Tuesday 21 November 2017

Camogie: Queen of Tribes Maher makes last stand for All-Ireland glory

The pursuit of that elusive All-Ireland medal has kept 32-year-old Therese Maher going for exactly half her lifetime
The pursuit of that elusive All-Ireland medal has kept 32-year-old Therese Maher going for exactly half her lifetime

Daragh O Conchuir

There has been no public declaration, for that wouldn't be her way. But on Sunday, Therese Maher will play her last game for Galway.

It will mark the end of an era and the camogie family in 31 counties will be hoping that the conclusion comes with a fitting exclamation mark. It says it all about Maher as a person and a genuine superstar of the game that Kilkenny folk would understand the sentiment.

The pursuit of that elusive All-Ireland medal has kept the 32-year-old going for exactly half her lifetime.

She has endured through the good, bad and ugly of Galway camogie, being recognised with four All Stars along the way and earning a nickname among her team-mates you're pretty certain she is uncomfortable with – The Queen.

The Athenry clubwoman, who began her career with the Shamrocks in her native Loughrea, is the David Brady of camogie. She has lost seven senior All-Irelands – five for the county and two with Athenry.

Yet it all began so well. A winner of U-16 titles in 1996 and 1997, she probably thought she was in for a medal-laden career. It didn't turn out that way and so, here she still is, railing against the tide, a controlled fury dragging her and the team back for one more year.

RELEVANCE

Don't be mistaken, though. She hasn't overstayed her welcome. As her form in the semi-final victory over Wexford proved, she is still at the top. Her relevance is not confined to experience and leadership. She remains Galway's best player.

How has that happened? The competitiveness probably comes from being one of 11 children born to Vincent and Mary Maher. Therese was quickly inculcated in the ways of the caman and sliotar by her late parents.

The brothers have won county titles. Two of her sisters, Dympna and Gretta, were members of Galway's sole All-Ireland-winning panel in 1996. Another sister – Imelda – was part of the squad that claimed a first league crown two years previously.

Therese just missed out on the All-Ireland, being brought into the panel in 1997 by Tony Ward, who in a neatly symmetrical quirk of fate, is back in charge and will oversee her final day.

Sharon Glynn, who along with Maher, is considered one of Galway's greatest players, was a well-established national figure by that stage. Glynn first saw Maher as a 13-year-old and recognised the potential.

She recalls her making her debut as a sub in the All-Ireland semi-final in Loughrea against Kilkenny three years later.

She had not yet turned 16, was thin and lanky, and her helmet was too big. But she could play and had no fear.

"She was only a child," says Glynn. "But it was evident from day one that she would be a leader. She came on against seasoned campaigners.

"The first ball goes into her corner – I can still remember it. She goes down after it. Picks it, takes on the player, takes a bit of timber and just didn't wilt with it at all. You knew she was a special player.

"She learned her trade very quickly and at 21 or 22, she was the backbone of Galway and you were looking up to her at that stage of her life. She always had that leadership quality and is a real team woman."

That year would mark the first All-Ireland loss though. Another would follow 12 months later and it was 10 years before Galway returned to centre stage. Glynn was manager in 2005 and made Maher captain as they won the league. But there were plenty of heavy defeats along the way. They hurt. But losing All-Ireland finals hurt more. Maher was captain once again in 2010 and her blank expression and monotone post-match interview answers is an all too vivid memory.

She got married at the end of the year to David Donoghue and the speculation was that she would call it quits then. Instead, she was back again at HQ the following September, giving an imperious display in her new position at centre-back, having previously done most of her work up front. It still wasn't enough though.

Mary Leacy marked her as Wexford inflicted defeat in 2008 and 2010. Given those experiences, plus her status as one of the most complete centre-backs in the game, Leacy is well placed to talk about Maher's talents.

"She's a very tough opponent," said Leacy. "You could describe her as a natural centre-back. She's very good at reading the game. A leader – and you need leaders to win an All-Ireland."

Leacy marvels at Maher's willingness to continue making the necessary sacrifices after all these years.

She isn't the first to say that no one would begrudge Maher the medal. Maher doesn't need this to validate her greatness, but there's a genuine desire not just in Galway, but around the country for her to get it.

"We often say in Galway, if only we had two more Thereses," jokes Glynn. "No 6 is her best position, facing the ball and keeping the whole ship tight.

"When she was centre-forward, we were creating more and scoring more. If we could have her at centre-back, midfield and centre-forward, we'd have a few All-Irelands now."

Darren Kelly is PRO of the Galway board and has been camogie correspondent at Galway Bay FM since 2008. His admiration for Maher matches that of Glynn and Leacy.

"She is one of Galway's greatest players of all time," says Kelly.

"If she finally wins that All-Ireland medal on Sunday, it is my opinion, and the opinion of others, that she will be THE greatest player to have ever played camogie for Galway."

One last stand.

Irish Independent

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