Brendan Maher: 'I'm happier in my own skin now'
By John Harrington
At the age of 27, Tipperary captain Brendan Maher has entered the zen phase of his inter-county hurling career.
In his eight seasons in the blue and gold there have been some great days and plenty of dark ones too, but every experience has been another step on the path of enlightenment.
The at times difficult process has moulded Maher the man as well as the hurler, and you can see why he’d make a good captain. Everything he says is honest, to the point, and delivered with a steady gaze that conveys authority.
He’s reached a point in sporting career and life in general where his priorities now seem much more obvious, and with that realisation has come an unflinching focus.
"I think that through experience you start to realise what's important and who is important,” says Maher. “You just realise that and you reflect a bit more. And, the more you experience the more time you take to reflect back on it at the end of every year.
“The way I am now, I suppose I have said in the past that when I am finished hurling I want to have no regrets and I want to be able to look back on my career and say that I gave it my all; that I represented myself with dignity; that I did my family and my friends proud.
“You think about that every time you go out on the pitch. A lot of stuff can bog you down, but I have probably got rid of that baggage. There is a little bit more of a sense that I am happier in my own skin. I know what's important, what makes me tick and I know what I want to get out of my career.
“And, I know what I want to get out of it as a Tipperary hurler. I just want to make my family and friends proud - because it means an awful lot to them it means an awful lot to me. In the wider sense then you want to do Tipperary proud."
Like the rest of the gifted generation of Tipperary hurlers who won senior and U-21 All-Irelands in 2010, Maher has had to learn to cope with the expectation, criticism, and frustration that followed those achievements.
As a group they set the bar high for themselves six years ago, and their failure to win another All-Ireland since has been regularly used as a stick to beat them.
They’ve been desperately unlucky at times and have endured the sort of heart-breaking defeats that would have broken the resolve of weaker men. Instead, their determination to succeed has been hardened by the experience, and once again this year they are back challenging for the ultimate prize.
"You draw on it, definitely,” says Maher. “I suppose we have probably experienced everything you can within the sport so far. Lads would openly say that there was an element of hurling with fear for a couple of years because there was so much pressure, but I think we are dealing with it a lot better now.
“We have matured as people. We are still young, but we have matured a little bit more and we have learned to deal with the pressure that comes with playing for Tipperary and I think the injection of youth into the side - we have had a lot of retirements and a lot of changes that went on in the last few years.
“I suppose the fact that we have remained competitive and won a Munster final last year and this year is good. We went through a transition and we didn't drop off too much.
“So, I think there is a good balance there now and lads are at a stage where it's time to be hitting something now while other lads are coming in now like we did in 2009 or '10 and just have that feel free attitude. They just go out and throw everything they have at it and I think that's rubbing off on us as well."
Tipperary have been energised this year by the contribution of younger members of the panel like John McGrath, Michael Breen, Ronan Maher, and Seamus Kennedy. But in their three Championship wins to date over Cork, Limerick, and Waterford, the influence of the remaining graduates of the class of 2010 was telling.
Brendan Maher, Paudie Maher, Noel McGrath, Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher and Michael Cahill all hurled like men possessed in the wins over Cork, Limerick, and Waterford.
They are still relatively young men, but after the retirement of veterans like Eoin Kelly, Lar Corbett, Shane McGrath, Conor O’Mahony, and James Woodlock, are now very much the leaders of this Tipperary team.
"There was a transition there where we went from being the younger flock to becoming the older people on the panel,” says Maher. “In any dressing room you will have personalities that will, not dictate, but who will probably lead the thing.
“We had some great leaders over the past number of years, but a lot of them retired so it was (a case of) step up or…that's the way it was. Someone needed to step up.
“We needed new leaders. And, it was younger lads that stepped up and became massive leaders - the likes of Michael Breen, John McGrath and Seamus Kennedy came in.
“They might not say a whole pile or be in the media or anything like that, but they are massive leaders in our team and they lead by actions which is probably the most important thing."
It has been well flagged by now that Tipperary have been hurling with a real steeliness so far in the Championship. That has largely been attributed to the influence Michael Ryan has had as manager, because in his own playing days he took no prisoners in the Tipp full-back line.
Perhaps Ryan has tweaked the team’s mentality, but it’s clear too that one of the reasons they’re exerting their physicality to a greater extent is because they have more physicality to exert.
"We have had the same strength and conditioning coach, this is his fourth year with us. And, he had said to us coming in that it was going to take him a couple of years to get us to where he wanted us,” explains Maher.
“So, really last year and this year lads are lifting a lot heavier and lads are a lot stronger and a lot more powerful. It's not necessarily that there was a lot more emphasis on it this year, it was, literally, just that the progression and the development as athletes has just happened.
“Obviously, the younger fellas that have come in have had that base that maybe we didn't have starting off. They have been experienced with weights since like (the age of) 14 or 15 and up along with the development squads.
“But I think that is in every team, I think every team has gotten stronger and more powerful with the science that is there now for the approach to training - everyone is getting fitter and stronger."
Tipp look highly tuned physically, and they’ll surely have no problem either getting into the right mental space for Sunday’s All-Ireland Semi-Final against Galway. The bitter memory of last year’s defeat to the same opposition at the same juncture should ensure that.
“Yeah, definitely,” says Maher. “There is no point in looking at it in any other way. When we saw the quarter-final draw and we were saying that Waterford were strong favourites to beat Wexford we knew that we were going to be playing the winners of Clare and Galway.
“We don’t need to look back too far for either team. That’s the way I would looking at it. We had the defeat against Clare in the quarter-final of the league this year and we had the semi-final defeat last year against Galway.
“It is nice to get a crack at Galway because we want to play the best and Galway are up there with the best. Last year’s semi-final defeat was, I suppose, one of the toughest I have had in my career, but then in saying that I remember crying for days after the 2009 All-Ireland, 2011 defeat and in 2014 I suppose being captain there was a little bit more on the line for myself.
“To be honest, speaking for myself, I have tried to learn from those defeats and try to be a bit more free about the whole thing. I think sometimes that thinking back on those can catch you a little bit in what you are doing at present.
“You acknowledge it and the stuff is in the back of your mind, but it remains in the back of your mind and it never corrupts your thoughts. You might have something written down to remind you as a gentle reminder, but we really are just focusing on what we can do now and what we can do today to make ourselves better.
“That’s the way that we have approached it and it has worked so far this year so hopefully that will continue.”