Bill Maher leads his county into Sunday’s All-Ireland Minor Hurling Final with the distinction of being the first Kilsheelan man to captain a Tipperary hurling team.
With the notable exception of Ballingarry’s William Maher (1996 Minor), the current Minor manager; and Mullinahone’s Eoin Kelly (2010 Senior and Bill Maher’s second cousin), Tipp hurling captains from the South division have even been thin on the ground down the years.
If Tipp beat Dublin on Sunday the young Kilsheelan man will join another small and select group by becoming one of the few players to have won Minor All-Irelands in hurling and football, an achievement that his team mates Dylan Fitzell, Tom Kirwan, John McGrath and Steven O’Brien will also be striving towards.
Bill was wing-forward on the team that beat Dublin in last year’s Minor Football Final, scoring a point in his team’s historic 3-9 to 1-14 victory.
On Sunday he’ll cross swords again with Eric Lowndes and Cormac Costello, with Costello likely to be his direct opponent in the middle of the field.
Considering his background, it comes as no surprise that he’s making such an impact for his county; his family on both his mother and father’s side are steeped in the GAA.
Father Ollie is originally from Mullinahone while his mother Miriam (Lyons) comes from Grangemockler. A younger brother, Paul, is also showing abundant potential.
The grounding that Bill received in the Kilsheelan club in hurling and football is now standing to him as he continues to make waves.
He’s told that he was only 3 when he first picked up a hurley and he started playing with the club’s Under 6 team when he was 5.
He lists Liam Corcoran and schoolteacher Anne Ryan among his early influences as well as Liam Stokes, the former Tipperary senior player who was a selector of Kilsheelan’s Junior team last year.
Bill sat his Leaving Cert at Clonmel High School this year and is on his way to UL to study Business.
His time in secondary school also rewarded him with another All-Ireland medal when he was on the High School team that won the All-Ireland Colleges B Football title, beating St. Attracta’s of Tubbercurry in the final in Portarlington two years ago.
He was 16 when he got the call from fellow Kilsheelan clubman David Power to join the County Minor Football panel, and what followed in the next few years wasn’t short of phenomenal.
As well as winning last year’s All-Ireland, Tipp also won Munster titles in successive years and their great 9-game unbeaten run in the championship only came to an end in this year’s All-Ireland quarter-final when they lost to Mayo.
“We came from the bottom to the top and David can take a lot of the credit for that”, says Bill.
Ten of the panel heading to Croke Park on Sunday were also on this year’s Minor Football panel, a situation that called for a delicate balancing act in terms of training and matches not only by the players but also the respective managers William Maher and David Power.
According to Bill, it’s one they achieved.
“David and William got on great. After every training session they had a debriefing session between themselves, and with Sean Nugent (the County Chairman who provides another Kilsheelan connection) and the County Board they all worked together, there was no hassle at all between them.
There were perfect surroundings for the 10 players who were on both panels”.
The meticulous preparation of both managers meant that no stone was left unturned.
“We got every possible help and it was so professional it was unbelievable. There were no secrets kept and you know what you’re getting from William and David”.
He says that despite the demands placed on the players, they benefited from their involvement in both codes.
“The fitness element in the football is great for the hurling; the speed work for the hurling is great for the football. The skills in both games cross over and they work off each other”.
For an 18 year-old Bill has already played in Croke Park four times and has experienced the joy of victory and the pain of defeat at GAA headquarters.
Those contrasting emotions have also been felt by fellow dual players Dylan Fitzell (Cashel), Tom Kirwan (Ballybacon/Grange), John McGrath (Loughmore) and Ballina’s Steven O’Brien, and should stand to them as they prepare to cope with the pressure of another huge game at the weekend.
He says the most disappointing aspect of the defeat by Mayo in the football quarter-final was the fact that the team played so poorly.
“We just didn’t perform on the day”, he says, adding that it’s something they’ll have to be on their guard against on Sunday.
“That’s the only thing that could lose the game for us. If we don’t perform then Dublin will have no problem taking the trophy”.
While the stakes of playing with your club are high, he considers the demands placed on inter-county players as “something else”, demands that are doubled for dual players.
“You have days where you might be fed up with one sport (hurling or football) but it would pass after another day. You go training and you enjoy it.
I’m lucky to play on a team with players such as (Loughmore’s) John McGrath and (Toomevara’s) Mark McCarthy, who can create something out of nothing. It’s just something that they have, and you enjoy playing and training with players such as those to see what they can do”.
He has a level-headed approach in the run-up to major occasions such as an All-Ireland or provincial final - “The best thing to do leading up to a game is to keep your head down and make sure everything is prepared right for the game. At the last training session before last year’s football final everyone was in good humour and looking forward to it.
On Sunday we’ll be trying to keep the focus away from the big day and the big crowd, we’ll be focusing on certain aspects of the game”.
While he’s trying to avoid too much distraction between now and Sunday he’s aware of all the goodwill in his home club and parish.
“Kilsheelan is a GAA village so everyone is behind us and that’s nice”.
He’s aware too that the team will need all the encouragement they can get as they prepare for what’s shaping up to be a severe test against the county that’s appearing in its second U-18 hurling final in-a-row, having lost to Galway last year.
He was on the team that played Dublin in Templetuohy at the beginning of the year and according to Bill it was their toughest challenge match of the season.
“Dublin are so physical and have great all-round ability, especially under high balls. They are different to the Munster teams, with their physical strength and fitness.
If we’re to win we’re probably going to have to play the best hurling we’ve played all year. We’ve prepared well and we’re preparing for a challenge like this all year and hopefully we can do it on the big day”.