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INTERVIEW 'It was the lowest point of my career' - In conversation with Tipperary's Bill Maher

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22 November 2020; Conor Sweeney, right, and Bill Maher of Tipperary celebrate following the Munster GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Tipperary at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

22 November 2020; Conor Sweeney, right, and Bill Maher of Tipperary celebrate following the Munster GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Tipperary at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

22 November 2020; Conor Sweeney, right, and Bill Maher of Tipperary celebrate following the Munster GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Tipperary at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

It was the weekend that saw the GAA mark the centenary of Bloody Sunday when British forces opened fire on the crowd during a challenge match in Croke Park between Dublin and Tipperary. Fourteen civilians died including Tipperary player Michael Hogan.

On Sunday, in their 19th Munster final appearance since Bloody Sunday, the Tipperary footballers wore a special replica of the original green and white jersey worn by their predecessors on November 21, 1920.

And they honoured their football forefathers in the best way possible by winning the Munster title for the first time since 1935.

Nineteen months after Bloody Sunday Tipperary returned to Croke and beat Dublin to win their fourth and last All-Ireland football title. They haven't featured in a final since. What has fate decreed for them in 2020?

When the pandemic caused the shut-down of the GAA in Spring Tipperary were scarcely dreaming of the making another All-Ireland final appearance to coincide with the centenary of Bloody Sunday. Instead under new manager David Power they were struggling to avoid relegation to Division 4.

Now after their historic Munster final win over Cork on Sunday afternoon, Tipperary are one win away from reaching the 2020 All-Ireland final.

Before the game, we spoke to Bill Maher about his career with Tipperary, one of the country's most talented dual players.

He featured on the Tipperary minor team – managed by Power – that sensationally beat Dublin in the 2011 All-Ireland minor football final. A year later he captained the Tipperary minor hurling team to All-Ireland glory – they beat Dublin in a replay.

He won a Munster senior hurling championship medal in 2015 as well as a provincial U-21 football medal and featured on the side which was unlucky to lose to Tyrone in a controversial All-Ireland U-21 football decider in 2015.

Since Tipperary's breakthrough year in 2016 when they last reached the Munster final and later beat Connacht champions Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final he has focused on football.

Ominously Cork – who they faced on Sunday – proved their biggest obstacle in their bid to build on the breakthrough achieved four years ago.

But last summer they hit rock bottom in the championship losing heavily to Limerick in Munster before Down beat them in the first round of the All-Ireland qualifiers.

"It was the lowest point of my career," acknowledged Maher. "But outside the top five or six teams in the country, everyone has a chance of beating one another. They all fancy themselves when they play each other."

Asked to pinpoint why their All-Ireland semi-final appearance in 2016 wasn't the launchpad for success Maher offers a succinct, though truthful reply "Probably Cork"

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"They beat us twice in the Munster championship. Maybe other teams copped on to us a bit and we hadn't the element of surprise anymore.Strong teams like Mayo, Armagh and Down beat us in qualifiers. But I suppose we probably under performed as well.

"I think the standard of football has improved. A mixture of us having the odd bad day and maybe not getting the luck we needed at the time and coming across strong teams."

Having sensationally beaten Cork in the 2016 Munster championship, the Premier County were fancied to repeat the feat in 2017 but they lost by a point in the semi-final.Maher concedes that a win that day might have changed their fortunes. By then one of their key players Peter Atkinson was unavailable as he was working abroad.

"But I don't think Tipperary football has ever the right to say we are ahead of Cork or we have the right to beat them."

Based in Dublin, Maher is employed in the construction industry as a quantity surveyor. He shares a house with Tipp corner back Alan Campbell and a couple of other friends in Sandyford.

On the afternoon Mark Keane scored his sensational winning goal for Cork against Kerry in the Munster semi-final, the lads in the house were watching two screens – one featuring the GAA game and the other the Premier League tie between Liverpool and Manchester City. "It was a good afternoon's entertainment."

Less than 24 hours earlier, Tipperary had come within seconds of exiting the championship until an exquisite free from the touchline from Conor Sweeney sent the game against Limerick into extra time. Tipperary won by a point.

"I told him afterwards that I was not too confident in him. I had never seen him under that much pressure, or anyone under that much pressure, to kick it over."

Having just won of their five league games before lockdown, Tipperary have won four matches on the trot since their return to action.

It's a much-changed set-up with collective training restricted to three sessions per week. Maher and his house-mate Alan Campbell travel together to the sessions in Tipperary which are held on Wednesday, Friday and either Saturday or Sunday.

Meanwhile, they set up a makeshift gym in the house where they do their strength and conditioning work. "It is a lot less hassle than when we used to have to travel to a gym."

Maher's mother comes from Grangemocker, the home of the late Michael Hogan while his Dad's home club of Mullinahone was also represented on the Tipp team on Bloody Sunday.

But emotional sentiment won't win matches and though all the Tipperary players understand the historical significance of this weekend they are not dwelling on. "We could fall into the trap of playing on emotion and thinking about it too much."

Eighty-five years has passed since Tipperary last won a Munster title.That side had suffered four losses in a row to the great Kerry side in provincial deciders between 1930 and 1934 before finally reaching the Promised Land in 1935.

But now Tipperary footballers, whose backroom team include former Dublin captain Paddy Christie, have new heroes who will march on Croke Park on December 6 for an All-Ireland semi-final clash against Mayo.

The hand of history is weighing lightly on their shoulders.

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