Time for Maher to make a point

Time for Maher to make a poin

VINCENT HOGAN – 07 JUNE 2013 Irish Independent

It is the great, bemusing irony of Tipperary’s search for a free-wheeling attack just now that, arguably, their most important forward is a man who doesn’t score

THE FRIDAY PROFILE

It is the great, bemusing irony of Tipperary’s search for a free-wheeling attack just now that, arguably, their most important forward is a man who doesn’t score.

Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher was voted last year’s Munster Championship player of the year, despite not raising a flag as Tipp retained their provincial crown.Indeed, since making his championship debut against Wexford in the 2010 qualifiers (he scored 0-2 that day), ‘Bonner’ has added a grand total of just 1-2 in 13 championship appearances.

That statistic is the elephant in the room for a man who, at his best, threatens to become an irresistible force for Tipp through compelling aerial ability and a penchant for running direct lines towards the opposition ‘square’.

His choice as the best hurler in last year’s Munster championship brooked no serious argument. For Maher effectively rescued Tipp from a dark place against Limerick with his 29-minute cameo as a second-half sub (he directly created 1-3) and his display in the semi-final against Cork was a wonderful marriage of power and selflessness.

He has become the antithesis of light-fingered, willowy talents like Larry Corbett, Seamus Callanan and Noel McGrath for whom the exploitation of space is what defines them as county hurlers.

Maher is happy to mine what he himself refers to as “the dirty ball.” He has never sought a mints-on-the-pillow service because, as he sees it, “on any given day, we (Tipp) have five top-class finishers. I’m just the sixth link in the chain of the forward-line.”

Yet, it is surely a moot point whether a half-forward who has not registered a championship score in two calendar years would still hold a squad place in Kilkenny, let alone be considered virtually irreplaceable in their starting 15.

If Brian Cody’s teams set a template for the modern game, it seems fair to ask if they would demand a talent like Maher’s to grow and diversify far more than has been apparent in the Lorrha man’s county career to date.

That said, he still gives Tipp something that a lengthening queue of gunslingers can never hope to access. Maher, in other words, has authentic physical presence and the ability to cut through defences like a serrated blade through over-ripe fruit. Corbett has described him as “the ultimate athlete” and current selector, Michael Ryan, suggested last year that he had become “the heartbeat” of the Tipp team.

Maher, it is known, has been hugely influenced by his uncle, Eamonn, who would have been in his mid-forties when captaining Tipp to an All-Ireland ‘Masters’ hurling crown in ’96. The two share a near fanaticism for physical fitness that has become the central beam of Patrick’s personality as a hurler.

Eamonn never played for the county at any other level, but trained Lorrha to win a North Tipperary championship in ’89. And his influence on Patrick and his brother Willie has been palpable, according to Lorrha legend and current Tipp U-21 manager Ken Hogan.

STRAIGHT

“The big thing about the Mahers is they are non-drinkers, they have no interest at all in pub life,” explains the two-time All-Ireland winning goalkeeper. “They’d be superbly fit. If they’re not on the pitch, they’re in the gym. There’s no nonsense with them, they’re very straight. What you see is what you get. There’d be no airs or graces, no talking about what they’re doing.”

Hogan remembers first noticing Patrick as a “kind of man-mountain” of a centre-back for Rathcabbin when they won a county national school title in Semple Stadium. As he grew older, ‘Bonner’ – nicknamed during the ’94 World Cup for his love of the Irish goalkeeper, Packie – progressed to midfield and, eventually, half-forward. Hogan coached him at U-16 and minor level and recalls Maher having a profound impact on the ’40’ when Lorrha won a county minor ‘B’ championship.

All of Maher’s direct opponents in that campaign, from Kildangan’s Joe Gallagher to Upperchurch’s James Barry and, in the final, Annacarty’s Kevin Fox, would wear the Tipp colours at some level, yet ‘Bonner’ thrived in every contest.

“The centre-back on every team at that level is invariably their best player,” reflects Hogan. “But Patrick did a huge job for us, always quelling their threat. He was one of those guys who always sacrificed himself for the team.”

‘Bonner’ played intermediate hurling for Lorrha’s seniors at the age of 16 and was one of two minors on the team that Kilruane’s Jim Williams trained to a celebrated county title in 2007. That same year, Maher was full-forward on the All-Ireland winning Tipp minor team managed by Liam Sheedy.

It was in ’07, too, that he collected a Leinster Vocational Schools title with Banagher Colleges, the achievement propelling a long-haired Maher on to the Offaly vocational schools team.

Living so close to the Offaly border, his childhood heroes had been a disparate mix of those who wore the blue and gold and those faithful to the tricoloured jersey. The two men he name-checks most frequently in that regard are Declan Ryan and John Troy.

Famously, just two weeks short of his 18th birthday, it was Maher’s spectacular last-minute winning goal that beat Ballina in the North Tipp intermediate final of ’07. By now, palpably, he was a player chased by high expectations.

‘Bonner’ was on the Tipperary intermediate panel in ’08, made both Waterford Crystal and league appearances in ’09, but had to wait until July 3, 2010 for Sheedy to first blood him in senior championship. The outcome proved spectacular.

Tipp were still regrouping from a Munster championship hammering in Cork and Maher’s arrival seemed to suddenly oil the movement of a star-studded attack. By the time they got to deprive Kilkenny of the record five-in-a-row that September, ‘Bonner’s’ role in curbing the influence of Tommy Walsh surprised nobody in the Tipp camp.

Mature beyond his years. Maher has been an All Star nominee for each of his three seasons as a county senior, despite missing all of last year’s National League because of damaged cartilage in a knee.

IMPROVED

His touch and vision have improved immeasurably in that period and a decision to join the Army last winter further sated his lust for exploring the highest levels of physical fitness. Work commitments put him out of the early rounds of this year’s league, but he had returned for the knock-out stages, albeit with a discernibly compromised first touch.

Eamon O’Shea will have been conscious of how comfortably Kilkenny handled Maher’s threat in the league final and there is a brewing sense that he, maybe, needs to carry a greater individual scoring threat.

For Maher has not troubled the umpires in his last seven championship games and Hogan – who had him with the All-Ireland winning U-21s in 2010 – believes that, in this regard, ‘Bonner’ needs to locate a selfish streak.

“He’s a real driving force on the field,” explains Hogan. “But we would prefer if he scored more. He’s too unselfish in that respect.

“The part of the game that he’s got to develop is his scoring potential. Because it’s not that he can’t score. He scores plenty with Lorrha, he actually has a penchant for scoring goals. Maybe Eamon O’Shea can be the man who will nurture that now.”

Tipperary already lean heavily on the tousle-haired Lorrha man, but they may not yet have seen the best of him.

 

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