Sunday 19 August 2018

Tipperary's Boss still has ambitions to be realised

Pádraic Maher keeping alive the Premier County's tradition of uncompromising hurlers

Padraic Maher of Tipperary. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Padraic Maher of Tipperary. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

A few weeks ago, Eoin Kelly met an old man at a funeral who engaged him in a conversation about hurling. At some point he asked the former Tipperary captain a favour. Would it be possible to arrange a picture with Pádraic Maher? Kelly hurled county with Maher and is currently helping out as a coach with his club, Thurles Sarsfields. When he asked his inquisitor why he wanted a picture with Maher he was told of a lifelong interest in the county's hurlers with its genesis in the 1960s, the time of Hell's Kitchen. Maher, he was told, played like someone from that era.

Maher has a timeless appeal across the generations, from the silver-haired men who remember the heyday of John Doyle and Tony Wall to the younger followers who might barely recall Eoin Kelly. He is admired for his defiance and courage. For being front of line, unshirking, taking and administering the big hits, springing in the air to catch a ball, or delivering inspirational scores from out the field with that trademark left hand.

Even in the recent league final, when Tipp were melting in the ovens of Nowlan Park, Maher went in on Walter Walsh to assert his authority and cool matters. While other parts of the defence were malfunctioning, he continued to set an example by winning his duel and trying to lift the siege.

And that's the appeal, really: the way he exudes the unvarnished warrior spirit, how he makes for a thoroughly captivating sight when the battle is at its keenest. Tipperary has had a chequered history appointing captains, due to the adherence to a formula where the county champions enjoy privilege, but in Maher there was never a fear nor a dissenting voice. He was perfect captain material when he replaced Brendan Maher after the 2016 All-Ireland win.

Whether he will prove a lucky captain remains to be seen. Last year was a disappointing start with a resounding Allianz League final defeat to Galway followed by the hair's breadth semi-final loss in August in the championship. Our most recent reference point is the league final loss to Kilkenny, already mentioned. Tipp went in as warm favourites against a team still finding its way, with a scatter of new hurlers. They looked vulnerable. But not for the first time they outfought Tipp. For a player of Maher's reputation that must have been galling.

"To be honest with you, we are . . . (pauses) . . . we are pissed off about it. Without wanting to sound vulgar. That was our fifth league final, for a lot of us, and we have lost them all. So we were pretty down about that but, look, I suppose at half-time we felt pretty confident we could kick on to another level, that we could pull away from Kilkenny. But it didn't work out. They came out in the second half and blitzed us from the start and we had no answer to that, I don't know what it was. They were just very hungry in the second half and we found it hard to come back.

"It is very disappointing, we wanted to win the league final. Most of us don't have a league medal. It's very, very disappointing. You get sick of losing."

Every hurler that walked this earth lost more than he won, but in Maher's time as a Tipp hurler the losses have never been far removed from the spotlight - high stakes losses, the ones that cut to the marrow. More often than not it has been at Kilkenny's hands. But they have also been eclipsed in matches they might have won by Galway, by Cork and by today's opposition in the Munster Championship, Limerick.

Maher was captain of the 2010 under 21 team that annihilated Galway in the final the weekend after Tipp won the senior title. He was a central figure in that period that was pregnant with expectation and from which the expected dividend did not follow. He now stands, at 29, in the autumn of his career, with two All-Ireland senior medals and five All-Stars. It has not left him sated, nor anywhere near it.

"People say you have won a couple of All-Irelands, you have won Munster Championships, you have won a few county finals with the club, but I tend to look back on the defeats we have," he states. "What stands out for me is Galway 2017, the Ballygunner match (when Sarsfields were beaten after extra-time in the quarter-final of the 2017 Munster club championships), the Ballyea club match in 2016 (when beaten after extra-time in the Munster club semi-final), going back to the Galway game in 2015 (one-point loss in All-Ireland semi-final), these are the games that come into my head."

Thurles Sarsfields have also, as he alludes, had plenty of cause for regret. This year they are chasing a fifth county title win in a row. They have won seven of the last nine county titles since Maher became a Tipp senior hurler in 2009. From that they have managed just two Munster final appearances and one win. They have lost to teams with less natural talent more often than they should.

When Maher arrived in the spring of 2009, Eoin Kelly saw a player who, just turned 20, already fitted championship hurling as if it has been pre-ordained. It was as if the two had known each other all along. There were no second takes. No awkward introductions. Kelly himself made a quick transition to senior championship hurling nine years earlier. Maher turned up and became a serious player from the off. At the end of the year he had won his first All-Star and was outstanding in the league final and All-Ireland final defeats by Kilkenny.

In recent years Ger Loughnane dubbed Maher 'the boss' which is apt given his stature within the team since he broke into it for the first time. He had won All-Ireland minor medals with Tipp in 2006 and '07, marking Joe Canning and denying him a score from play in the '06 final. His first senior county match came unexpectedly, a late-call up when Conor O'Mahony fell ill before a league game against Galway in Salthill in spring, 2009.

"I was told the morning of the match I was going centre-back. We were going for our pre-match meal in the hotel and Liam Sheedy called me aside and told me I was in. I was delighted. Probably worked out best that way. If I had been told on Thursday night I might have had too much time to think about it. But I was told two or three hours before the game."

And then, in only his third senior match, the league final against a rampaging Kilkenny, he was marking Henry Shefflin. He had an inkling he would be. "I'd a fair idea, you'd know from the way they were setting up in recent matches."

The performance was eye-catching after a shaky start, with Maher outfielding and mastering Kilkenny's star player. "At that time I wasn't getting too bogged down thinking about it. It is only after a few years you start thinking more about these things and that's when you are putting yourself under more pressure.

"I was 20 years of age then and I was delighted to get an opportunity. I think the management at the time made it very easy for me and the younger lads, they told us to go out and enjoy ourselves and just play. I remember that league final in Thurles. I think Henry Shefflin had a point or two points scored in the first couple of minutes. And I thought, 'Oh no', but then I didn't think about it and just went for it."

There was something a little preposterous about a newcomer catching balls like that over Henry Shefflin but, as Eoin Kelly said, he came ready-made. "You win one or two balls and you get a bit of confidence," says Maher now. "I think he was moved off me. I got great confidence from that and enjoyed the game after really.

"I was put centre-back that day. Remember we played them in the All-Ireland that year as well, but I had been moved back to full-back after the Munster final. I remember that day in the All-Ireland final leading into it that (Brian) Cody usually earmarks the most inexperienced player for Shefflin to go on. So I said it will be no surprise if he comes in. So we ran away from the parade, I trotted into full-back and next thing who is coming over but Henry. So I kind of half expected it. Again on the day I think I did a fairly good job. He nearly got in for one goal alright, I ran out over the ball and Brendan Cummins blocked it, made a good save, but other than that I dealt with him fairly well in my first All-Ireland."

He was moved off you? "I think so yeah, I spent most of that game on Richie Power."

There were wobbles; it wasn't all a smooth ride. In 2010, in the league, Aisake Ó hAilpín gave him trouble and then in the championship Tipp were left flat-footed by Cork and one of the big swings was Ó hAilpín's first-half dominance of Maher. By the season's end, Maher was at left half-back and Paul Curran had taken over at full-back. Tipp won the All-Ireland with Maher one of their best players in the final against Kilkenny. And since then - numerous imperious personal displays but only one more All-Ireland from seven attempts.

"The first few years were very enjoyable and then you come to the middle stage where you are being looked at more and analysed more, by other teams, by media, by supporters, you are being analysed more," says Maher of his career's journey. "But now I think I am coming to the stage where I am just enjoying it. Try and win as much as you can while you can. I am 29. I have had some success but if you asked me if I was retiring in the morning, I'd have a lot of regrets. You'd hear people saying, 'Oh I've no regrets', (whereas) I'd certainly have a lot of regrets. I suppose from here on my aim is just to enjoy it, give my all, and obviously win as much as we can. But the main aim is enjoy it and be the best I can for Tipperary and we'll see what happens."

The most recent setback has already moved into the background and will soon be forgotten in a blur of Munster Championship games, beginning with today's trip to the Gaelic Grounds. But the league final asked more questions of Tipperary's true value. They have been in the shake-up since he started playing for the county but hopes they can regain the momentum they enjoyed in winning the 2016 All-Ireland.

"If you asked a lot of people Sunday morning, the day of the match, they'd be saying it was a very good league for Tipperary," he reflects. "They'd have been happy with the league Tipperary had . . . few new players blooded and that. Then you go to five o'clock that evening, it's a disaster. Look, we are experienced enough; you can't read too much into all that. We are disgusted we didn't win. Straight up. Absolutely disgusted. But we can't dwell on it too long, it's in the past and we move on to the championship."

Kilkenny remain something of a thorn in their side. He is asked what it is about Kilkenny that Tipp appear to struggle with. "We are not beating them as much as we'd like when we are playing them in big matches. They have had the upper hand on us, no doubt about that. I wouldn't say there is an issue there playing them, if we had to play Kilkenny again in the morning in Nowlan Park I'd have no issue with that whatsoever.

"We were very confident going down. Not over-confident. We didn't come out for the second half at all. We were pretty happy with our first-half performance, I think we were up a point or two at half-time, and we felt if we can up it another level or two we might take off. But it didn't work out.

"You have to give this Kilkenny team credit too. They maybe don't have the outstanding hurlers that they had when I started playing for Tipperary in '09. But they certainly have a very good team and they all work very hard for each other. You could see that, especially in the second half against us. So you have to admire that about them and maybe it is something that other teams, like us, need to be better at, to work harder for each other. It is not all about individual players, it is about the team, and I think they have definitely proved that."

Did they outfight you then in that second half? "I think so, pretty much. (They were) quicker to the breaking ball, the 50-50 ball, they looked much hungrier. We should be hungry as well, none of us (who played v Kilkenny in this year's final) have a league medal, that is the disappointing thing about it."

You are losing due to lack of work rate?

"I suppose we didn't hit the level of work rate and physicality we wanted."

Is that complacency?

"I can't speak for other players. But were players listening to 'oh Kilkenny aren't as good as they were'? I can't say. But certainly from the players I was talking to and from my own thoughts, we weren't taking them for granted. If we hadn't gone down there in ten years and won we'd no right to be complacent."

And now, Limerick, who they defeated, after some effort, in a league semi-final in Thurles seven weeks ago. Maher notes the change in Limerick's style.

"Playing Limerick years ago, you knew it was man for man, the ball going from one end of the pitch to the other. What Limerick thrived on before was their heart and their passion. You know, that kind of stuff. I think they still have that but they are starting to integrate a hurling plan with it. They are way cuter with the ball I think than they were a few years ago. And their younger lads there, they have won a lot, whether with schools or the under 21s."

Maher had spent a few years out of work or without steady employment. The GAA, he says, stopped him from emigrating but it doesn't make you a living. In the last year he has started working as a Garda, based in Henry Street in Limerick. "It is enjoyable but I won't lie: it is very challenging. Especially with me and the hurling, you are working and trying to get time off."

Teams have tried to set up to avoid Maher, reducing his influence. But he remains one of the game's most domineering figures. Some of his deliveries have been refined but the essence of his game has not been tampered with. "Generally," as he says, "they let me be myself and let my own instincts take over. I've never had a coach telling me what to do. To do this or do that. And I find that better for myself, rather than being told what to do. You are being let go express yourself and I think that's how I best play my game."

Pádraic Maher was speaking at the official relaunch of Wigoders on the Long Mile Road, the original wallpaper and paint company

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