By any measure, it’s been a successful and memorable year for Borrisoleigh and Tipperary hurler Brendan Maher.
In 2019 alone, the 30-year-old won his third All-Ireland senior medal, was named an All-Star for the third time and inspired his club Borrisoleigh to their first Tipperary and Munster club titles in 33 years, all while establishing his own gym business.
However, his performances and accomplishments are all the more remarkable when you consider that this time last year, he was in the process of recovering from a serious ACL injury and questioning if he would ever return to competitive hurling.
“This time last year, I was probably wondering was I going to get back hurling? That’s not being dramatic or anything, but that’s the thoughts going through your head when you do an ACL or do a serious injury.
“You’re always wondering, ‘it doesn’t feel great now, is it ever going to feel right again?’ And you have this numb feeling in the front of your knee, and all these things that are part of the recovery that you don’t know they’re coming, and maybe you’re told they’re coming, but until you’re actually experiencing it then, you don’t know what way to think.
“So there are major doubts. That was kind of my first focus just to get back hurling. I wasn’t thinking about getting back hurling with Tipp, it was just to get back hurling, and we’ll see, take it from there.
“There were goals in the back of my head, part of that obviously was with Tipp, but I didn’t envisage anything like this, just the year that’s gone by.”
Maher was key to Borrisoleigh’s provincial victory against reigning champions Ballygunner in November. He registered seven points, including the winning score, in the one-point victory in Pairc Ui Rinn.
The scenes of unbridled joy on the field after the game brought a smile to the face of hurling fans all over the country as the club who had suffered so much tragedy finally had a reason to celebrate.
Considering the journey he went through to get back hurling, the win was extra special for Maher. The injury has taught him to enjoy and appreciate the sport all the more and so to go that one step further and taste success is all the more satisfying.
“You definitely have that sense of liberation in that you’re just happy to be hurling and you’re enjoying a bit more. When you’re involved in an inter-county set-up, you’re in that bit of a bubble where you put serious pressure on yourself and it’s all about performing all the time and being the best you can be.
“Sometimes you need to just relax a little bit and enjoy the game for what it is. I certainly play better when I’m enjoying it more and I’m more relaxed so that was one thing I got from it as well, to just relax a little bit more. I’ll always give my all, I’ll always give 100%.
“Maybe it took me too long to realise that, that I didn’t have to be so focused and up for games to give my all. That I can be nice and relaxed and I can have a smile on my face and still give 100% and still perform.”
Throughout his recovery, Maher consulted people who had also suffered a cruciate injury in order to gauge where he was in the process and what to expect.
One year on, he has turned advisor for Tipperary teammate Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher who suffered the same fate against Limerick during the 2019 Munster round-robin series.
There is no structured schedule for a person’s physical recovery from a damaged ACL and while the Tipperary captain couldn’t give a straight answer to some of Maher’s questions, he could help him with the mental side of what can be a very lonely process.
“Anytime we talked that’s probably more what we talked about, just the mental challenge of it. Because the physical side of things, as I said, it’s protocol and it’s very much ‘follow this’ and ‘do this’. Whereas the mental challenge of it, you can’t prepare for it or you can’t say, ‘This is going to happen you and this is how you’ll react.’ Because you don’t know if it’s going to happen or not.
“But he’s very positive about it and that’s Bonner. He’ll always see the positive in things and he sees it as an opportunity and that’s probably something that I tried to do as well. Let’s not just recover but let’s try and progress other sides like upper body strength, overall strength and all that kind of thing and to use the time that you have.
“Because you’re able to do as much gym work as you want really when you get to a certain stage. So that’s what I focused on, ‘Right I’m going to be better, physically stronger, technically better, mentally stronger.’ It was kind of like, ‘Let’s try and improve everything’.”
Prior to the 2019 championship, many may have written off the older members of Tipperary’s squad, Brendan Maher in particular. Not only had he suffered a potentially career-ending injury, there were also questions over Tipperary’s character after failing to get out of Munster in 2018.
Yet Maher proved all his doubters wrong with what was arguably his best season in the Blue and Gold jersey. And still there is a sense that there’s more to come. With an All-Ireland club semi-final to look forward to in January, as well as another inter-county season under Liam Sheedy, 2020 could prove to be another defining year for the inspirational player.