The Kerry midfielder combines a potent centre-field cocktail of brain and brawn — the latter turning him into a genuine engine-room force, writes Mike Quirke
THERE are very few places in the world better than New York City on New Year’s Eve. We were over in 2009 on another team holiday celebrating what only a few months previous looked like a most unlikely All-Ireland victory.
Phil Quilter, a Tralee native and proud Kerry man played the genial host to our travelling party in one of his nightspots, Katra. Now, this wasn’t your run of the mill night club — it was a really popular venue, and as well as ourselves, it was heavily populated with a number of New York Jets — one of the city’s two pro football teams.
If you’re not familiar with their game, it’s played by huge men who are as wide as they are tall — kind of like a fridge with legs — and most of them get paid huge sums of money to smash into people as hard as possible. They’re not the kind of guys you particularly want to mess with.
Seamus Scanlon and I were taking a wander through the crowd on a different floor when we bumped into a couple of the Jets’ bigger units, two defensive linemen leaning over the bar counter. I told Seamus that it’d be nice to get a picture with these guys.
Hands up, my mistake... I lit the fuse.
Unfortunately, Seamus felt the best way to get their attention was by smacking the bigger one as hard as he could down the centre of his back, right as he was taking a sip of his drink, which of course he spilled all over himself. Scanlon followed it up with a ‘well lads?’ and a nod of his head.
I gulped in complete disbelief, and fear at what I had just witnessed. This was like dangling food in front of two hungry bears — and Scanlon had just put us firmly on the menu.
Unsurprisingly, the two mammoth black men did not react well to his holiday greeting. They boys turned quick and were looking for action. They could have taught Tyrone a thing or two about sledging with the amount of bile spewing from their mouths. I went into self-preservation mode and scanned the room for any potential back-up.
I caught Anthony Maher’s eye as he took in the whole situation from about 15 feet away and gave him the nod, but he kept his distance. Safety in numbers, ‘we’ll be grand here’ I thought, three-on-two. I beckoned him to come over… but for some reason he seemed to be moving further away from us.
Scanlon had meant no harm with his traditional Irish greeting but I wanted to get us away from there as quickly as possible before we both got pulverised trying to apologise. I called for Maher again, but he had disappeared into the crowd. I was fuming, I thought he had done a runner, and not backed his team-mates in a spot of bother.
Nobody likes a deserter.
Seconds later, like an angel appearing through a parting of the crowd, Maher came bursting over armed with Mick Galwey by his side. Now, I was happy to see Maher, but ecstatic to see Gaillimh. He was working as the rep with the tour company and was the perfect man for this kind of a tight spot.
Maher was no coward, he was just a lot smarter than the rest of us, and in an instant, he worked out the best way to handle this scenario was to call for back-up; instead of three-on-two, he fancied four-on-two better, especially if the fourth was Galwey. Always thinking on his feet. The situation got resolved quickly and amicably.
No damage was done, except for one very large cranberry stain all down the front of a previously pristine white shirt owned by a very large New York Jet. In fairness, Scanlon did offer to send him over a Kerry jersey to make up for the mishap, but they seemed satisfied enough with another beverage.
WHEN Anthony Maher first appeared at Kerry training, and for his early years, whatever midfielder he was marking on a particular night’s training, invariably was the stand-out player that night. He was too soft. Quiet.
Everybody knew he had the silky skills, but he lacked the self-belief and confidence to assert himself on his opponent and the game. He looked like a guy who felt deep down that he didn’t really belong, and he carried that fear in his play.
If it was Darragh Ó Sé, Seamus Scanlon and myself out there of a night, we’d take the piss out of each other about who would get to pick up Maher. We all wanted the easy touch.
In the Munster final of 2010, we played a hard, physical Limerick side in Killarney and Maher started midfield. After 20 minutes, with Kerry trailing and in disarray, he was up sitting in the stand after getting a pummelling by a combination of Limerick mid-fielders John Galvin and James O’Donovan.
Nothing unsavoury, he just allowed himself to be physically man-handled around the pitch. He looked lost the same day, like he didn’t want to know about it, unwilling to fight to the war in the trenches first, before allowing his football to flourish after.
There were colossal question marks about his mental toughness to perform at the highest level after that game and season. Would he ever fulfil his billing and reach the level of dominant midfielder that he was always threatening to be, or would he always seek out a Mick Galwey to lean on in difficult times.
But that game and season was his turning point. It was a watershed moment in his football career.
In 2011, he came back as a different animal entirely. Before, if you hit Maher, he wouldn’t even dream of hitting you back. Now, he was hitting first. He had spent the winter listening to people questioning his mettle.
Doubting his ability to withstand the rough and tumble meant he used it as fuel to motivate and harden him. He added a physical edge to his play from that year on that we hadn’t seen before.
I remember the moment he met Cork’s Graham Canty with an absolute peach of a shoulder when he was bursting up the pitch in Fitzgerald Stadium in that year’s Munster final, and robbed him of possession and stopped Cork dead in their tracks. A momentum-shifter. The whole stadium erupted — it was more than just a turnover. It felt like a huge moment in his development. A defining moment.
That he finally realised his massive frame had the ability to influence games by using his physicality as well as his unquestioned football skills. Maher had gone from serial victim to the bully of the block in the space of 12 months and it was a beautiful sight.
Flash forward to the epic game of football between Kerry and Mayo in the replay in Limerick last season and Maher was the guy with a hold of the mouthy Mayo Maor Foirne’s bib in the dying minutes following a melee in the corner.
He was dragging him around like a rag doll. The same man had been giving Maher serious lip for two straight games about how he was being destroyed, not up to it, and was too soft… When he got the chance he made his point. No Kerry player would be bullied, especially not himself.
Sunday offers Anthony and his team-mates the opportunity to bring a real physicality to this Dublin team that want to play at breakneck pace. They don’t want contact, they want green grass to run by you.
Donegal showed last year, and Mayo this, that you can force them into turnovers with hard aggressive tackling. Like Maher has learned to do, Kerry must win the war in the trenches first and let their football take over.
As a doctor of pharmaceutical science with Pfizer based in Cork, the guy is as sharp as a tack. It just took him a little longer than expected to realise that he couldn’t keep looking for a Mick Galwey to bail him out of bad situation.
Now, he’s the only guy you’d be looking for in a tight corner, confronted by a couple of hostile defensive linemen.
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