Action man quickens Tipp's step
Patrick 'Bonner' Maher's dynamism is now a vital ingredient for the blue and gold, writes Damian Lawlor
DECLAN FANNING swears Liam Sheedy did it for the devilment. "Every time we'd play a match in training, Sheedy would put Bonner Maher over on top of me," Fanning says. "Every single time. At first you'd wonder was it a coincidence but it just never let up.
"I'd say he got a right kick out of putting a young workhorse on me as I was coming to the end of my inter-county days. Sure it was torture, it was actually like marking a corner-back. He never stopped working or hassling. He was full of speed too. Direct as a bullet.
"With some lads you'd think to yourself, 'grand, I'll get a little break here'. Not with Bonner, though -- it was 100 per cent direct running and hunger from the first to the final whistle. I'd get away from him sometimes, I'd be about to clear a ball downfield but that's when he was at his most dangerous. Out of nowhere a hurl, boot or hand would come in and he'd block me. I actually think he goes up a gear when he doesn't have the ball. I was sick of marking him."
By the time the final whistle sounded in the Munster quarter-final three weeks ago, so too were Limerick.
With Tipperary six points down Declan Ryan made the biggest call of his managerial career. He whipped off Eoin Kelly, who has scored 21-357 in championship hurling, and replaced him with Maher. Six minutes of the second half had elapsed. In just 29 minutes he fielded the ball nine times and set up 1-3 for his team-mates. He was fouled at least once more although no free was awarded. Maher didn't score himself but that didn't bother him in the slightest.
"Bonner Maher is 100 per cent legit," says one team-mate. "By that I mean he acts like he hurls -- straight down the line. There's no second-guessing him or no acting around. He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke and plays only for the team. I would go as far as saying that since 2000 he's the best specimen of an athlete and team player I have seen wear a Tipp shirt."
Eamonn Corcoran, who retired in 2009, feels the time is fast coming where the Tipp attack must be based around him, especially for grinding encounters like this afternoon's in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
"We have several quality hurlers but they're all of a similar type," Corcoran notes. "Bonner maybe makes them all gel with his own style. During the National League we had a severe shortage of goals and everyone said it was because Larry Corbett wasn't around or because Seamie Callanan was injured. They should look deeper, though. I think the goals dried up because Bonner wasn't there to break ball for the boys. He was out for ten weeks with a knee injury and we suffered rightly. The only plus side is the break might have helped him stay fresh."
Within the Tipp camp they reckon the biggest problem is stopping him from overtraining. By far the fittest player on the squad, Maher, who works as a fitness instructor at the County Arms Hotel in Birr, is inclined to do too much.
"A few years ago we were wired up to the GPS tracking systems that monitor how far and how long you run for," Fanning remembers. "The average player on our team covered eight kilometres per game but I think Bonner was well up around the 11-kilometre mark."
It's no surprise to many of the current or former Tipp hurlers that Maher has only scored 1-3 in 11 championship games. Scoring is only a secondary consideration. In last year's Munster final against Waterford, for instance, he could easily have gone for goal himself but instead laid it off to Callanan to do the honours and raise a green flag.
"There were many other times when he has been through only to flick the ball off for someone else," Corcoran adds. "Some forwards feel they have to raise a flag or they'll be taken off but he doesn't seem to be influenced by that way of thinking."
The experience gained from his first taste of championship hurling has helped shape this selfless style. Following Tipp's exit to Cork in the 2010 provincial opener, Maher made his debut against Wexford in the qualifiers and zoned in on goal when a pass was a better option. Noel Carton saved his effort and both Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly strode out to remonstrate with the youngster. In the All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway, he found himself in the same position but this time passed to Kelly who scored. Once more both Corbett and Kelly came running out to him. This time, though, all you could hear was praise. 'Your score . . . your score.'
In a county that has lauded stylists like Kelly, Nicky English, Jimmy Doyle, Pat Fox and Michael Cleary, they're now starting to look upon Maher as the heartbeat of the team. That's some going for a guy more renowned for work rate.
"I actually don't agree with that theory at all," Fanning shrugs. "When Bonner came into the set-up he had these tags like 'work rate' and 'determination' slapped on him. Now, I'd take those traits every day, but the point I'm making is that he's totally underrated. Eamon O'Shea has brought his hurling on no end, his stick work is top-class and he could get a lot more scores if he wanted to. It's just that most of the time he'd prefer to play in a fella who is in a better position."
The raw materials were always there. Shane Brophy, the secretary at Maher's home club, Lorrha, can testify to that. "His pace has always set him apart and his hunger, too, but just recently we played Borrisokane in the championship and Bonner got in front of Philip Austin, the Tipp football captain. Running at full pelt he clipped the ball from the ground into his hands without breaking stride. It was absolutely brilliant to watch.
"And back in 2007, when he was only 17, we played Ballina in the North Tipp intermediate final. We were a point down in the last minute when he got the ball and broke through their defence. We thought he'd clip it over the bar, get the draw and we'd live to fight another day but instead he broke through and buried it. We won by two in the end. He only had one thing on his mind."
There have been plenty of hills for the youngster to climb to reach this stage of his career.
Despite hammering in three goals in the county's run to the 2007 All-Ireland minor title, it took the Tipp public some time to appreciate just how much he brought to the table at senior level. He didn't make his championship debut until 2010.
"Look," says another team-mate. "A guy can come on the scene, burn the ground up in his first few games and you'll think the world of him. He could be gone two years later. But a fella who gradually earns respect will hang onto it for much longer. That's the way it is with Bonner."
Corcoran says it won't matter whether Maher stays at centre-forward or roams to the wing against Cork today because his probing runs will attract space for team-mates anywhere on the pitch.
"He doesn't do non-work days and he's after perfecting this trick of trapping the ball in the air with his hurley and rolling it, or flicking it, into a team-mate's path," Corcoran observes. "You can play him anywhere on the field with an ability like that.
"But it's the dirty ball that you have no hope of getting, the ball you don't want to chase after, that's where Bonner comes into his own. He won't rest until he gets it back. He's nearly the most important man on the team as far as I'm concerned."
No one is quite sure what game-plan O'Shea and Sheedy concocted for him in the 2010 All-Ireland final when he kept Tommy Walsh quiet -- Walsh only struck the ball out of hand on five occasions -- but it's clear he sacrificed his own game for the good of the team. Three times during that final O'Shea ran onto the field to reassure Maher that he was 'doing a terrific job'. The youngster needed reassurance that even though he wasn't pointing from all angles himself he was still doing the job the team wanted.
A year later, a ferociously hungry Walsh got the better of him in the first half but, along with John O'Brien, Maher showed fierce resolve in the second half to keep the team in the hunt for successive titles.
Contrary to popular opinion, he didn't pick up his nickname from the Tipperary hurler of the 1980s and 1990s, Cormac Bonnar, whose game centred on bravery and aerial ability and it led to the theory that Patrick Maher was renamed with the Cashel man in mind. The truth, however, is that his first sporting hero was Packie Bonner whom he watched as a five-year-old at USA '94. After every Ireland game Maher would take to the front lawn to practise his diving. Hence the nickname.
If the Tipperary forwards were submitted into the market place and put on a transfer list in the morning, you cannot help but think that Maher would be a player Brian Cody would instantly look for. His influence is a great tableau of little things -- he's a creator, destroyer, workhorse and team man. They are qualities that the young lad from Lorrha brings to Páirc Uí Chaoimh today.
He mightn't rattle the net too often, but he's the heartbeat of his team. Tipp are lucky to have him.
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