Ireland's No.1 Brian Maher 'has never let me down' - says Jim Crawford

JIM Crawford had no reservations when asking Derry City keeper Brian Maher to form part of his four man leadership group in the Republic of Ireland U21 camp.

The Raheny native has been in terrific form on the pitch for both club and country this season but it’s his ‘values’ and professionalism off it which saw him ushered into a pivotal role as leader, working in liaison with the Irish coaching staff.

Described as ‘a fantastic asset’ who leads by example, Maher has been firmly installed as Crawford’s No. 1 despite facing competition from two of Ireland’s finest young goalkeeping talents in Luke McNicholas and David Harrington.

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Maher met up with his Ireland U21 teammates at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown after Derry’s 3-1 extra-time win over Shamrock Rovers in the FAI Cup last Sunday to prepare for tonight’s first leg of the UEFA Euro U21 Championships play-offs against Israel.

Prior to Sunday’s pulsating clash against Rovers, Maher had kept five clean sheets for the Candy Stripes which helped guide them to within a point of the Dubliners at the top of the SSE Airtricity League as his reputation as one of the League of Ireland’s hottest prospects continues to gather pace.

Ruaidhri Higgins has been gushing in his praise for the 21 year-old former Bray Wanderers stopper and Crawford, who has known Maher from early on in his youth international career, painted a picture of a young professional who has been influential in an Ireland U21 squad which is on the cusp of making history.

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Derry City fans have grown accustomed to seeing Maher starting the play from the back with his distribution with his feet outstanding and his reading of the game impeccable.

None of his displays for the Candy Stripes have come as a surprise to Crawford who has watched him graduate through the age groups for Ireland.

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Derry City keeper Brian Maher pictured during training for Republic of Ireland U21s at Abbotstown this week.

“He’s been a fantastic asset to the Republic of Ireland U21s in many capacities,” said Crawford ahead of Ireland’s crunch clash with the Israelis.

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“Off the pitch, he’s part of our leadership group. He leads by example. He’s a great character. He’s very focussed on improving. He’s always asking the right questions at team meetings and individual meetings. He’s a really good professional,” continued the Ireland boss.

“I’ve known Brian a long time and he’s never once let me down, whether that’s on the pitch or off the pitch. Those are the values that make him what he is. I’ve seen him play numerous times this year for Derry and he’s impressed me every game.”

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Crawford has empowered Maher as a direct point of contact for the coaching staff and he believes the goalkeeper has influenced the dressing room in a positive way as he helps collate the ideas and thoughts of the group before discussing it with the coaches.

The leadership group, Crawford explains, is part of a ‘democratic culture’ which underpins the values of ‘teamwork, working hard, trust and respect’, qualities he believes Maher has developed by wearing the green shirt of his country.

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“There’s nothing scientific about it,” began Crawford when asked what his leadership group entails. “A lot of people do it. You select certain players who you feel can lead the group in their own way because you need to have different opinions.

“We run the group with a democratic culture where senior players can have their say. Ultimately I’ve got to make the decision but that leadership group is there for themselves or other players to feedback certain things which the senior leadership group will then come back to me with.

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“I’ll throw things at them,” he continued. I’d ask them; ‘Can you get around the group and find out if there’s anything else they would like to do in this particular camp’ or what have you. So it’s worked really well but it’s just important that those involved in it, Brian Maher, Mark McGuinness, Lee O’Connor and Conor Coventry - they lead by example.

“They know what it takes and what it’s like to wear the green shirt of Ireland and all that’s underpinned by values - that’s teamwork, working hard, trust and respect. They are the ones who highlight all those values to other players, whether that’s new players coming in or young players in the group. It’s worked really well up until now and Brian has been a real part of that group.”

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That leadership group reconvened last Sunday ahead of what is the biggest game in the history of the Ireland U21s who are 180 minutes away from potentially reaching its first major tournament and it’s a challenge the Ireland team are excited about.

“We met up on Sunday and I’m really looking forward to it now,” added Crawford. “It’s the biggest U21 game in the age group’s history coming up and they’re all looking forward to it.”

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