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Ryan Byrne/INPHO Brian Maher of Bray Wanderers.
# Development
'I was just at a point where I needed to get out and play senior football and get that experience'
Ireland U21 goalkeeper Brian Maher on how stepping down on level ultimately proved beneficial.

Updated at 09.08

SOME YOUNG players are content to sit on the bench, but Ireland U21 international Brian Maher knew he needed games.

After four years at St Patrick’s Athletic, he made the difficult decision to leave the club, initially on loan and then permanently in July of last year.

It meant the youngster would have to drop down a division but gave him a better chance of regular first-team football — an opportunity he has since grasped with both hands as if it were a loose ball.

Last year, Maher was named on the PFA First Division Team of the Year, as Bray narrowly missed out on promotion, finishing just a point behind champions Drogheda.

The 20-year-old has been rewarded for this fine form at international level. He started both of the Ireland U21 side’s opening qualifiers and will likely feature again at home to Luxembourg (Friday) and away in Montenegro (Tuesday).

This season, he has continued to impress at club level also, with the Seagulls on the verge of securing a spot in the playoffs and potential promotion to the top flight.

“I’ve loved it, to be fair,” the Dubliner says of his Bray spell. “I was just at a point where I needed to get out and play senior football and get that experience. I was only 19 when I went and a lot of people would have thought I was young still, but it’s been a really good decision from my point of view. I’ve played lots of games, learned lots.

“We nearly won the league last year and we’re in the playoffs hopefully this year, so I really like it and it’s a club full of good people.

“[Leaving Pat's was difficult] because I’d been there a good few years. I had lots of friends and I had good relationships there, but it got to the point where for my career’s sake, I just needed to get out and play first-team football. I think that at the time it was a very tough decision, but looking back on it, it was the right one.”

Maher is far from the only League of Ireland representative in the squad, with Colm Whelan, Dawson Devoy and fellow goalkeeper David Odumosu among others featuring.

“I’d like to think the League of Ireland lads that are in the squad deserve their places,” he says. “I think we bring something to the squad. I think there’s real quality in the League of Ireland, especially in the young players and you can see more and more young players playing in the league.

“There’s a few like Liam Kerrigan, who’s in this week for his first squad and he’s fitted in no problem, bringing real quality to the team, so I think it’s encouraging to see.”

In saying that, Maher still would love to test himself at a higher level someday.

“One of the reasons I decided to leave Pats was that for my development, I needed to play games. I think I have come on a good bit again since I started playing. I can feel it in my performances. You start to feel better as you get more and more games and if it ends up that I get across, then happy days. If I don’t, for now, I’m just trying to be the best I can at Bray, keep clean sheets and win football matches.”

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He is not the only young Irish goalkeeper to have benefited from leaving a top-flight club.

Gavin Bazunu has thrived since departing Man City on loan, establishing himself as Ireland’s number one and also impressing with Portsmouth in League One.

The former Shamrock Rovers youngster recently cited first-team football as crucial to his development, and Maher agrees with the player who he was appearing alongside in underage squads not so long ago.

“If I’m not playing, how could I come into the 21s? You can’t come in sharp if you’re not playing every week. I moved to Bray on loan in February 2020 and then the pandemic started. I only got two games before that. I was desperate to go back which was why I went on a permanent deal instead of a loan. I wanted to go back and play. It’s important for my own head that I feel sharp.”

Maher is currently in the second year of a business course at Dublin City University, but says training at Bray is “nearly as much as full-time clubs”.

It may be a very different lifestyle compared to what the likes of Bazunu and Caoimhin Kelleher are currently experiencing, but says he is not daunted by their quality.

“It’s encouraging, really. I’ve trained with them and they’re flying. Mark [Travers] is flying too at Bournemouth this season. Three really good goalkeepers. Tough competition. I’m really happy for them.

“It shows you the level you can aspire to get to when you are training with those lads. Obviously, they would have been full-time at Liverpool and City at the time when I was training with them. It’s really good. You can see the level they are at and the way they conduct themselves, it’s really impressive.”

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