Brendan Maher: 'People forget that we are human – we always go out to do our best'
Tipperary captain Brendan Maher tells Colm Keys how criticism from within the county has hardened his side
What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. Brendan Maher has found it easy to transplant that oft-used phrase to the Tipperary hurling squad over the last few seasons.
The blade of criticism has never been too far from the ground in Tipperary, especially since the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilkenny.
Talk of disconnection with the support has been prevalent. Even during their rocky patch in this year's league, the slings and arrows were out in force.
But it hasn't killed them, says Maher. In fact he's confident it has made them much stronger.
"It does bring you closer (as a squad) – there is no point saying it doesn't," reflects the 25-year-old captain.
"You can be walking around and listening to people giving out about you and reading about it in the papers and so on.
"But when you are in with the group, in there for the same reason, trying to be the best you can be and win with Tipperary, it would harden you up.
"The criticism we've had over the last few years has definitely mentally strengthened us up."
Tipperary found the period from that 2012 match to the beginning of the 2013 season the toughest.
"It was a tough time for a lot of players and a couple of individuals maybe got more criticism than they deserved," Maher recalls.
"It's tough to take. Maybe certain people forget that we are all human. We all go out to do our best; there is nobody who goes out to try and lose a game."
The criticism has never affected Maher's desire to be a Tipperary hurler or diminished the pursuit of All-Ireland glory again.
"Don't get me wrong – we are very lucky to be in the position we are in to be able to put on the Tipperary jersey and represent Tipperary," he explains.
"If you didn't want to be there you wouldn't be there. There are probably thousands of people in Tipperary would give their right arm to be in the position we are in."
Sometimes Maher seeks reassurance from a striking record of elimination from championship hurling that resonates when it is collated.
He has been a Tipperary senior since 2009 and in that time only Kilkenny have shown them the door for the summer – in the 2009 and 2011 All-Ireland finals, the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final and last year's second-phase qualifier in Nowlan Park.
When it has come to the crunch, only the greatest team ever has been a step ahead of them, and that provides a strange comfort.
"When you'd have them few doubts in your head and people are saying so much about you and knocking you so much and saying how bad you are, you can reflect on something like that and say, 'Jesus we are not as bad as they are saying and we do have something to offer'," he says.
"That's important as a group. We can't control what is going to be said about us. All we can control is what we do on the field and how hard we work and really, as a group, that's what we decided to do.
"We said whatever happens in the public and whatever people say about us, we'll just brush it off. We just keep our core group nice and close in training and just focus on being the best we can be.
"At least, whatever way it works out, we can all look each other in the eye and say we gave it everything."
The recent Allianz League final defeat was their seventh loss in eight meetings with Kilkenny since the 2010 All-Ireland triumph.
But, unlike the corresponding game 12 months earlier, Maher believes the lessons learned from the defeat have been applied better in the vacuum ahead of their Munster semi-final with Limerick.
"We did a couple of things wrong," he reflects of the 2013 league final aftermath.
"Maybe we dwelled on the loss a bit too much for a couple of weeks afterwards and it took us those couple of weeks to recover from it. It was fierce disappointing in Nowlan Park last year.
"This time we trained last Monday morning straight after the game and it was great just to get back out on the field. You can let out a bit of frustration.
"Those who didn't have much game time did a bit of running and we just did active recovery. That was the most important thing, getting together to talk about it," adds the schoolteacher.
"Everyone is going to assess the game differently in their own head so it was important that we got together and agreed we need to draw a line here and move on."
Maher has been one of the central figures in bringing some stability to the team with his placement at centre-back for the Dublin game, which Tipp won by a sufficient margin to make the play-offs instead of a relegation battle with Waterford.
"Someone said to me, do you feel you turned a corner (against Dublin)? I am not a big believer in phrases like that. I don't believe that," he says.
"Obviously the Dublin game was a massive turning point in the way it worked out in score difference but as a group our focus has never changed.
"I can say of myself that I'm good at reading the game, so maybe centre-back or half-back is a good position to be in when that's the type of player you are. I don't mind where I am as long as I'm giving something for the team."
Behind him, Paudie Maher at full-back brings a familiarity, while the development of James Barry and Cathal Barrett on the right flank of defence has also pleased the captain.
"I have hurled with James at minor and U-21 and it was no great surprise to me that he got his opportunity. He was in and out. He had a couple of great years in the Fitzgibbon Cup with UCC and I think that has developed him. He has matured as a player," Maher says.
"He is a leader on the field – even though he is new to the team he will always be there encouraging you. He's very vocal on the field, which is good to see.
"Cathal is five years younger than me so I wouldn't have played with him much. Just watching him play – he's tenacious and he's full of confidence and it's good to have players like that coming along."