Premier hero Pádraic Maher relishing another Kilkenny test

Inspirational Tipperary defender sees the league final clash against the Cats as ideal preparation for the championship

Tipperary’s Padraic Maher in action against Dublin’s John McCaffrey during the National League clash at Thurles. “Kilkenny are the only team to knock us out of championship hurling since I started playing with Tipp.” Photograph: Inpho

Tipperary’s Padraic Maher in action against Dublin’s John McCaffrey during the National League clash at Thurles. “Kilkenny are the only team to knock us out of championship hurling since I started playing with Tipp.” Photograph: Inpho

Sat, May 3, 2014, 01:00

“He slipped. People say it is a mistake. But the man slipped. It is very harsh,” Pádraic Maher says of Steven Gerrard’s spectacularly unfortunate fall on the Anfield grass against Chelsea last Sunday.

This was on a perfectly sunny April day across Ireland so the coffee shop in which we met was empty and the back pages of the courtesy newspapers chronicled the adventures of some of the best-paid athletes on the planet.

Maher is a keen follower of soccer and although he is wedded to the less glamorous consolations of following Leeds United though a blighted period, he is fascinated by the galloping close to the Premier league season: the twists, the daft money and the casual cruelty with which managers are hired and fired.

“It has gone a bit ridiculous. If the results aren’t coming, a manager can be gone after six weeks. I felt Moyes was harshly done by because when giving him that contract, they made it seem like he was going to get time to build a squad. And Gerrard . . . I’d be very disappointed for him because he has been outstanding for the last 10 years. And I’d love to see him win one medal anyhow. People are saying that he made this huge mistake. But it is not as if he gave a bad pass or just gave the ball way. If he slipped, it wasn’t really a mistake.”

If nothing else, Sky’s winter soap opera offers Maher a bit of light relief from the highly scrutinised world of Tipperary hurling. Tipp have already been through the spring torrents, from a flying start in pre-season to a seemingly doom-laden league campaign in which they staved off relegation and then got their act together to the extent that they are in the Allianz Hurling League final for the second year running.

Kilkenny, the holders, are ready and waiting. As usual.

Maher doesn’t try to disguise the fact he is delighted that the team are back in the final and that is the Cats who stand between them and what would be a first league medal for him.

The easy assumption that Kilkenny would quietly slip from relevance after Tipperary halted their five-in-a-row bid in that thunderous All-Ireland final of 2010 has long been disproven. At 25, Pádraic Maher knows he can no more escape Kilkenny than he can his own conscience.

“They are the only team to knock us out of championship hurling since I started playing with Tipp,” he nods.

“They either finished us or were the final team we played in the championship. It is daunting. But you relish playing them. As a hurling person, you have to admire what they have done and they keep coming back, year after year.”

Tomorrow’s final in Thurles will be Maher’s third spring showdown against Kilkenny.

He was just three games into his senior career when he was tasked with shadowing Henry Shefflin in the 2009 final; that the Cats won was the only low note of what he considers to be a key hour of his hurling life.

“Of all the games, and including the All-Irelands we won, that was one of my favourite days hurling with Tipperary so far. Not alone was it my first final with Tipperary but to play Kilkenny in Thurles in such a thriller of a game, I will never forget it. It was a pity that the result didn’t work out but it will stay in my mind for a long, long time. Obviously, Henry Shefflin is one of the best who ever played the game and to mark him made it a bit more special for me. I suppose I didn’t expect that to happen to me so quickly.”

Rich passage
For Tipperary hurling people, Maher’s startling accomplished play that day confirmed the excitement that had trailed him as he enjoyed a prodigiously rich passage of teenage success, which in summary comprised of a club debut at 17 and two All-Ireland minor titles before he made his senior debut at 19 and quickly won U-21, senior and All-Star honours.

He seemed to capture two eras: definitively one of the new wave of Tipperary hurlers coming through with a modish hair cut and the brimming confidence that comes with intense early accomplishment but also a throw-back to a disappeared vintage of defenders in his bearing and command, even in the way he held the hurl.

Maher never hurled like a championship novice. The unerring smoothness with which he and the others – the silken Noel McGrath, Brendan Maher, Patrick Maher – asserted themselves as senior All-Ireland contenders helped to convince many that Tipp were on the cusp of a golden age. They pushed Kilkenny to the edge in the 2009 final and returned the following year to topple them. A week later, Maher captained the under-21 team to a euphoric 5-22 to 0-12 demolition of Galway in Thurles. The future was mapped out. Except that it wasn’t.

“The whole thing happened so quickly for us,” he says now of Tipperary’s rising.

“A few of us came in and we were so busy that we didn’t have much time to think about it. I was chatting to Noel on the bus coming home from a league game a few weeks ago and we were just saying how much easier it was at that age. We didn’t really care, like. We were just playing and being successful.

“It is gas: you get the few years experience and you begin to think about it and maybe put more pressure on yourself. We had good years but we didn’t see ourselves as being ‘up there’. Even in our dressing room, we saw players like Brendan Cummins and Eoin [Kelly] and Larry [Corbett] so we didn’t think or ourselves on that level. It was only around 2011 and 2012 when expectation started to rise in Tipp that we were nearly expected to win the All-Ireland every year. That aspect of it was a bit strange.”

Flowing game
The belief wasn’t exactly unfounded: Tipperary returned to the 2011 All-Ireland final but couldn’t tap into the flowing game which made them such an irresistible force a year earlier and Kilkenny were champions again. But the 4-24 to 1-15 score in the 2012 semi-final and last year’s early exit on an incandescent evening in Nowlan Park buried lofty notions of sustained dominance.

And it helps to explain the quick mood of anxiety which swept the county following defeats to Kilkenny, Clare and Galway in the league. Maher speaks earnestly when he vows that the public disenchantment or gloom never affected the squad.

“There was never any panic. That is no bullshit. We were letting in a nice few scores, yes. But we never died in any of those games. And we looked at the videos, picked out where it went wrong and told ourselves to relax rather than tighten up playing games. We stayed level-headed, listened to Eamon and the boys.”

Injury consigned him to water-carrier duties for the final league game against Dublin, a 70-minute coin toss during which Tipperary flitted between the quarter-finals and relegation. It was a real circle-the-wagons afternoon in Thurles.

Maher found himself wandering over to the stand constantly to ask supporters for the scores in other games.

He has a strange relationship with Semple Stadium in that, as a Thurles kid, he grew up knowing its every smell and dead-end corner but as a hurler is still able to appreciate its rarefied magic. It was much the same with Sarsfields, the local club.

The magisterial history dawned on his generation slowly: they passed the mural of legends every day but it was only when they approached minor grade and were presented with medals by Jimmy Doyle that Maher began to think of this word, tradition.

“I remember the night Tommy Barrett launched his book in Thurles and a lot of famous Tipperary hurlers were there. And I remember sitting down in the front bar with Tony Wall and having a talk with him for about two hours and getting great energy off him. I think he got as much energy off us. He was asking us about our times and we were asking him questions. He was way ahead of his time in terms of training and looking after himself. So to sit down beside one of the greatest hurlers who ever played, who was also a club man struck home.”

Family tradition
The Mahers have family tradition too. His mother comes from a keen hurling family. His father was on the Tipperary minor team of 1980, which housed Joe Hayes, Nicky English and Ken Hogan.

His father never made much of it but when he was entering his own minor years, people began to mention that they recalled his father playing.

“That team all went on to U-21. They made the step up to senior but unfortunately injury stopped it for my father. It would have been interesting to see if he could have stayed fit and got his chance what might have happened for him.”

Last summer, with Tipperary and Thurles out of championship hurling, he accepted an invitation to go to New York. Those few weeks of hurling in tar-melting heat and meeting up with Tipperary people who had left 40 and 50 years before gave him another perspective on the obligations and privileges of hurling with the county.

“You get a bigger sense of who you are representing. Being out there was great: it showed us a different way of life – even going to work with people from different nationalities. But then, you would be up at nine on Sunday morning to watch the All-Ireland semi-finals in a restaurant and . . . it does kind of turn your stomach. It wasn’t a good feeling. I don’t want to be there again.”

So that league afternoon in the stadium against Dublin felt significant. The threat of relegation was serious for its implications.

“You look at Limerick, a good team, struggling to get out of the lower division. It can be hard to get out of.”

It has been a strange year and for the first time in his hurling life, Pádraic Maher has had time to take a breath and review what has happened since he made his first appearances for Tipperary.

His irrepressible talent for the game gave him this dual existence: a happy-go-lucky Thurles boy who hurled and followed Dave O’Leary’s Leeds United but then also – and suddenly – a compelling figure in Tipperary’s hurling revival.

He sees his brother Ronan now, just 18 and on the senior panel and his advice to the next group of senior hurlers is simple: ‘Don’t take any of it for granted’.

Feel betrayed
Not long after Tipperary’s 2010 All-Ireland success, Maher was one of those who appeared on the Late Late Show to talk about the difficulty of finding work. He has said before that only for hurling, he would probably belong to the statistics of young and gone.

He is one of an entire generation who has a right to feel betrayed by the country and, while he simply isn’t of cynical disposition, he is sometimes taken aback by how emigration has changed the tone and energy on the streets around Thurles.

The telephone poles are decorated with local election candidates but he can’t see much changing.

“It is very hard, yeah. To be honest, I don’t follow politics that much but knowing a few of the lads around Thurles and Tipp going for local elections, I do know the effort they are putting in. People have different opinions on things. A lot of people my age have left Thurles . . . it is as if bus loads have left and you are wondering when it is going to end. A few more left recently. It is an eye-opener.”

Hurling, as ever, remains the great distraction, for fans and players alike. Maher is more conscious of that than ever.

“I do think that having the bit of success in the hurling helps people too. So to get to hurl against Kilkenny in Thurles . . . it is dream territory for us now because it is brilliant to have a match like that coming into the championship and also, some of us don’t have a league medal and we would like to put that right.

“It brings a bit of joy . . . people with families, even in work . . . going to the matches would be a big deal to a lot people and it does cost a few pounds but they are willing to spend that. You do try and win it for yourself and your family. But you have to remember who you are representing too.”

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