THURLES Sarsfields never thought they’d find one as good as Tony Wall again but Michael Gleeson sees history repeating itself when he watches Pádraic Maher in action.
And in Gleeson’s eyes, Maher is the new Tony Wall, the player they’ve been crying out for since Wall strode like a colossus through the 1950s and 1960s.
Maher, still only 22, already boasts a hurling CV that many a hurler would kill for.
He’s won All-Ireland medals for Tipperary in the minor, U21 and senior ranks and won his first Allstar award in 2009.
Maher first came to prominence on the club scene with Durlas Óg and Gleeson, a current Tipp senior selector and manager of the Sars teams that won county championships in 2009 and 2010, has tracked his progress from the very beginning.
Gleeson explained: “We’d live about a mile apart. Pádraic and my own son Michael (a fellow Tipp senior panellist) have always been very close.
“They hurled together with Durlas Óg first, then Sarsfields and with the Tipp set-up. Because Pádraic has been so friendly with Michael, even apart from my own team involvement, he’s been in and out of the house since he was eight or nine years of age.
“I was fortunate to work with Pádraic at U14. We brought the Durlas Óg team to an U14 Féile Final in Mullingar. Pádraic was captain in 2003 and played at full-forward. I remember we were four points down at half-time. It was 20 minutes a side and Pádraic got a ball just after half-time, when we were two points down.
“A goal then may well have won it but the gas thing is that James Stephens never beat us after that. At U16, Durlas Óg beat them in challenge matches and our lads have developed a lot more than the same James Stephens team.”
With Durlas Óg, Pádraic won two County Under 16 A Hurling medals (2004 and 2005).
He has also won two county Minor A Hurling medals (2006 and 2007), two county Minor A Football medals (2005 and 2006) and two county Under 21 A Hurling medals (2008 and 2009).
With Thurles Sarsfields, Maher has won county SHC medals in 2009 and 2010 and in the 2009 decider; he won the man of the match award.
With Tipperary teams, Maher has already forged a huge reputation for himself.
In 2006 and 2007, he won All-Ireland minor medals in the full-back position, before capturing Munster U21 titles in 2008 and 2010.
Having made his senior debut in 2009, Maher finished the year as a nominee for the Young Hurler of the Year award. But 2010 was his finest season to date as he finished the year with Munster and All-Ireland U21 medals, as well as a coveted first Celtic cross following Tipp’s magnificent victory in the All-Ireland senior final against Kilkenny.
Maher’s strength of character was tested to the limit as he suffered an uncomfortable afternoon against Aisake Ó’hAilpín in the 2010 Munster SHC defeat against Cork at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
But after he was switched from full-back to the half-back line, Maher went on to enjoy a whale of a season and in many people’s eyes, he was unlucky not to receive another Allstar award last year.
Gleeson adds: “When you look at Pádraic Maher’s career, he’s still only 22 and has been playing county senior for three years.
“He’s had one bad game in that time. Can anybody else point a finger and say another game he hasn’t played well in?
“He’s human but Pádraic is mentally very strong and will give his best no matter where and when he plays. If he’s beaten to a ball or two, so be it but it won’t put him off the next one. I’ve seen him play at number 3, 6, 7, 8, 11 and 14 and if we asked him to play at number 15 on Sunday, he’d do it.
“On those club minor teams, he played centre field and centre back mainly. Thurles CBS were struggling for a number 3 in the Harty Cup and they put him in there. And in 2006, to the best of my knowledge Pádraic was third choice number 3 starting out the championship for Tipperary. The first game he started was in the Munster final and he went in number three against (Galway’s) Joe Canning in the All-Ireland final, who was going for three-in-a-row.
“Pádraic came in, a greenhorn, and gave an exhibition. And he’s a brilliant guy off the field – the kind of guy you’d love to see your daughter going out with. He’s very unassuming – you could sit down and talk to him and you’d wonder is that the same number 7 you saw on a previous Sunday.”
Defensively, Maher is a powerhouse but his ability to dictate play from a deep-lying position was never more evident than in the 2011 Munster final, when his probing deliveries into the Tipp full-forward line caused havoc in the Waterford rearguard.
Maher, who played the ‘quarterback’ role to perfection, has also shown this year that he’s well capable of taking a score, chipping in with 0-2 against Clare and Dublin.
Gleeson explains: “Primarily he’s a stopper, a powerhouse but he has the ability to attack from a defensive position, take his own score when he thinks it’s right time to do so or place a ball coming out of defence. Look at the Munster final – how many scores came from Pádraic’s clearances?
“The scores he’s taking himself are down to the confidence he gained playing at midfield for the club. Mainly at minor and U21, he played a lot at midfield and was well able to score points from that position. When he’s 70 yards out with a clear shot, he has the confidence to go for it and rarely misses.”
The smart money is on Maher emerging as Tipp’s long term centre back, and Gleeson agrees: “He’ll probably end up at number 6 but he’s quite happy. At half-back and midfield, he feels more at home. He likes the freedom of going to a ball and attacking it. Rather than being totally defensive, he prefers launching the attack from the half back line and midfield.
“He’s all ears too if there is quality advice coming his way. Pádraic hasn’t too many failings and definitely from a Thurles perspective, he’s the next Tony Wall. I’ve been lucky enough to see Tony Wall playing as a kid and with the Sars, we’ve always been looking for another one.”
High praise indeed – and praise that will rest easy on the shoulders of a grounded Pádraic Maher, son of Paddy, an All-Ireland minor medallist in 1980.
Gleeson added: “His uncle Paddy McCormack would have been influential in coaching Pádraic in his younger days. He comes from a big tradition – his father won an All-Ireland minor in the same position (full-back), Connie Maher and Dinny Maher are his uncles and Paddy Moore would have coached him a good bit in Durlas Og to U16.”
Current Tipperary senior manager Declan Ryan is fulsome in his praise of Maher, stating: “First and foremost, he’s a good man. Secondly, he’s a great hurler and he’s a man you need with you in any battle. He’s proven that time and time again at underage and senior level for Tipperary.”