Maher and Clough-Ballacolla enjoying a year of the richest pickings

Having won two Laois titles in the space of three months they now have their sights on Leinster

For Clough-Ballacolla, the winter can go on as long as it pleases. The Laois champions know they will never have another year like 2021 so they’ll go on juicing it till it runs dry. No time soon, if they have anything to do with it.

This time last year, they were togging out for training sessions that were neither one thing nor the other. There was talk around the place that the 2020 county final might get the go-ahead at short notice, that the county board might put it on like a pop-up restaurant some night out of the blue. If that happened, they were going to have to be ready. It didn’t, but it got them out of the house anyway.

By the time it came around, up was down and black was white. A championship that was supposed to start in April 2020 was having its final played on August 14th, 2021. Clough-Ballacolla beat Borris-in-Ossory/Kilcotton and they were 2020 champions, their first title since 2015. Three weeks later, they kicked off the 2021 championship with a five-point win over The Harps. They’ve been rolling stones ever since.

“It’s great to be a quiz question,” laughs Stephen ‘Picky’ Maher, team captain and chief troublemaker. Not only is he the only Clough-Ballacolla man to captain the club to back-to-back county titles, he’s the only one to lift the cup twice in the space of three months. A season they never want to end started with them not overly sure how to begin.


“It was so strange at the start,” Maher says. “We had about four weeks after the county finished to try and gear up the start of the club but it’s very hard to get into the mindset that your first game back is going to be a county final. You were trying to get tuned in but you still nearly felt you were going out to play the first round of the championship.”

While winning it wrapped the previous year up in the prettiest bow possible, it was really only the start. Maher was man-of-the-match that night, scoring 0-13 and setting the tone for every game Clough-Ballacolla have played in the months since. Week after week, he has thrown more into the pot than anyone else.

In the 2021 championship, Maher has been responsible for a shade under 45 per cent of Clough-Ballacolla's scores. They went through Laois unbeaten and then three weeks ago, they posted their first ever win in the Leinster club championship, trampling all over Wexford side Rapparees to set up a semi-final meeting with Kilmacud Crokes on Saturday evening in Portlaoise. Maher stitched another 1-9 the last time out at O'Moore Park, bringing his total for the championship so far to 4-64 from six games – with 4-19 of it coming from play.

Picky Maher is 28 now. He got the nickname when he was a toddler and one of his uncles saw him picking stuff out of the bin in their house. It stuck to the extent that outside of newspaper reports, he is almost never referred to as Stephen by anyone. “It’s fairly rare that anyone would call me that,” he says. “It’s always Picky. I’d be fairly sure I’m in trouble if someone is calling me Stephen.”

He has been in with the Laois seniors since he was old enough to be called up. Started with them at 18, was a fixture in the team by 20, a GPA hurler of the month by 21. When first joined up, 11 seasons of intercounty playing for Laois would have felt like a cruel punishment to be handing down to a lad still in his school uniform. But he has floated on the rising tide brought about by Cheddar Plunkett's two spells in charge, with Eddie Brennan's stint sandwiched in between.

“The set-ups have got more and more professional every season,” he says. “It would have been bleak enough with Laois when I started but nobody would say that now. Expectations go up and up every year.”

Injuries have been the major blight on his career so far. In the final game of the 2016 season for Laois, he did his cruciate against Carlow. He knuckled down and did his time but probably came back a few weeks before he strictly should have – the 2017 county final was impossible to say no to. All in all, it took around two years for him to be fully back, fully firing.

"There's a huge fear factor when you're coming back from something like that. I had a great physio in Alison Holmes but there was one night she was telling me that I had to run at one of our players and he was only to tackle me below the knees. And I was going, 'Are you actually serious?' I was so nervous of proper contact.

“But she was doing it to build my confidence back up and show me that the knee could take it. Getting back from an injury like that takes so long because no matter what you do in terms of getting your body right, your confidence still has to catch up. Every turn you do, it’s in your head that it might go again.”

All in the past now, though. This winter has been a magnificent adventure. In between winning another county final and hurtling into the Leinster championship, they’ve also had Willie Dunphy’s stag and wedding to slot into the weekends they weren’t hurling. They told him that nobody would mind in the slightest if he went off on honeymoon this week, as intended. But Dunphy and his new bride Niamh have decided it could wait.

This wasn’t the 2021 anyone in the club had planned. Lucky them.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times