Maher takes criticism in his stride
Thursday, March 27, 2014
On Sunday, Cork and Tipperary meet in a competitive game for the first time in over a year. A knock-out game at the home of hurling, Semple Stadium in Thurles, usually sells itself, but the fact that the great Munster rivals didn’t meet in the group stages of the Allianz League or in last year’s championship simply adds to the allure of one of the most anticipated fixtures in the calendar.
In any normal 12-month period, supporters can expect a renewal of this great rivalry at least twice – three, if not four times, if things go according to plan – but the last year has been anything but normal for Cork and Tipperary, and circumstances have dictated that their last meeting was on February 24, 2013, when Cork beat them by 0-26 to 1-11 at Páirc Uí Rinn in the opening Allianz League game of the campaign.
It was Eamon O’Shea’s first game in charge of Tipperary and the result was seen as an anomaly at the time, but in hindsight it offered a fairly clear signpost of what was to follow that summer. Despite recovering to reach the Allianz League final, which they lost to Kilkenny, the Premier County never really got going last year; Cork ended up being relegated to Division IB of the Allianz League and came within a whisker of winning an All-Ireland title.
Without hitting close to top gear, Cork arrive at the quarter-finals stage having topped Division IB and secured an immediate return to the elite tier of the Allianz League, while Tipperary go into the game on the back of a narrow win over Dublin, which quelled growing talk of a crisis in the county.
Prior to last Sunday’s dramatic three-point win, Tipperary suffered three consecutive defeats in Division IA, were shipping goals at an alarming rate and were looking like relegation candidates. The management and the players took plenty of flak, from within and outside the county.
“It was a tough few weeks as a player and anyone that was involved,” admits team captain Brendan Maher, who was speaking to GAA.ie at the Allianz GAA Regional Media Day in Cahir Castle today. “Really we were just looking to get a performance and we said that if we could grab a quarter-final spot with that then we would be more than happy. Luckily that’s the way it turned out.
“There’s an expectancy when you come from a place like Tipperary with such a proud tradition and there’s just that high level of expectancy. We have a high level of expectancy ourselves as players but I suppose it’s just something we have to learn to deal with.
“Really, it was about opening up a bit and playing with a bit of confidence because there was a lot of mental scarring there from the first couple of defeats. It does affect you as a player because we are all human and when you start getting criticised it goes into your subconscious. It was nice last Sunday to go out and just go for it.”
Tipperary’s porous defence was something many of their critics latched on to. After beating Waterford in the opening round, they conceded goals at an alarming rate in their next three games against Kilkenny (5), Clare (4) and Galway (3), which is why last Sunday’s clean sheet against Dublin was particularly pleasing.
“The concession of goals was one thing we worked on,” Maher admits. “In training last week we said we would mind the house a bit more. We had been scoring enough to win games, but we conceded 12 goals in three games so that was one of the concerns.”
When O’Shea took over as manager at the start of the 2013 campaign, expectation levels soared after two disappointing seasons under Declan Ryan. O’Shea was Liam Sheedy’s coach and right-hand man when Tipperary won their last All-Ireland title in 2010, was held in huge regard by players and supporters alike and, among the public at least, there was an expectation that he would bring back the glory days he helped bring about under Sheedy.
“Maybe (there was pressure) from the public,” says Maher, “but I know we were just happy to have him back involved. He was a great coach when he was with us during Liam Sheedy’s three years. He’s a great man to have involved – he’ll talk to you, tell you what to work on and he’ll also tell you what you are good at.
“We were delighted to have him back, as well as the guys with him, Mick Ryan and Paudie O’Neill. We also have a new addition in Gary Ryan, our fitness trainer, this year and we are delighted to have men as good as them with us.”
Another addition to the backroom team this year is Armagh’s former All-Ireland winning captain and current assistant Kieran McGeeney, who has been working with the Tipperary players as a performance coach.
“It’s the same as any sports performance coach that works with a team. He’s been down to a few training sessions and one or two games, but most of his work is one to one with players and talking behind the scenes,” says Maher of McGeeney’s role.
Maher, 25, who was named as the team captain at the start of the season, acknowledges the part the home crowd played in Sunday’s win over Dublin at Semple Stadium, and he is hoping Tipperary supporters turn out in even greater numbers for the visit of their closest rivals.
“I hope so,” Maher said. “There was a reasonable crowd against Dublin and it was nice to hear them getting behind us, particularly in the second half, and that is very important to a team to have their supporters behind them. We are hoping, weather provided and all that, hopefully we will get a good turnout on Sunday.”
Words: Brian Murphy
Main Photo: Cork’s Lorcán McLoughlin with Tipperary’s Brendan Maher ahead of their side’s Allianz Hurling League Quarter Final match in Thurles on Sunday. Allianz GAA Regional Media Day, Cahir Castle, Cahir, Co. Tipperary.