‘The bond we have is unbelievable’

THE truth eventually comes out.

If you were the motorist who found a sizeable dent in the roof of your car after the Tipperary All-Ireland homecoming back in 2001, the culprit has owned up.

If you were in Liberty Square that night as a supporter, mind, chances are you won’t prosecute.

“I remember bits and pieces of that year,” says Pádraic Maher, 12 years old at the time. “I don’t remember the game that well but I remember the lads coming home with the cup to Liberty Square.

“Where was I? Standing on a car roof outside The County Bar, looking at them up in the lorry.”

The big Thurles Sars man experienced that homecoming feeling himself last year, impressing in a second consecutive All-Ireland final.

“After what we’d felt the year before, last year was extra-special. People were talking about the five in a row, but for us it was more about getting on top after the previous year, when we felt we should have won. It’s hard to get there, we know that from previous years, and it’ll be hard to get there again.”

Harder without the old management team? Maher pays tribute to Liam Sheedy and his selectors.

“They told us they were stepping down, and all we could say was ‘thank you’ — all the work they’d done was plain to see.

“The new lads, Declan (Ryan), Tommy (Dunne) and Michael (Gleeson), are doing the same now. They’ve to look after 30 players, but they’re well able for it.”

Liam Sheedy was animated on the sideline, while Declan Ryan comes across as a quieter individual...

“It’s a good mix. Tommy is doing the coaching and wants things done right, and done one hundred per cent, the right way.

“Declan and Glossy (Gleeson) oversee the whole thing but if there’s something to be said the boys will say it,” — Maher grins — “No fear about that. That’s the good thing, the mixture among the personalities on the management team.”

There’s a good mixture on the panel as well. Maher points to “10 or more” players who’ve come through the successful Premier minor and U21 teams of recent years. That’s not proof against the slagging in the dressing-room, of course (“John O’Brien would be well able to dish it out in there alright, and Eoin Kelly would be good to talk; I’d be too quiet.”) while Maher sometimes takes friendly fire over his TV viewing.

“Home and Away — can’t miss that, ever since I was a child.”

Home and Away? The one with Pippa at the caravan park?

“Ah, she’s long gone out of it. Slagging? The others are watching it themselves. And I’d say you could add in Neighbours as well for a few of them.”

There’s no mistaking the sincerity of the bond between the players. Out of work since November, Maher looks forward to each session.

“You get a lift out it, out of doing a hard session with your friends. You could have a hard day but you’ve a smile on your face at training because the bond is unbelievable.

“Everyone’s equal. That’s why we’re all on the one panel. You look up to the older lads but there are times when they’re under pressure as well, and they’re maybe looking to us for energy.”

Maher collected a county medal with Thurles Sars last year, even if they went down by a point to De La Salle in the Munster club final. Late-season games bring another challenge for the defender.

“Ever since minor we always seem to have been involved in big games around September, so I just started doing something different with my hair. Just a habit.”

Something different ranges from a Travis Bickle mohawk to a snow-cap of blond dye. Maher says at this stage his teammates expect it.

“In the club, if we won a county semi-final a few of the lads would say it to me — ‘it’s nearly time you got the hair coloured, we’re in a county final’. And away I’d go. It’s more crack than anything else.”

Tipperary have been slow out of the traps this year, with two defeats already in the league. It’s never a disgrace to lose to Kilkenny but defeat under lights to Dublin wasn’t expected. Maher rejects suggestions of over-celebration, and he’s got evidence: the players have followed gym programmes since November, and they were training two days after the team holiday.

“Lads forget we were sluggish in the league last year as well, but we turned it round. Kilkenny were after a bit more training than us, that was clear from the league match — not that that’s an excuse — and while we improved against Dublin, they were hungrier than us.”

He’s generous in his praise for Conal Keaney, who ended the Dublin game with 0-14 (“You’d have to admire him — Dublin are coming on and he’ll be a big addition”), and concedes that opponents are going to put in an extra effort against the Premier.

“Lads are going to raise it. We’ve been coming back to a level Tipp people want us to be at, and that gives us an extra incentive to stay up there. Kilkenny were there for so long and we want to do the same. That starts in the league and leads into the championship.

“We’re improving from day one to day two, and we hope we’ll be better again in the Waterford game.”

By coincidence we lunched with Padraic Maher at the same table in the Anner Hotel that we used with another elemental force in the blue and gold defence, Michael Maher, last August.

Resemblance? Check the photos. You can go further back than 2001 for trace elements of the Tipp attitude.

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