Saturday 24 February 2018

'It's always so, so serious' - Tipp's Brendan Maher on learning how to relax

Brendan Maher opens up about relaxing, drinking, being in the public eye and teaching autistic children

Brendan Maher: ‘Teaching an autistic class has opened my mind; it’s completely life-changing’ Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Maher: ‘Teaching an autistic class has opened my mind; it’s completely life-changing’ Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Brendan Maher was born at the start of the year that Tipperary rose again from the dead. In January 1989 he came into the world, and that September Tipperary won their first MacCarthy Cup since 1971, closing off the darkest chapter in the county's history. It was a life-long lesson in not taking anything for granted. In not assuming that one magnificent win, or one magnificent era, begets another.

Maher has had that lesson too, if in miniature, for the remnants of the team that won the 2010 All-Ireland still carry that burden of not fulfilling the promise their pinnacle achievement generated. It was a beast of a win but their bellies have been long emptied and filled with a hunger yet to be sated. Maher was exceptional on that team, having first appeared for the Tipp senior hurlers in the league the previous year.

He hasn't been, in some followers' estimation, the same player since be broke his ankle in 2011. Those who regarded him as their man of the match in the 2010 All-Ireland final haven't consistently seen the same vibration but his control of a ball and his skill level never waned. In midfield he has surrendered the attacking brief to Michael Breen, assuming a more defensive role for himself.

Movement of position has hindered him, never looking entirely at home at centre-back or centre-forward, while at wing-back he was stylish without being an implacable marker. Midfield is his natural habitat, his best position, and with Breen's force of energy and work-rate that relationship has paid dividends in Tipp's return to a Munster final.

Maher was a county minor for three years, winning All-Irelands in 2006 and '07, and was centre-back on the under 21 team that trounced Galway the weekend after the seniors won the 2010 All-Ireland final. His first senior championship start was at left half-back in a landslide win over Limerick in the 2009 All-Ireland semi-final. They lost the final to Kilkenny and by 2010 he was firmly established as a first-choice midfielder. By the year's end he had All-Ireland medals at under 21 and senior, an All-Star and the Young Hurler of the Year award. A second All-Star came in 2014.

The same year he was appointed captain, which he has retained since. His captaincy of the Tipp minors in 2007 made him the second player from Borris-Ileigh to captain the county to an All-Ireland at the grade, after Paddy Kenny in 1947.

Having a look outside the goldfish bowl of being a Tipperary hurler was afforded to him when he appeared in a documentary series, The Toughest Trade, which had GAA stars swapping codes with professional athletes. Maher trained with professional Australian cricket team the Adelaide Strikers and it gave him, as an amateur by definition, interesting insights into how others approach discipline.

"I said about the warm-ups, it's a lot more relaxed, their approach. In the GAA, once you're on the field, it's very much go, go, go. It was probably more reflecting about conserving a bit of energy and when you should be giving maximum effort. You know, if you're lying on the ground, stretching or doing a little drill, you don't need to be as intense as you are when you're doing a full-on match situation. I took a different approach this year - I was going to conserve my energy a little bit more and use it the best I can."

He said this has been a useful lesson he's picked up. "It probably just took that for me to realise that we take it so serious all the time. The very minute we step on the pitch, it's always so, so serious."

This is patently true. The intensity and ever-expanding side-theatre of match-day warm-ups is another indication of how GAA players are being asked to subscribe more and more to the process and the herd. "I've tried to work on conserving my energy," Maher says. "That has come from help from other people, just talking to people about it. You don't always have to be fully focused and tuned in, like 24 hours before the game you're ready on the edge of your seat."

Each to his own, in other words. "Everyone has their own thing. I have spoken to lads about it. Some lads would do it already and they're quite good at it. But then there would be some lads you'd notice that are a bit too intense and are draining themselves. Whatever works really but I do find that the more relaxed I am going into a game, the better I perform."

Which leads to a reference to the recent photograph of the Irish soccer team at the Euros swilling their beers after defeating Italy, with another game on the horizon. The inter-county player has been increasingly led to believe that alcohol, even in modest quantity, is the devil's brew, crooking its finger and looking for weakness, any surrender likely to bring a knock on the door from the local branch of the Temperance Movement.

Someone asks Maher how if he were pictured necking a bottle in the Tipp dressing room might it go down.

"Shot, I'd say! That's not going to happen in the GAA, I don't think it ever will."

What does he make of this intolerance? "It's still an amateur sport but we're trying to replicate professionalism so much and it's seen as something that would not be professional. But when you see the likes of the soccer players doing it, and I know the rugby players do it as well, it would make you think twice about it. But look, we still do what we do. We do it the way we want to do it."

Former Tipperary footballer Colin O'Riordan, now playing Aussie rules, has revealed that in their sport, there is an eight-day rule which is seen as sufficient space between drinking alcohol and playing a match. Maher considers this and responds by arguing that perhaps the Irish sportsman, or the GAA one at least, needs the harder line.

"The culture is a lot better with the social life in Australia. There's no binges. That probably happens a bit in the GAA - we stay off it for so long and then, it's not even that you drink a lot but you're not used to it. But I don't think it will ever be accepted for me, eight days out from a Munster final, to go and have two pints in the local. I wouldn't expect it from myself. It wouldn't be right, in my own head, I wouldn't feel comfortable doing it. It's not that it's going to physically hinder me but in my head, I'm going home thinking 'I'm after having two pints, I'm not right'.

Read more: Vine: Watch Brendan Maher stun Aussie cricketers with talk of GAA beer bans

"It probably comes from the public perception of what you should be as an inter-county hurler or footballer. And unfortunately, that's the way it is now. It is a bit unfortunate that you don't have a little bit more leeway but then again, the standards that we set ourselves, I wouldn't be happy if I heard a fella was out for three or four pints. It gives a sign to the rest of the team - 'he's not thinking, he's not tuned in'. That's the way I look at it - if everyone's willing to agree on the same thing. We have agreed on what we do and the way we do it, how we approach training and how we do everything. As long as everyone's on the same page, that's the most important thing."

There is nothing written in stone, he states, when asked, no covenant to be signed. "No rules. Mick (Ryan) has never said to us, 'ye can't drink' or 'ye have to be in bed by 11 o'clock'. We don't work that way at all. There's no such thing as a charter or written rules. We set the standards ourselves, players set the standards. Experienced players who have been there will say, 'right lads, this is what we're going to do for the next month'. And that's the way we operate. It's something we have found has worked for us and we'll continue to do the same."

A few drinks after the Limerick and Cork games did not see the roof cave in. "I went out for a couple of drinks in Borris, out with my girlfriend, got up and went to work on Monday morning and carried on with everyday life. Most lads did the same, some lads didn't, but it's gas the way if we had lost by a few points against Limerick, and if you were to go for those few pints, there would be uproar. That's the one thing that would get to players, that you sacrifice so much and give up so much of your time. For me, to go for a few drinks with my girlfriend was nice because I don't get to do it. If it was on the back of a loss, I wouldn't have been able to do it."

Being under scrutiny is part of the reality of being a high-profile hurler but Paddy Kenny certainly didn't have to worry about being surreptitiously snapped and finding himself all over Facebook a few days later. The players of today have to tread all the more carefully. "Yeah, it is crazy and some of the stories that go around. . . We would be telling stories to each other about stuff we would have heard through conversations, different things, it mightn't even be related to social lives. Someone said to me last week, 'I heard Michael Breen is going working in your school.' He is not even a teacher. The rumour mill is crazy and it would make you laugh a lot of the time.

"Of course, once a rumour starts, a player's reputation and his personal life can be ruined. And that's what is unfortunate about it. And when you are in the public eye, that is what you have to put up with. We are lucky enough to be put in the situation that we are in to be representing our county and lucky enough to play inter-county hurling. But there are some negatives that come with it. But, to be honest, it doesn't bother me."

The fixation with building on 2010 has subsided, helped by the influx of new players. "Our age profile has gone way down," says Maher. "Looking at the team, I think I am the third oldest outfield player. Seamie (Callanan) is the oldest outfield player we have and he is still only 27. We have a very young team and in general, we have noticed fellas are developing a lot more physically because of the work we have done, (with the) same strength and conditioning coach for the last three and a half years now and the work he has done has been great, and we have seen the fruition of it now. And the young lads coming through have a good base.

"The competition is fierce inside in training, I have been going into training and you were going in playing for your place. That is what makes it good and Mick always lays it out - if you are performing in training, you will get your chance. And he has stuck to his word. The 26 is chosen because they have been the 26 players performing best in training."

Maher expects teams to set up defensively against Tipp out of respect for their forwards, but Waterford bring a whole new dimension and strategy to have to deal with. "We just tried to bring a high work ethic to the performance," he says of their display in beating Limerick, when a man down from the first half. "But we were just happy to do whatever it took to get the win, happy with the character shown. One thing is we didn't panic, we still tried to play our own game. We didn't go all out defensive, we stuck with six backs and two midfielders and just played five up front. We were just glad it worked out."

A qualified primary school teacher, Maher talks enthusiastically of his work with special needs children. "I teach an autistic class. Yeah, it is very rewarding and it has opened up my mind to the challenges in life and how sport is sport. It definitely changed my outlook on a lot of things, the challenges that children with ASD face every day, simple things are massive challenges for them, and it has made me think differently about how I approach things and relax a lot more and take it for what it is and that is probably why the public stuff doesn't bother me as much; I just laugh at it. I can laugh it off. Look at it and take it for what it is; it's sport and they are going to say that and you are not going to stop it.

"And when you go into school and look at the challenges these children face, it does really open up your mind to a lot and opened up my mind to the way I treat people as well. You don't have to have ASD to have challenges in life or challenges socially; it has definitely helped me an awful lot to progress as a person, not just as teacher."

The opportunity emerged two years ago and Maher went for it. "And it is the best decision I have ever made and it has been life-changing. Completely different to mainstream teaching."

He works with six kids, five senior infants, and one in first class. "The idea of an ASD unit is that it is reverse integration so it is basically you are trying to integrate them as much into mainstream and it just depends on how much they are able for. It is a long-term programme. Some children will integrate a lot more than others, some won't integrate at all, they might be with me for the eight years and then move on to secondary school level."

He feels there is "a lack of awareness of what autism is and people don't understand it fully".

"I know in some supermarkets they'll do an autistic time for people to go shopping, they'll dim the lights a bit and turn down the music. It's little things like that. The cinema is the same, they'll do specials screenings for people with special needs or with autism. They'll turn the lights on so it's not a dark room, they won't do all the ads and they'll turn down the sound a little bit. The IMC cinema in Thurles accommodated us a couple of times and they've been great. It would be great to see other places go out of their way. One little thing like an hour a week, because there are adults out there who can't do those simple things because they find it such a strain."

Back to hurling. Maher acknowledges that the five-week break from winning a Munster title to an All-Ireland semi-final is a challenge teams don't always master. No Munster winner has added the All-Ireland since Cork in 2005. "I think last year we did an awful lot in the five weeks, whereas this year hopefully if we get a win we might look at it a bit differently. If we are facing it again Mick and the boys will have a plan, they have learnt an awful lot from it in the past. I think it's just about trying to peak, it's a long break and it's trying to replicate that championship hurling."

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