitting around, and they were watching the Munster final and Leinster finals. We were laughing here only a few weeks ago thinking of that."

In last year's league final Tipp led Kilkenny by two points at half-time. The Walter Walsh catch and solo goal immediately after half-time inspired Kilkenny, who led by nine points at one stage. On Sunday last, Walsh made a similar fetch early in the match and made a rapid advance before laying off to Colin Fennelly. But the player Walsh outfielded, John McGrath, made the hard yards and hooked Fennelly as he was about to pull the trigger. The difference a year makes.

In the 25th minute of the first half, Eoin Murphy pucked out long towards the left half-forward position on the Hogan Stand side, looking for Walter Walsh. Pádraic Maher put up his hand, fielded, and released Séamus Kennedy who delivered to where Niall O'Meara was positioned, left half-forward for Tipp. He worked the ball in a loop with Jason Forde, and struck a low shot past Murphy to tie up the match. Kilkenny would never lead again.

What pleased Maher was how they grafted when Kilkenny were on top in the opening quarter. "We kept ourselves in the game, we kind of hung in there. John McGrath made an unbelievable hook on Colin Fennelly. John was playing wing forward, he got the hook in. We hung in there and when Niall got the goal it gave us a bit of a wake-up call. We never looked back from there."

Fielding is Maher's natural reflex. The catch that led to the goal is revisited. "Yeah, sure Walter is a big man, he would be a couple of inches taller than me, but I got up, I suppose sometimes you need big moments in a game and thankfully Niall showed unbelievable feet and a great finish to get the goal. He showed unbelievable leadership too, the way be brought that ball in from 40 yards out. He had only one thing on his mind anyway by the look of it. To beat Eoin Murphy from that range, it gave us that bit of a lift that we needed."

A Maher delivery also led to goal number two. The slow restart to the league final after half-time in 2018 had to be avoided. "When we came out after half-time you wanted to make a quick start and then TJ (Reid) clipped over a free to level the game. And then I suppose we were really expecting an onslaught, when they went down a man, they were going to throw everything they had at us. Getting that (Callanan) goal early gave us a lot of confidence to push on further. And then obviously we got another."

Could you relax at any stage?

"We are not wired to think like that. Only when Willie Connors got a few points in-a-row, near the finish, that was the time you could start to enjoy it. You looked up at the scoreboard, I don't know what we were up at that stage. You were nearly home. You could savour the last few minutes."

* * * * *

PÁdraic Maher has played in six All-Ireland senior hurling finals, all against Kilkenny. Last Sunday's outcome brings his win count to three, with defeats suffered in 2009, '11 and '14, the latter after a replay. It evens up the score, although in National League finals the imbalance is more marked: Kilkenny have won every one of their four meetings, with Tipp also losing one to Galway.

He won't match John Doyle's haul of All-Ireland medals, but in today's more competitive environment where the field of contenders is greater he is appreciative of what he has. When we spoke last he talked of how finishing his career with two All-Ireland medals would be a disappointment. He wants to try to win a fourth, but three is a respectable tally, considering that in the last 50 years Tipp have won just seven times.

"People need to realise how hard it is to win them. Tipperary have now won 28 All-Ireland titles. Like Nickey English, Eoin Kelly, they are some of the greatest the county has ever had, and they've only two medals. It's great to be able to say you have three All-Ireland medals, and hopefully we will another one if we can."

In February last he turned 30, born in the year Tipperary made their return from the wilderness by winning a first All-Ireland since 1971. "It was a shock to the system, I won't lie to you," he says of his last birthday. "Ten years ago you are playing in a final at 20 years of age, you think this is great, but now when you hit the 30 mark this is coming to the latter stages of my career, so you are nearly enjoying it more now than before, you are cherishing it more. You know it's not going to be there forever. A lot of the younger lads on the panel you'd be saying to them enjoy it because it won't be too long going."

The time off last year mightn't have been the prescribed remedy but it enabled him to clear up niggling injuries and return to hurling refreshed. He needed to be in mint condition and he felt that he was, paying tribute to the strength and conditioning coach, the Belfast native Cairbre Ó Cairealláin.

"He definitely helped me to get stronger and fitter and I suppose leaner maybe than I've ever been. He's giving up pretty much everything to come down here, moved house down here, to spend the time looking after us. We have a lot to be grateful for.

"We trained hard from the time we went back in November. Put the foot to the floor. I think that showed in our games this year. We were physically fitter than previous years. The Wexford game I suppose was one of those games where we finished strong."

Ó Cairealláin moved to live in the county in order to be able to give a fuller commitment to the task of having Tipp in the best physical condition possible. The investment in Tipperary has been substantial, with the ample 26-man backroom team including no less than six performance analysts.

The game has shifted in Maher's time as an inter-county hurler. When he came into the team in '09 Kilkenny were streets ahead of most and Tipp managed to reach that level. The matches were riveting contests reaching an intensity that was unprecedented.

"Some of the games now are ferocious - you have a lot of players playing around the middle of the field," he says. "When you try and get a ball you know you are really going to earn it. The way the game has gone now you have to be as fit and strong as you can. You think back to '09 and '10 and how tough it was then; it is getting harder and faster every year.

"It has probably got more physical. The middle third of the field is like a war zone now. Teams are packing the middle third of the field. You wonder can the bar go much higher? You wonder how high can it go? I won't be around to see it."

Small things contribute to winning and making the difference between being in Spain watching the action and being in the thick of it, centre-stage. There are changes that most don't see or are aware of which have, or may have, a consequence. Earlier this year Maher took up a different post in the Gardaí when assigned to a station covering the Moyross area of Limerick were he works as a community officer. He enjoys mixing with local groups but the real bonus has been in offering him a more conventional work schedule, and an end to night shifts.

"It gets me out of doing the night work. Working nights is tough going with the hurling and that. Especially with the commitment we were giving to training this year, I needed something more flexible. I needed that. You couldn't stay doing what you were doing. Last year, working nights, trying to train . . . The body would be wrecked. This way is way, way better; I felt way fresher. I remember last year finishing work at 7.0 on a Saturday morning and driving down the road to go straight to training. It was ridiculous. With the way hurling has gone now, it is so competitive, you need to be in the full of your health."

Another change which probably helped was his moving back home to live with his mother, and younger brother Ronan. He had been renting in Limerick. "I used to have a place down in Limerick but I was coming up home for matches and training so much that I said to myself, 'I'll move home for a while'. I decided around March to move back and drive up and down to work every day. It's only around 50 minutes."

Which is where the two Mahers spent last Saturday night on the eve of the final. "Myself and Ronan, we took it handy Saturday night, we actually watched a bit of Up For The Match. Our own clubman, Larry (Corbett), was on it. It was grand and relaxing. Off to bed then around half ten. It's great to be in that environment before a big match, you don't want to be taken out of your comfort zone too much."

At the final whistle on Sunday last he felt as if he had left his last ounce of energy on the field. He shook hands with some of the Kilkenny players, celebrated with some of his own, then went to the part of the stand where his mother, father and cousins were gathered.

What stands out? "I suppose when you meet your mother there in the stand. She has seen what we go through. Year in, year out. Meeting her there, getting the hug off her, that's when it really hits home."

Recently he deleted his Facebook and Twitter accounts to avoid reading negative messages. After the win over Laois, he turned on his phone and saw his reputation being traduced after an incident which had Aaron Dunphy sent off. He decided to remove that from his life, even though he had enjoyed following rugby and soccer on Twitter, being an avid Leeds United and Munster rugby fan.

"What's the point in bringing that attention on yourself? Control what you can, I suppose. I don't see much of that stuff anymore. It's stuff that you don't need to see. It's not going to help you in any way. So why have it?"

We are nearly at an end. Last night he was in Limerick cheering on the under 20s in the All-Ireland final against Cork. This morning he trained with Thurles Sarsfields, ahead of an important match against Kilruane McDonaghs next weekend. They've lost a game already. "We are under pressure," he says, "we need to win a few games now."

You get sick of losing. In the 60th minute of the All-Ireland final, Walter Walsh gained possession near the Tipperary goal and had a crack at goal. Kilkenny were trailing, a man down, and everything they'd been trying looked futile. Walsh eyed the goal and drew back his hurl. For a moment it looked like there might be a gap to Brian Hogan's goal until Maher threw himself across the line and stopped the ball.

Moments like that ensured there was no way back. Even if the story of Pádraic Maher would have you believe there always is.

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