'This is unique' - Galway and Athenry legend truly relishing unexpected Croke Park return

Therese Maher’s side face Johnstownbridge in the All-Ireland intermediate decider on Sunday.

IT HAS BECOME one of the iconic camogie photographs.

It’s up there with Angela Downey racing through to score a goal for victors Kilkenny in the 1989 All-Ireland final despite having her skort pulled off by Cork’s Liz O’Neill, or Lismore’s Gráinne Kenneally eschewing any notion of self-preservation by diving full length football-style, sans hurley, in a bid to block a clearance by Ballyhale defender Jacqui Frisby in the drawn AIB All-Ireland intermediate club final 25 years later.

Therese Maher celebrates Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Therese Maher celebrates Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

When Ger O’Dowd called time on the 2013 All-Ireland final, all eyes were on Therese Maher (or Donohue, as she is known locally following her marriage to David at the end of 2010 but she will forever be Maher in a Camogie context). Until that moment, one of the greatest players to lace a pair of boots had encapsulated the hard-luck narrative surrounding Galway since getting their hands on the O’Duffy Cup for the first time in 1996.

The Athenry prodigy joined the panel the following year, when she would win a second consecutive All-Ireland U16 medal with Galway, but despite her enduring brilliance in defence and attack, she suffered nothing but heartbreak in Croke Park.

This was her sixth time lining out for Galway in an All-Ireland senior final. The previous five had ended in defeat. Now, aged 32 and after half a lifetime of trying, she had the elusive prize.

The picture captures the pure emotion of it all as Maher, her helmet removed and on her knees, moved her hands to her head in relief, joy and maybe a hint of disbelief. She had a few seconds to take it in before being enveloped by her teammates, a clear acknowledgement of what it meant for them to have finally gotten over the line for their rock, as much as for themselves.

That was her last game for the county and at that juncture, it was reasonable to assume we would never see her grace Croke Park again.

Yet here she is, four and a half years later, readying herself for the AIB All-Ireland intermediate club championship final.

Athenry possess a wonderful tradition of Camogie, having been All-Ireland senior champions in 1978. They lost seven other deciders though and Maher played in two of those. They dropped down to intermediate level at the end of 2016 but made the stay temporary and are now an hour away from the ultimate glory.

Therese Donoghue with Shauna Prendergast, Shauna Kiernan and Sarah Coughlan Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

A lot has happened since Maher last lined out at Jones’ Road. She and David now have two boys: Bobby (3) and Harry (16 months).

“When you have kids, that’s your priority” says Maher. “I always enjoyed playing camogie. I’d prefer it to doing a (fitness) class to be honest. Once you’re involved with the team it forces you to go to training, whereas if you were left to your own devices, you probably wouldn’t.

“And, it’s something that I love and I always loved and enjoyed doing. I didn’t have to think twice about going back to be honest once I thought I had something left to offer and the body felt good.”

She never imagined running out from the dressing rooms at HQ once more however.

“God no. I thought when I left Croke Park in September 2013, that was it and no better way to leave than winning. When I went back playing club last year, I didn’t think I’d be training in December either. I thought my days of winter training were over too! As the year progressed and we continued winning, it’s great. It’s unbelievable really.

“We lost two club All-Irelands in ’07 and ’09 so I thought that boat had sailed, to win it with the club. And while it’s intermediate, it’s still a wonderful opportunity. I’m thrilled to be honest.

“The thing is, I’m four years older than I was in 2013 but how and ever!”

She remains hugely influential however, as a leader, a calming influence and significantly, as an on-pitch contributor at either end of the field.

Johnstownbridge provide the opposition. As winners of the AIB All-Ireland junior championship title in 2015 and 2016 (the junior championship is played in the calendar year), and by reaching the intermediate decider at the first attempt, the Kildare crew’s credentials are obvious.

Heather Cooney and Therese Maher celebrate Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I wouldn’t be great for looking at other teams until you’re playing them,” she continues.

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“It wasn’t until the final whistle of the semi-final against Lismore that I would ask who we are playing next. I know they’ve won the last two junior All-Irelands and haven’t lost a game in a couple of years. They’re a senior club in Kildare with a few inter-county players, no more than ourselves.

“When it’s down to two teams on All-Ireland final day, they have to be good and we certainly won’t be complacent on the day. They didn’t score in the second half of their semi-final and still won so that shows they’re a team of real grit and determination.

“No All-Ireland is won handy so we’re under no illusions, they’re gonna be strong.”

Bobby and Harry will be there to see their mother adorn a stage she has graced magnificently on so many occasions. Bobby is a veteran, having been in attendance as a seven-month-old when Galway lost to Cork in the All-Ireland final in 2015. He was there when the hurlers did the business last September and again, on a tour with the club.

“Once you’ve kids and you’re involved in sport, they just fit into the mix. During the summer, when the weather is fine, he’s been at training with me. There’s three of us on the team now that have kids. So you’re coming to training with a gear bag and a child. That’s the way it is!”

After one perfect departure, you get the sense that Maher likes the idea of another one, though her primary motivation has always been the collective and she has seen too much to believe in fairytales.

“We’ve a good blend of youth and experience. I’m trying to tell them that this bunch of girls will never be together again. This year is unique. The exact same group of players are never there twice.

“If we were to win it would be very special and look, if I was to retire again, wouldn’t it be an unbelievable way to go again?”

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Daragh Ó'Conchúir

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