Maher out to prove doubters wrong
We have the guts for the fight, insists the Tipp star, as he vows to end county's cycle of disappointment, writes Jackie Cahill
TIPPERARY'S senior hurlers were on a training weekend in Galway over the last weekend in June. Expressing solidarity with the footballers, they travelled to Pearse Stadium in Salthill on the Saturday evening, to take in the All-Ireland qualifier against Galway.
At the same time, some 100 miles away, Kilkenny were losing a Leinster semi-final replay against Dublin in Portlaoise.
Thumbing through their mobile phones as updates flooded in on Twitter, Padraic Maher and his team-mates knew the consequences.
It would be Kilkenny at Nowlan Park seven days later, in a qualifier unlike anything that hurling had ever seen.
An hour before throw-in, the city venue hummed with excitement. By throw-in time, the atmosphere was frenzied. Careers are defined by big games and Maher knew this.
He realised, too, that every one of his senior championship seasons had ended with Kilkenny.
The finals of 2009, 2010 and 2011, the semi-final wipeout of 2012. Four games, three defeats. But this was the first time that Maher and Tipp could hurl on into the summer and leave Kilkenny picking up the pieces of a fragmented campaign.
"No two ways about it, lads were genuinely delighted," he insists.
"Heat of the championship, down to Nowlan Park to play Kilkenny. And we thought we had something to rectify after the league final down there.
"We were going to be involved in one of the biggest games that Tipperary had played in 25, 30 years. And it was. We felt that it could really drive us on, not only that year but for the next five or six years.
"It would really give us a stepping stone if we could beat Kilkenny on their home patch."
At half-time, the sides were level but Tipp had lost goalscorer Lar Corbett to injury. Maher grimaces: "To lose Larry to the hamstring and he on fire, awful pity.
"It was brilliant for us that he was going well but for himself, after all the stick he took the year before and the few months leading into that ... to pull the hammer then and having to go off.
"He was a massive loss to us, it did affect us but it was still there for us. I'll never forget Eoin (Kelly) taking that shot and watching it afterwards, it hit JJ (Delaney) on the elbow.
"If that had gone in ... you could really see us driving on from there."
Kelly missed the '65' and the tide turned. A green flag from the goal chance would have put Tipp four points up but once Kilkenny got back in front, there would only be one winner.
"It was pure devastation, sitting in the dressing-room after and thinking you're gone out of the championship in early July, not having won a championship game all year," Maher remembers.
"It was so disappointing in the Gaelic Grounds (against Limerick), we didn't play that well. And then to lose again the next day, disgusting stuff really.
"It was up there with 2009 (All-Ireland final). That was the worst I've been after a game. But that was definitely up there.
"Lads were shell-shocked, we genuinely thought we were going to win the game. There were tears everywhere and all that kind of stuff but one thing that came to my head looking around the dressing-room after was how many of these lads are going to be here next year.
"When you look at the older fellas, there are five or six who lads always put question marks over. You'd be thinking, 'Are we going to lose a lot of the leaders for Tipperary over the last few years?' but you know, the way it looks at the moment, we've only lost Brendan (Cummins). Hopefully we won't lose any more."
For the third year in a row, Kilkenny had terminated Tipperary's season.
Devastation upon devastation. Not how Maher envisaged it when he hoisted the Cross of Cashel Cup into the Thurles air as team captain when Tipp crushed Galway in the 2010 All-Ireland U-21 final. He'd pocketed his first senior medal six days before following that epic final against Kilkenny at Croke Park.
"That week was a pure bubble," smiles the 24-year-old defensive bulwark. "The place was gone mad."
Clare's former manager Ger Loughnane used those successes as a stick to beat Tipperary with.
'Don't turn out like them,' urged Loughnane after Clare won the U-21 and senior double this year.
Most of the criticism that comes Tipperary's way flows off Maher's back like water off a duck. But now and again, some of it sticks.
Like former Kilkenny player Eddie O'Connor's proclamation that Tipp have the hurlers but might not have the men.
Maher admits: "It does irritate I suppose. A lot of people talk about 'they're lovely hurlers but when it comes to it, they haven't got the guts or the stomach for it or anything like that.'
"But we won two minors and the U-21 (All-Irelands), the 2008 Munster U-21 final (against Clare in Ennis).
"We won some right battles down through the years against teams.
"We've lost one or two at senior level but to be questioned about that, it does hurt.
"And it's people in your own county that question you about it as well. People don't hesitate to come up to me and talk about certain lads. You know, 'a lovely hurler but hasn't got it.'
"At a match, anything, even on a night out you'd meet a lad and he'd say, 'This lad hasn't got the guts.' You'd say, 'Ah yeah, right, whatever.'
"You're not trying to be ignorant or anything but it's in one ear and out the other.
"That kind of stuff does eventually go with you. A lot of people do say stuff about Tipperary but I turn that into a positive and say, at the end of the day, if people are always still looking at us -- Kilkenny, Cork, Galway, whoever -- if you still ask them all who they want to beat, they want to beat Tipperary. I take that as a compliment in a way."
Maher also believes that Tipperary's struggles in recent times can bring renewed focus.
He reveals: "I can definitely say back in 2011, 2012, we were looking beyond Munster, thinking farther ahead.
"You can't do that any more. It's gone back to the mid-1990s now. You have to take this one step at a time. We can't look past Limerick on June 1, not a hope.
"And that's a good thing. We know what happened us last season.
"Limerick turned us over and our year was over within a couple of weeks. We can't let that happen again.
"It's going to take a lot of hard work to get back involved but going back to the criticism, take it on the chin and move on.
"People don't really see what goes on in the background. I mean, the criticism that we've got over the last two years, rumours that would be going around.
"Even up to last week, I heard a rumour about one of our players again. All you can do is laugh at it. Even the same lad was saying, 'I'm nearly going to go along with it for the craic!' All that kind of stuff comes in, no matter what team it is, when things aren't going great."
Regrets so far? Maher's had a few. Right up there is the 2011 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny, when Tipp went in as favourites.
He says: "You can't say that we didn't give effort or work rate, that comes with you anyway, it has to.
"But we didn't play that well -- there was no rhythm to our play.
"You have to consider that Kilkenny were putting us under lots of pressure, they were fierce hungry coming into that match after what happened the year before but I felt that we were kind of panic stations for a lot of it.
"We didn't relax in a certain way, and use our heads. We didn't fulfil our potential on the day. I felt that if we did, we would have beaten them. That's one thing that made it very disappointing."
Four points separated the sides on that occasion but less than a year later, Tipp were annihilated by 18, despite leading at half-time in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Maher reflects: "We genuinely thought at half-time that everything was under control in the dressing-room. We have this. We can take this now, we were a point up.
"We met in our groups, backs in one corner and forwards in another, like we always do, and discussed how the first half went and how we can improve.
"Jesus Christ, whatever happened, we came out after half-time and we were blown out of the water. But there was obviously something not right, for us to die that easily.
"Again, we're always going to be ear-marked from that game. That's something that's not nice. An awful lot of lads took stick after that game, some of it was right, around performance, but I don't think Larry deserved that much stick after the service he gave. In the two years previous, he was the hero but people turned that easy on him over one game."
But sport handed Corbett a shot at redemption -- a chance he took.
It's given Tipperary fresh hope too and Maher is itching to get going again.
"I can't wait to be honest. What are we now, the week before Christmas? It would still give you butterflies thinking about it, which is great."