'I was probably struggling a little bit to stay going' - Tipp star Brendan Maher on his long road to recovery
By the time Brendan Maher was being helped off the field in last year's Munster Championship clash against Clare, Tipperary were in serious trouble.
Two minutes earlier Ian Galvin's goal altered the course of their round robin tie and in the ensuing drama the cruel detail of Maher's misfortune was lost. He didn't know the gravity of the injury by then, but the severe pain offered little room for optimism.
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A 20-second passage of play from Thurles that day captured the capricious and merciless nature of the new provincial format, bookended by Jake Morris's miss at one end and Galvin's finishing of a sweeping counter-attack at the other. The score, which brought Clare to within a point of their rivals, left two Tipp players suffering injuries in their attempts to prevent it.
In the first, Donagh Maher took the full brunt of John Conlon, who crashed into him, but recovered. In the second moments later, as Podge Collins broke free and moved nearer the Tipp goal, Brendan Maher raced in a diagonal line to close him off. Collins, nimble on his feet, cut back inside and Maher's speed did not allow his body to turn as quickly as his head demanded. In trying to wheel around he twisted his right knee and fell to the ground. In seconds, Collins had picked out Galvin and the ball was in Tipp's net.
So many things could have materialised differently. Had the ball from Morris gone dead, wide or to the net, the counter attack wouldn't have happened and Tipp would have had more time to reset. Maher would not have been pressed into making that covering run. But, sure, if my aunt was my uncle and all that. Here was a player without a serious injury until then, at 29, who didn't even make contact with Collins, and his anterior cruciate ligament went.
A year on and, like the team he plays for, rejuvenated and in rude health, he is asked about the long and "intense" process of recovery following an operation on July 20.
"I think a big change, or a big point that I would always refer to I suppose when you talk back about it, was in November when we got back together as a group. I was probably struggling a little bit to stay going to the gym on my own and doing everything on my own. When you are so used to the team environment it is very hard to go and start doing things individually.
"I got a huge lift from just being back amongst the group. And our new strength and conditioning coach Cairbre (Ó Caireallan) was brilliant with me. He had actually rehabbed one of the Arsenal ladies' soccer players last year on an ACL so he had a full programme done out and we attempted to work off (that). We set out some targets.
"I was meeting him inside in Thurles at 7.30 before work for an hour and going off to work and coming back and then I'd train that night with the lads so like he was with me for every session. He didn't have to do that. It wasn't part of his job. He fully invested in it. He saw that I was determined to get back strong and he helped me along the way."
Maher is one of Tipperary's longest-serving players, who captained the minor side that won the All-Ireland in 2007 and his links to Liam Sheedy reach back to his time playing for the North Tipp under 16s when only 14. In 2016 he became the fourth hurler from Borrisoleigh to captain Tipperary to an All-Ireland senior title.
He volunteers the 2014 All-Ireland final defeat to Kilkenny, in a replay, as probably the bleakest point in his career until the injury. He led Tipp onto the field hoping to be the first since Bobby Ryan from his club to walk up the steps. He admits he was "distraught" and describes the winter after as "tough going" - the toughest apart from the one gone by.
Sheedy introduced him to the Tipperary senior squad towards the end of 2008 and after a number of substitute appearances he made his first championship start against Limerick in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2009. Limerick collapsed and a year later went on strike and all through the long process of rehab that the county had undertaken since then, Maher has been a Tipp constant.
With the exception of 2013, when defeated in the qualifiers by Kilkenny, and last year's early exit, he has been involved in the championship until final or semi-final day, losing finals in 2009, '11, '14, winning in 2010 and '16, and suffering semi-final losses in 2012, '15 and '17.
He is asked if the decade has left him feeling fulfilled. "Ah it does. I suppose we are probably very hard on ourselves at times. Especially our group that came along. We've been saying we've played in so many finals and you always look at the ones you've lost. But then you have to remind yourself, I have five Munster medals and two All-Irelands which is nothing to be sniffed at either. You have to be grateful for those times. But I think you would lose your hunger if you didn't remember the bad times as well."
He marked David Breen in his first full championship match ("I can remember he was about a foot taller than me") and in the final he started on Eddie Brennan. "That was a nightmare. And (Henry) Shefflin. I think I've said I was probably the only player to say he was glad to see Shefflin coming on because Eddie Brennan was just roasting me. He had about three points scored off me in 20 minutes and I was thinking 'this is going to be a long day'. But, luckily enough, I think then they moved Eddie into the full forward line or something, there were changes made, they constantly rotate anyway."
In the 2010 All-Ireland final, ending Kilkenny's dream of five-in-row, Maher was one of Tipp's most prominent players, with 17 possessions.
Kilkenny are a familiar foe and in Munster finals, Waterford have been too. Today will be his sixth Munster final to play in, and first that won't involve Waterford. The last time Tipp and Limerick met in a Munster final, in 2001, Maher was a boy. "It's a great challenge, it's a huge challenge for the team, to go down there," he says, "the atmosphere is going to be unbelievable."
His own experience of injury left him in a useful position to offer some advice to his colleague, Patrick Maher, who suffered a similar set-back in the recent loss to Limerick in the round robin. But while he also took advice from others who had been through it, the reality is that each journey is unique. You go your own way.
"I did have (an idea) I'd like to be hurling in March, that was kinda in my head, but as I was getting closer it was only then that we started breaking it down to say, ok, let's aim to be back in contact by this week and you take it week by week then. But it's not a case of Bonner (Maher) now today saying I want to be back hurling now on the 10th of February next year. Like, it's not as easy as that. God only knows what complications he might have or how quickly he might be back. It's week by week. And your programme changes week to week as well."
How was Bonner after the injury?
"Ah sure look he was very upset after the match. I know exactly how he feels. You just need a few days to get your head around it. The one thing I said to him, and it's probably what I had to constantly remind myself of, it is only an injury and it is only sport that you're missing and to try and put things into perspective I suppose.
"That was something I constantly reminded myself of. When you start seeing other people, the challenges that they have, when you're feeling sorry for yourself you just need to give yourself a wake-up call, to say this is only an injury. It's something you can overcome. So I'm sure, look, Bonner is one of the most mentally strong people I know."
Maher has done a comprehensive tour of duty for Tipperary, his versatility bringing him all over the field, often - as when trailing Tony Kelly in Ennis - in the one game. Hurling has become more fluid and for a player accustomed to a nomadic existence that is something he finds he can adapt to. Since returning to the team, coming on against Dublin in the National League quarter-final, he has settled in at wing back.
"He (Sheedy) actually played me corner back when I was minor, and I'll never forgive him for it," he says in jest. "I've always considered myself a team player, when I am asked to do a role I will give my 100 per cent do it. I have done it (tagging players) in the past as a midfielder, it probably has just gone unnoticed. Like, I marked TJ Reid in the 2016 All-Ireland (final) and Richie Hogan. So myself and Ronan (Maher) were given the job of marking the two of those. If he was in the half forward line Ronan picked him up and if he came to midfield I picked him up. I've probably been doing it more than people realise over the years."
In 2015, Eamon O'Shea had him playing as a centre forward/third midfielder.
"I was wing-back in '14 and then went to half-forward for '15 and back to midfield for '16 and '17 and then back to half-back now. Yeah my versatility has probably gone against me in certain ways that, you know, if I had a choice I would probably say I'd like the one position and be able to settle.
"You are just glad to get a jersey, to be honest, you can't start being picky and say 'I don't want to play there', or 'I don't want to play here'. When you are playing for Tipp you should be just privileged to get the jersey."
He finds it hard to pinpoint the reason for Tipp's transformation this year. "Up until the last day we were lucky with injuries. We got everyone fit and everyone got a pre-season in. Like, last year was a nightmare with injuries. Five or six lads out leading into the Limerick game.
"It's the nature of the game as well. It's so close in Munster especially, you see this year, the way teams are beating each other. It's really, really competitive. It's not a case of saying oh well this is different this year.
"There's probably small little things. Lads probably got a good run at pre-season and are fitter and got a good run of games throughout the league which they didn't have last year because of injuries. So that obviously does have a positive impact."
Was redemption a driver? "Absolutely, yeah, we let down our supporters, we let down ourselves last year. It wasn't from a lack of trying but it happened. I suppose you have to reflect, we had lots of time to reflect. You take the approach 'well let's make sure that we don't end up in that situation again'. Luck needs to be on your side I suppose and certain things and that, luck wasn't on our side last year, but that's the way it goes. But it definitely does. I'd be a fool to say it didn't play into our mindset."
A change of management - with Michael Ryan departing - can unsettle players and rouse even irrational fears for their future. But Sheedy was quick to reassure Maher that they would wait for his recovery and look to reintegrate him into the team. He's asked if Sheedy has changed over the years.
"He is still the same person. He still has that steel and the motivation and the passion. You just feed off that so much. It's hard not to get motivated around him. When you talk to him you can nearly feel the passion in him once he opens his mouth. He gave me my first shot at minor, first shot at senior, and first shot at the North Tipp as well. So definitely he's had a huge influence on my career. He is just somebody that's hugely motivating and very passionate about the game. There is huge respect there."
Maher is teaching part-time but has spent some time working in a PR role for the Tipperary sponsor Teneo. The job took him to Dublin which did not fit in with hurling or his attempts to recover from injury, because of the driving involved. But he says that it is still something he may return to.
He is also opening a gym in September in Borrisoleigh which he will run with his girlfriend, a gym and Pilates instructor. "I ran a gym for a couple of years already in Holycross and I stepped away from that knowing that Borrisoleigh was coming, but there just happened to be a delay then between trying to get grants and things were kind of prolonged a little bit."
He qualified as a fitness instructor in 2015. "I didn't expect to open up my own gym or anything like that when I was doing the qualification but it was just the way things panned out."
His return in a Tipp shirt came with about 20 minutes to go against Dublin in Thurles where he had suffered the injury in the first place. "I can remember I actually got a puck-out down on top of me first thing and I managed to catch it and lay it off. And it was just like (saying to myself) ok, relax. There was fierce nerves, starting all over again."
But soon he was back into his stride. Brendan Maher in full flow in his beloved blue and gold. He stopped at nothing to make that day possible.
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