IT WAS off-hand comment and revelation, both at the same time.
Former Tipp selector Eamonn O’Shea was fielding a general question early in the year about the youth in the Premier County senior hurling ranks — specifically, whether he and the rest of the management team could be sure the youngsters on board were ready.
“If you stood next to Padraic Maher in a dressing room,” said O’Shea, “you’d know he’s ready.”
Sunday is the Thurles Sars youngster’s sixth All-Ireland final in a row: two minor deciders, one at U21 level and now two senior finals.
He’s always been a prospect, though. Ask Noel Dundon, well-known Tipperary journalist and long-time clubmate of Maher.
“The pedigree is pretty good from a hurling perspective,” says Dundon.
“His father Paddy would have won U21 All-Irelands with Tipperary but picked up a serious knee injury shortly afterwards, which would have restricted his chances at senior inter-county level, though he played on with Thurles Sarsfields into the early 90s.
“Then his mother Helen is a sister of Paddy McCormack, who was county and U21 minor coach in his time. Padraic’s also a cousin of Pa Bourke, and Denis Maher, who’s been in and out of the extended panel. He’s steeped in it.”
Maher lives just outside Thurles and came up through the ranks with Durlas Óg, coming to prominence first at around U14 level, says Dundon.
“He was always a big chap, a bit taller and stronger than most lads his age, but he really started to impress around 15, 16 — by U16 you’d have been very hopeful of him coming through to the senior team with the club at least.
“I suppose by that age, too, he’d have been on the Thurles CBS Harty Cup team, which means playing against top players outside your own county. It gives you a chance to judge a good player against the best — and he was very good at that level. At minor level itself he was phenomenal.”
At senior level he caught the eye pretty quickly among opponents. Waterford’s Dan Shanahan marked Maher and registered the quality immediately.
“A ferociously strong lad, the first couple of challenges would tell you that.
“He was full-back and I was full-forward the day I marked him, and I noticed he wasn’t taking any chances — playing there he clearly didn’t want to take a risk that you’d get inside him, so he stood off a bit.
“I suppose you’d look at a man with that kind of strength and ability in the air and say ‘centre-back’, but I’d say Conor O’Mahony mightn’t settle at wing-back, and a good player like Maher can always come in and out of the play in the middle of the field anyway.”
Inter-county managers have taken note of the threat Maher poses from wing-back. For Waterford Davy Fitzgerald tried Eoin McGrath, a runner, on Maher in the Munster final, but it didn’t work out.
Anthony Daly’s Dublin had more success — by avoiding him.
“I suppose that wouldn’t be a very unusual tactic, particularly at club level — with Clarecastle we’d have always kept the ball away from Seanie McMahon when we played Doora-Barefield, for instance — but against Dublin we ended up using our left wing a good bit, and kept Padraic out of it.
“We had a plan for him in that we had David Treacy ready to mark him — he was ready and he’d be good to battle for possession. but he tore his hamstring. We decided to pull Dotsy [David O’Callaghan] out on him then, with Liam Rushe going in on John O’Keeffe on the other wing for puck-outs.
“So Padraic wouldn’t have seen a lot of ball in the first half. We didn’t puck the ball out to him because he’s very good in the air, but we also had Dotsy drifting across when we pucked the ball out, to fight for the break on Liam’s wing.”
As Daly puts it, they got the first quarter out of the tactic anyway: “For about 20 minutes it worked well, and I thought he was in two minds as to what to do. He wasn’t in the game that much.
“But he came into the game in the second half alright. Look, he’s a powerful player, a powerful unit.”
Daly acknowledges the manager’s dilemma — do you risk a stylist being dominated by a player like Maher or do you detail a slugger to do the donkey work?
“Clare put their best catcher on him, John Conlon,” says Daly. “I’d seen Clare play in the league and in challenges and Conlon was very good — he was very good when we played them as well — but Maher still dominated him inside in the Gaelic Grounds in the championship, particularly in the air.
“So what do you do when the opposition have a very good, very influential player in the half-back line? You saw a good example of it in our game against Kilkenny in the Leinster final — we put Conal Keaney on Tommy Walsh and pucked it down on top of them.
“We took a chance Conal might get on top, we took a chance and in fairness, Conal caught the first one. Tommy caught the next three, though in fairness to Keaney, he has great character — he never put the head down and worked hard in midfield for us.
“There are other examples — I remember in 2004, Cork versus Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final, Brian Cody put Henry Shefflin in on Sean Óg Ó hAilpín. I was sitting next to Johnny Callinan in the stands and remember saying I didn’t believe it — it was as if, ‘here’s my big man to mark your big man’. Straight in — and that’s because of the value I’d put on Sean Óg.”
There’s also the most basic consideration: what a manager has available to him. For instance, Brian Cody has been playing Michael Rice at right-half-forward.
“Whatever about Maher, John O’Keeffe wouldn’t be as established as him, obviously, so you’d probably pick the right wing of the Tipp defence for puck-outs on that basis,” says Daly.
“Tipp could have Brendan Maher back there for the final, though, having said that.
“It depends on the players you have — we were set up for David [Treacy] to play on him one way, then we had to change, and Dotsy did well there, too, but obviously we weren’t keen to bring him into the game easily.
“Rice is a fair warrior, in fairness. He’s a good option for Brian [Cody] to throw in on him.”
Maher’s teammates rate him highly, obviously enough. Conor O’Mahony would have soldiered through some barren years with Tipperary and doesn’t undervalue his colleague: “He’s fantastic. I couldn’t speak highly enough of him.
“He came into the squad at 19 or 20, and nothing fazed him. To play full-back in an All-Ireland final at that age, and to have an outstanding year — an outstanding two or three years.
“He’s carried that on this year and it just shows the hard work and commitment he puts into it, and it pays off for him.”
O’Mahony’s compliment is an astute one, according to Noel Dundon: “He probably wasn’t blessed with the most naturally gifted hands.
“But he worked hard — ferociously hard — to improve his touch. I know that looking at him it might strike you that he has an awkward strike, but that has improved immensely in the last few years.
“I’d say the work of Eamonn O’Shea has had a lot to do with that: he’d have worked on tightening up his swing, and getting himself out of trouble when he gets bottled up.
“For instance, up to a couple of years ago it was noticeable that he cleared a lot of ball heading back towards his own end line, but now when he gets the ball in his hand there’s only one direction he wants to go, and that’s forward.
“A few of us were saying recently he’d have made a terrific number eight if he’d gone for rugby.”
That physical strength is one of Maher’s most noticeable qualities. According to O’Mahony there’s no queue of players to mark the wing-back in training games.
“No, definitely not. He’s the kind of player that if he hits you then you know all about it, but there’s a few more like him. Noel McGrath is certainly no small man either.
“I don’t know if it all goes back to the gym work put in at underage in Tipperary or what, but they’re coming in bigger and bigger.”
Dundon sees Maher as only now using his full power: “Watching him come up, I’d have thought that it’s only in the last year or two that he’s really come into his own strength-wise — he was always a powerful lad, but now he just seems to have grown into his strength, if you like.”
Maher’s Twitter feed reveals a fondness for the Sky TV show ‘Spartacus: Blood and Sand’ and a certain distaste for the back-pass rule in the English Premier League, while that golden helmet often hides a peroxide mohican hairstyle, but Dundon says he’s a quiet character.
“He’s cool enough in personality, he certainly wouldn’t be strutting around Thurles with the ‘I’m an inter-county hurler’ attitude. He’s shy, really.
“But he’s also a very driven individual, he’s very determined — he’d do anything he needs to do to get himself right for any challenge.”
Dundon saw that at first-hand before Christmas last year. Maher was working nearby and when his workmates went out at lunchtime for chips and burgers, the hurler went to his tupperware box of healthy options.
“I suppose inter-county players are never really in an ‘off-season’ but it showed the dedication,” says Dundon.
“He’s a great man for the club, too — there’d be fellas in Thurles who’d be critical of Lar Corbett for his contribution to Sars over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen Padraic play a bad match for the club, ever.
“That’s hardly surprising — given the family background it’s nearly bred into him.”
For opponents and non-Tipperary readers, the signs are ominous. There’s more on the way.
“There’s another brother coming through,” says Dundon.
“Ronan is 14, 15, and at the same stage of development that Padraic was at. You’d never know what’ll happen coming down the line, but we’d be hopeful.”
Good news for Tipp.
Not so good for everybody else.
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