Bittersweet summer leaves Maher with taste for more
Tipp's rising star tells Damian Lawlor why coming close just isn't enough to satisfy his burning ambition
SOMETIMES when he casts an eye on the season just passed, Padraic Maher admits he doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. In his short time as a Tipperary senior hurler, he's already seen the best and the worst of times, but there's no softening the bittersweet taste that lingers as a new season dawns.
In 2009, Maher established himself as one of the finest young hurlers in the game, alongside the likes of Joe Canning and Noel McGrath. He marked Henry Shefflin out of the game in the league final, manned the wing, centre and full-back positions for his county in the championship and played in his fourth consecutive Munster final at just 20; a remarkable feat considering those appearances were spread across three grades, minor, U21 and senior.
His club, Thurles Sarsfields, won the county senior title and he was voted the best full-back in the country by the All Star selectors. Not bad for a guy in his first season at the top. Not that he sees it entirely like that.
"The way it is for me, it was a good year but a very bad one too. We lost all the big games we had: the League final, the All-Ireland final and then the Munster club semi-final against Newtownshandrum. We let all those games slip away when we were on top, so obviously I have mixed views looking back.
"Yes, there were some highs, but there were some awful lows too. For us Tipp lads, we just have to look on it as a learning curve and try to come back even stronger in 2010." Since Liam Sheedy took charge, the Tipperary full-back line has seen much change. Paul Curran looks to have moved on from full-back while Eamonn Buckley and Conor O'Brien both lost their places in 2009 and have a big battle on their hands to win them back this season.
Instead, Maher and the ever-impressive Paddy Stapleton nailed down starting roles and in that short time Maher has already developed into one of the most talented and determined defenders in the game. Luckily for him, he understands the importance of keeping a level head.
"A lot is said to you after games around town and that, but if you were to listen to some of it you'd actually be hurt sometimes. The way I deal with it is to listen to it politely but not really take it in either. I mean, we're part of a young team with a lot to learn. We have lots of good young lads coming through together and I think that 12 of us have played at minor and U21 together, so it's looking good.
"But there are no guarantees. We could go down to Cork next May and get beaten, so it wouldn't do you any good to listen to the stuff that's being said, even if most of it is nice or flattering."
The Thurles Sars' kid started turning heads in the League final last year when he tracked Henry Shefflin all over the pitch before the Kilkenny man left the field in frustration after receiving a yellow-card. In the All-Ireland final, Brian Cody shoved Shefflin in on top of Maher at full-forward to try and rattle him, but despite a few early fumbles there was no change out of him on that occasion either and before long Shefflin went back out the field.
Coping with the best hurler in the land is some going, considering Maher started off the championship campaign at wing-back before moving to centre-back twice in the Munster series. He then relocated to full-back for the All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford.
"If they asked me to play in goals I'd go in straight away," he smiles. "All those positions have different demands, but our coach Eamon O'Shea maintains it's all about the ball and he's right. You get the ball and play it, you might have more room out in the half-back line and you can't make too many mistakes in at full-back, but essentially you gather the ball and play it as quickly as you can. I don't really mind where they play me although if I was pinned down and asked for a decision I would say that centre-back is probably my preferred spot because you get on the ball a lot more out there and I like that."
His physical strength -- he weighs 14 stone and stands at 6' 2" -- and his fielding under the high ball allow him to roam the Tipp defence fighting fires wherever he is needed. Maher's progress has been steady over the years. He was one of the few to keep Joe Canning scoreless from play at minor level, doing so in the 2006 All-Ireland final and so denying the Portumna man a three-in-a-row at the grade which would have equalled Jimmy Doyle's historic feat.
Winning that minor title matched the achievement of his father, Paddy, who won one back in 1980. Stepping up a grade, he then won a Munster U21 medal in 2008 and last year was one of only three players -- Paddy Stapleton and Declan Fanning were the others -- to play every single minute of the senior championship campaign for his county.
"I'm really enjoying it all and please God I'll stay injury-free and we'll be able to challenge for the next few years. But all of this is really no good unless you're winning All-Ireland titles," he says. "The All-Ireland final was a killer. Not so much the week after because you go for a few pints and you don't really think about it in those days. But it hits you hard after that and even harder the week after again. Then you sit down and watch the video and hopefully we can learn from it.
"The bottom line is that they had experience; we lost it in the last few minutes and they saw us off. There's no doubt that we're up there challenging them, but Galway are coming hard and Cork regrouping, there are other teams coming too -- we have no guarantees."
The apprentice plumber has been busy since the season's end, taking in a trip to Buenos Aires with the All Stars and then coming home for Christmas before flying out to LA and San Diego with the Tipp squad last week. It's downtime, but if he's being honest he's already looking forward to getting back in tow.
"I've had enough time off," he says. "After a few weeks you start to get sluggish again and all you want to do is get back into the training. I need a good month's training to get back into my peak shape and I won't be sorry when we start back again.
"We have enough motivation and hopefully that will stand to us now. 2009 was great in many ways but we could have added a few more medals with club and county. We fell short when we were needed most, that's the bottom line."
He's being ruthless in his assessment but their time will surely come. Whether this new-look Tipp side arrive in 2010 or not is debatable with Kilkenny seeming focused on the five-in-a-row, but in players like Maher, they look to have too much quality not to come to the fore at some stage in the very near future.
Hard to believe this guy only has four senior championship games under his belt. Truth is, he looks to the manner born.