Tipperary must look to spring Maher from his square prison

Although named at number three against Cork, James Barry looks likely to fill the role

Tipperary’s Pádraic  Maher has to try to curb a lot of his natural instincts to play the full-back role. Photograph: Inpho

Tipperary’s Pádraic Maher has to try to curb a lot of his natural instincts to play the full-back role. Photograph: Inpho

Sun, Aug 17, 2014, 11:56

In the case against Pádraic Maher playing at full back for Tipperary, a couple of games against Cork have had to be taken down and used in evidence. In and of themselves, neither represented absolute proof. Layered one on top of the other, however, they were enough to push any jury towards a determination.

The first came when he was 21. It was the first round of the Munster Championship in 2010 and by this stage Maher had already lined out in the number three shirt in an All-Ireland final. Not alone that he had carried off the 2009 All Star in that spot despite only playing two games there.

Early days though they were, it didn’t take a lot of imagination to see him gathering up the requisite twigs and leaves to nest there for the foreseeable future.

Rollicking afternoon

Aisake Ó hAilpín had other ideas. By the end of a rollicking afternoon in the Páirc, the very notion had been grabbed by its ankles and had all sense shaken out of it. Cork scored three goals and all went through the Cork full forward. He scored one himself, was fouled for a penalty for another and created just enough confusion for Patrick Horgan to slap home the third.

All Maher had to show for the day when it was done was a yellow card.

By the time the qualifier against Wexford came around next time out, the whole Tipperary defence had been reimagined and Maher was back out to wing back. He played there the rest of the year and Tipp won the All-Ireland. Paul Curran took over the All Star at number three.

The second game we need to look at was a league semi-final in Thurles two years later. Curran was out injured and Maher was sent in to mind the house. Which he did – and didn’t. He spent the day looking like a shift-worker with an eye on the clock.

At one point around 15 minutes from the end, he could take it no more. He gathered up a loose ball behind his half-back line and made a burst directly up the middle of the pitch, lights flashing, sirens blaring.

He got fouled for a free and made a big show of hopping off a couple of Cork bodies on his way back to his post. The Semple crowd lapped it up.

Add the two games together and the picture gains definition. Defensively, he is not at his best in front of his own posts. Offensively, he is a dangerous weapon deployed from the half-back line. If one was true and not the other, there might be an argument to be had. Together, that ought to be that.

“Pádraic’s problem is he’s so good you could play him anywhere along the back line,” says Benny Dunne. “There’s no question it wouldn’t be his favourite place to play.

“They’ve tried to find another full back and there just wasn’t one in the county. They trawled the county looking for a full back and he just isn’t out there. So Pádraic being given the jersey is a matter of sending him to do a job.

“It wasn’t because he wasn’t playing well in the half-back line – it’s actually the opposite because I think everybody knows you get the best out of him playing in the half-back line, either at wing back or centre back. If he was playing out there, he’d be our best defender.”

When Curran was young and fully fit, the problem had a solution. The latter hasn’t been the case this year and the former will never again be.

Conor O’Mahony was tried in the league without any conspicuous success; Paddy Stapleton got a toasting there in the qualifier against Kilkenny last summer. Maher went in there for the last few games of the league and has worn the jersey since.

“He’s been sent back there to do a job because nobody else has come along to take that jersey,” says Dunne. “Are you getting the best Pádraic Maher back there? Are you getting the most hurling out of Pádraic Maher back there? You’re not. But it’s a very important and influential position on the field and it needs to be nailed down.”

Nailed down

The worrying thing for Tipperary is it hasn’t been nailed down yet. Maher has done his duty there this summer but you wouldn’t say the report card is glowing.

Against Limerick, he just about broke even and it was only the good graces of a late Barry Kelly decision that saved him from being fingered for the defeat. Kelly called back Graeme Mulcahy’s late goal for what looked a soft enough free in Maher’s favour.

Against Galway, he was torched. With Johnny Glynn an Ó hAilpín-style wrecking ball at full forward, all four Galway goals came in one form or another from high balls landed in on top of Maher’s patch. It took the relocation of James Barry midway through the second half to settle matters.

The problem time and again for Maher was his entirely natural insistence on competing for the ball in the air. There has always been the touch of the Cú Chullains about him, the feel for the spectacular.

His obvious strength under the dropping ball in the half-back line had actually turned out to be a weakness in front of goal – because he knows he can catch it most of the time, he tends to disregard the dangers of failing to the odd time.

“When you’re playing at full back, your mindset needs to change a bit,” says Dunne. “You have to be prepared to go out there and not puck a ball and to be happy with your day’s work as long as you have shut down your man, got your hooks in, got your blocks in, got your dispossessions in.

“I always think of it as being like a second goalkeeper and your whole thing has to be about getting the ball away from the front of the goal.

“Knowing Pádraic for a long time and what he likes to do, he’s a player who likes to be on the ball. He loves that feel of the ball. He’d be happy to be under puck-outs the whole game, being aggressive in the air and affecting the game from there.

“There’s no question or doubt about it, his preference would be in the half-back line. But he’s got on with it, he’s kept his mouth shut and done that job.

“In the half-back line, you can afford to put your hand up for every puck-out. You’d mix it up obviously, you’d lash at the odd one and bat it back down for one of the midfielders. But if you try to catch it and it doesn’t work out, there’s still room to make up for it.

“That’s the killer about playing full back. If you try to catch it and you don’t get it, it’s a goal chance 99 per cent of the time.”

Stretched

When Barry was switched in full back against Galway, he barely got the ball in his hand once for the rest of the game. But neither did Glynn. When it turned out that Galway had no other tactic with which to hurt them, Tipp stretched out into the lead.

Though Maher has been named at full back again tomorrow, the word round the campfire is that Barry will line out there.

Pa Cronin’s aerial ability looks just too much of a risk for Tipp to play around with, especially when Maher could be better deployed welcoming Bill Cooper to his first big day out in Croke Park.

If that’s how it turns out, Dunne reckons they might have hit upon the ideal mix.

“James Barry has a bit more divilment in him than Pádraic and that’s why it probably suits him a bit better to play there. I’ve marked Pádraic a couple of times and he is one of the cleanest hurlers you can mark. And that’s not good if you’re a full back. You kind of have to be a horrible little f**ker at times and if that’s not in you then it’s definitely a harder position to play.

“James is the kind of player who would be quite happy not to hit a ball all day and just defend, defend, defend. I like seeing him back there. Pádraic wants to come out with it and clear it 70, 80 yards down the pitch and sometimes maybe the defence struggles a bit. Whereas James’s attitude is that he doesn’t mind if he doesn’t hit any ball, he just wants to protect the goal.”

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