NEARLY EVERY INTER-county player at some point in their career has been asked the question: “Who was your toughest opponent?”

Whenever it’s put to Brendan Maher, his answer is an easy one – Eddie Brennan.

“Eddie is always the man that I say,” says the Tipperary defender.

After a playing career that delivered eight Celtic Crosses, Brennan is in the nascent days of his management career. Tomorrow afternoon, he’ll lead his Laois side into their first All-Ireland quarter-final since 1979 where they’ll face off against Maher’s Tipp. 

For Maher, the memory of going up against Brennan in his first All-Ireland final is one that’s burned into the back of his mind. Back then, Brennan was known as ‘Fast Eddie’ – a nod towards his searing pace.

With an eye for goal and the game intelligence to match, Brennan at his peak was a formidable opponent for anyone, let alone a 20-year-old still in his rookie campaign.

“Eddie gave me the run-around in that All-Ireland,” admits Maher. “In the first-half he scored three points off me.”

Maher captained Tipperary under Liam Sheedy at minor level and two years later made his debut for the seniors with the same man in charge.

He had to be content with appearances off the bench during the summer until Sheedy thrust him into the team for the All-Ireland semi-final against Limerick for his first championship start.

The reshuffle saw another youngster, Padraic Maher, switched to full-back to facilitate Maher’s introduction at wing-back. He retained his place for the final against a star-studded Kilkenny side, who were chasing a fourth Liam MacCarthy Cup in succession. 

The teams lineup for the national anthem ahead of the 2009 decider.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

Brian Cody was known for rotating his Kilkenny attack depending on how the opposing defence lined out. Appointing specific man-markers for each attacker wasn’t so common back then as the back six would mainly track whoever came into their zone.

Cody would frequently look to exploit inexperienced players by positioning the likes of Henry Shefflin, Brennan and Eoin Larkin on them. Brennan started that final at full-forward, but within seconds had switched to right-half forward where Maher was stationed.

Shefflin, wearing 11, moved to the edge of the square on Padraic Maher, the other 20-year-old in the Premier rearguard.

Brennan, the man who’d finish his Cats career with 26 championship goals, dispatched his 0-3 from play during the first period. He had endured a quiet opening and Maher managed to get himself into the game early on with a couple of clearances.

Brennan’s first score arrived after he snatched a breaking ball from under the nose of Maher, shortened his grip and struck it between the posts. It was his first touch in the game as both sides were happy to by-pass the middle third and go direct to the full-forward lines with high, early ball. 

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He dropped his second shot short into Brendan Cummins’s paw. After 17 minutes, he collected a Tommy Walsh clearance despite being sandwiched in between Maher and centre-back Conor O’Mahony and fired over off the left. 

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Moments later, Brennan fetched a Walsh clearance over the head of Maher and was hauled to the ground by the defender with Shefflin pointing the free.

Right half-back Walsh, who would be named Hurler of the Year that winter, was in stunning form in the Kilkenny rearguard and the majority of his clearances were directed to Brennan’s flank. Maher won his share of aerial duals and helped set-up a brilliant Lar Corbett score.

Brennan’s final score of the afternoon came after Larkin drove at the Tipperary defence which drew Maher over to challenge him. Larkin managed to get his pass away to Brennan, who slotted over a majestic effort from the right sideline. 

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Maher was probably being harsh on himself to say he was given the “run around” by the Graigue-Ballycallan ace. He lost just two of their six ariel battles, assisted a point and had the same amount of possessions as Brennan – five each – in the first 35 minutes.

But Brennan was hugely economical. Out of his five first-half possessions, he got four shots off and scored three, while also winning one free in front of the posts for Shefflin to slot over.

Cody pushed Brennan into the full-forward line as part of his half-time changes, putting an early end of their duel to the relief of Maher.

“I think I’m the only person to ever say I was delighted to be moved onto Henry Shefflin,” he laughs.

Kilkenny went on to cement their greatness by delivering their 32nd All-Ireland title, but the Premier returned the following September to deny the Cats the five-in-a-row with Maher one of their stand-0ut performers.

“I think he was an unbelievable hurler and a lovely fella as well,” he says of Brennan. 

“I’ve met him a good few times. He’s obviously done a great job with Laois and he’d definitely be well got down around those parts.”

Eddie Brennan celebrates after Laois defeated Dublin.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It was a testing afternoon for the Borrisoleigh youngster but one that would stand to him in the future as he embarked on a career that would deliver five Munster crowns, two All-Irelands and two All-Stars – so far.

Maher’s versatility brought him all over the field for the Premier. After breaking onto the senior side on the half-back line, he spent a couple of years at midfield before his stint as a deep-lying half-forward in 2015.

He reverted to centre-field for 2016 and 2017, and was back at half-back last summer when he suffered the dreaded torn cruciate against Clare as Tipp’s season ended in Munster. 

Maher recovered fully to resume his position on the half-back line during Sheedy’s return to the hot seat this season. Then came an unfamiliar role in the Munster final against Limerick when he lined out at corner-back to shackle Aaron Gillane.

“I haven’t been back in the full-back line there for a good few years,” he says. “I think minor was the last time I’d played there.

“It was unusual, but I suppose I was being put in there to mark Aaron Gillane, that was the task I had. I was more focusing on him rather than where I was to be honest.

“I was pleased myself with how I dealt with it but when you lose and the team doesn’t play well it’s all in vain.”

Aaron Gillane takes on Brendan Maher in the Munster final.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

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Maher has plenty of experience at a tagging role, even if the full-back line was a relatively new one. He was often tasked with shutting down the key midfielder on the opposing team during Michael Ryan’s tenure.

He’d scored 0-4 during the four round-robin games in Munster prior to the final, posting at least one score against each of Cork, Clare and Limerick. 

“When you’re wing-back, the wing forwards tend to go back deep an awful lot. So you might get the chance yourself to push forward and that’s where you get your scoring opportunities.

“I’ve been lucky enough I’ve been getting my few scores in games but obviously when you’re back in the full-back line you’re not thinking about getting a score. 

“You’re probably a bit more wary of where you are on the pitch and what you’re doing off the ball. 

“You have to do your job and you man-mark from there. It does change your mindset and it’s difficult to adjust your mindset in that sense. But I like them challenges and I suppose that’s why I’m getting the roles. Liam feels I can adapt and meet the challenge.”

Brendan Maher was speaking at the All-Ireland SHC series national launch.

Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

Next up for the blue and gold is Laois, the plucky underdogs who stunned Dublin in the previous round. For Maher, Tipp are eager to get back into action, keen to lay the demons of their provincial final defeat to the Treaty to rest.

“It’s hard to put a defeat to bed until you play another game. So we’re looking forward to Sunday and getting out onto the pitch again. Hopefully, we get a performance and get the morale back up a little bit.

“No matter how hard you try to keep the morale up there is a little bit of a defeat and the only way you can fully get over it is get out on the pitch again.

“As an overall season so far we’re very pleased with where we’re at. We’ve played five championship games, we won four out of five and performed very well in those four games.

“You need to sit back the odd time and just go, ‘Right, have a bit of perspective here.’ This time last year I was lying on the couch at home with my leg in a brace looking on. So I’m not going to complain too much about being in a quarter-final.”

And as he goes up against Brennan at Croke Park once again, Maher will be hoping for a more enjoyable afternoon this time around.

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