The Godfather
of modern hurling

I AM not sure when the phenomenon that is the ‘Team Manager’ entered the world of the GAA, but at inter-county level the individuals holding those roles (in many counties) are very influential people.

I AM not sure when the phenomenon that is the ‘Team Manager’ entered the world of the GAA, but at inter-county level the individuals holding those roles (in many counties) are very influential people.

That influence regularly extends beyond the remit of team management, including dictating when club games are played. The situation has improved, yet many club players throughout the country will see little action over the summer months.

Is it any wonder that many decide to head across the Atlantic in search of work knowing that they will be back in time for the serious championship action in a couple of months?

If the evolution of the GAA team manager brought some unwelcome developments, it has also brought a number of positives for the GAA, particularly in the area of team preparation and player development.

In addition, most managers have a back-up team of experts to cover every aspects of a player’s physical and mental development. All of this leaves players at all levels, and particularly at inter-county level, in superb physical condition.

Much in common

Despite what many may think, modern day inter-county training still has much in common with what went on in past decades.

The efforts of the players from different eras has not changed, but the emphasis on individual training programmes covering every aspect of a player’s development and welfare has changed dramatically. One must say that is for the better!

More than any other county, Kilkenny has been fortunate with it appointment of team managers. Current manager, Brian Cody, has set standards in player coaching and welfare that is now the benchmark for every GAA team manager, be that in hurling or Gaelic football.

Cody’s achievements may never be surpassed and it is good to see his successful formula being deployed by others in team management roles in Kilkenny.

We have enjoyed such a long and successful reign under Brian Cody’s tutelage that we almost forget that others walked the same successful road over recent decades. Pat Henderson and Eddie Keher brought their individual brilliance on the field to successful sideline roles.

Back in the fifties our neighbours Wexford was the dominant side in Leinster and all Kilkenny could do was look in on in admiration (well maybe some Kilkenny people saw it a bit differently) at the exploits of the purple and gold.

That would all change in 1957 and at the heart of Kilkenny hurling resurrection was a young priest from Gowran. Expectations were modest that year that Kilkenny could overcome its great adversaries, but thanks to the coaching of Fr. Tommy Maher and the efforts of a dedicated group of players, the McCarthy Cup returned to Kilkenny after a decade’s absence.

Acievements of Fr Tommy

Many Kilkenny supporters are well aware of the exploits and achievements of Fr Tommy Maher (we should now refer to the great man as Monsignor), but many may not appreciate the scale of his achievements. 

Thankfully, all that will be rectified shortly with the launch of a book chronicling the life and achievements of the Gowran priest by Kilkenny journalist, Enda McEvoy titled ‘The Godfather of Modern Hurling’. It is truly an apt title.

It would be wrong to think that hurling in the fifties was devoid of skill, as nothing could be further from the truth. But today’s skills are different because so many aspects of modern day hurling are different. 

When Monsignor Maher took the reins in 1957 the challenge was to get more from what was already a talented group of hurlers.

Through his unique man-management skills he honed a group of players into All-Ireland champions and thus began a coaching career that was to benefit many hurlers over the next two decades.

The coaching talents of Monsignor Maher also came to the notice of the GAA and he was asked to pioneer the first hurling coaching initiative ever undertaken by the Association. That particular initiative saw the GAA deliver a series of coaching camps at Gormanston College to individuals with ambitions to take on coaching roles.

Among those who joined Monsignor Maher in Gormanston were Donie Nealon from Tipperary, John Hanley from Clare and Des Ferguson from Dublin. Those camps brought a new approach to hurling coaching which involved a greater emphasis on developing the skills of the game.

It was no accident that many of this county’s greatest hurlers of the late fifties, sixties and seventies worked under the tutelage of Monsignor Maher. All would readily attest to his determination, his precise coaching and tactical astuteness and his ability to extract the maximum from every player.

Passion to every session

I was fortunate to experience at close hand the coaching methods of Monsignor Maher with St Kieran’s and Kilkenny. The Monsignor brought passion to every coaching session and he expected his audience to be equally determined and focused.

While Monsignor Maher was renowned for his emphasis on hurling skills, be in no doubt that he saw hurling as a physical game and expected his players to cede nothing to their immediate opponent.

But there is no doubt that his emphasis on the skilful and swift execution of the sliothar was to stand Kilkenny in good stead against all opponents.

It is remarkable that the career and achievements of Monsignor Maher have not been penned up to now. Enda McEvoy is doing the GAA and hurling, in particular, a great service with this publication. 

As we bask in the glory of a remarkably successful era for Kilkenny hurling, we cannot forget the pioneers of modern day coaching who laid the foundations for this success. 

And the greatest pioneer of them all was a young priest from Gowran. His many flocks of parishioners, students and hurlers owe Monsignor Maher a huge debt of gratitude for his nurturing of their religion, their studies and most especially their hurling.