Richie Hogan’s new midfield role is as much a triumph for Brian Cody as the player himself

He was always seen as an inside forward but now Hogan leads the betting for Hurler of the Year

Despite normally playing as a forward, Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan has excelled at midfield this summer. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho.

Despite normally playing as a forward, Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan has excelled at midfield this summer. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho.

Sun, Aug 10, 2014, 11:00

Brian Cody gave up the thinnest of smiles. Stood outside the Kilkenny dressing room at Nowlan Park after watching his side’s unfussy deconstruction of Offaly, he was being asked about Tommy Walsh who had come on in the second half at wing-forward.

As far as anyone could work out, it was Walsh’s first time playing in advance of midfield since the 2005 championship and we wanted to know if this was for life, not just for the relative Christmas offered up by a hapless Offaly side. Did this mean that Tommy will be a forward from here on out? Cody had his swerve at the ready.

“Tommy is . . . (pause, beat, that thin smile) . . . a hurler.”

Limited use

Though he meant nothing more by it than a firm none-of-your-business, it barely needs saying that it was an answer rooted in how he sees the game. Players who can do just one thing would want to do it extremely well if that’s all they’re going to do for him. Otherwise they’re of limited use to a manager who doesn’t like limits. Cody’s chessboard is one where pawns generally need to get themselves queened.

In this context, Richie Hogan’s reinvention as a midfielder this summer is probably not the greatest surprise. In 22 championship games for Kilkenny before that self-same encounter with Offaly, Hogan had only ever lined out at centrefield once – the drawn All Ireland final against Galway in 2012. It wasn’t a success (Iarla Tannian zipped up the escalator towards an All Star that afternoon) and Hogan went back in front of goal for the replay.

Brilliant midfielders

Yet as the 2014 season begins its final distillation, a summer decorated by brilliant midfielders has Hogan at the head of the betting for Hurler of the Year. Three games to go and already it looks probable that four or five players will be in the running for one midfield spot when it comes time to pick the All Stars.

James Ryan and Paul Browne have driven the Limerick effort. Daniel Kearney has been immaculate for Cork, Aidan Walsh was immense in the Munster final, James Woodlock’s relentless rejuvenation is one of the stories of Tipp’s year. At this rate, Lee Chin might struggle for a nomination.

But Hogan is king of the hill, top of the heap. His relocation has been an innovation born of necessity. Had both or possibly either Michael Rice or Mick Fennelly been blessed with a season uninterrupted by injury, all known likelihood points to Hogan carrying on as an inside forward. That was certainly Henry Shefflin’s instinct.

“Would I have seen him going in as a midfielder? No, because obviously I always saw him as an absolutely brilliant corner-forward and you would have been thinking, ‘Why take one of your best forwards out?’ But I think his performance levels are just so good and I think that just goes back to how good a hurler Richie is.”

Yet plenty of good hurlers have found playing in midfield like trying to surf a wave that keeps breaking before they’ve set themselves. You can be bypassed as a function of how certain games develop without it ever being any of your fault.

As well as being a testament to his own qualities, the fact that Hogan has flourished there this summer probably says something about how the sport has developed over recent seasons.

Shefflin himself said this week that Kilkenny’s game has changed in subtle ways, with more of an emphasis put on possession now than before. Hogan has been key to this. Against Offaly, he scored a point after 15 minutes that would have seemed unthinkable from, say, 2007-’08-era Kilkenny, stealing through to finish off a team move that comprised five consecutive handpasses before space opened up.

Consistently fed

Against Galway, he consistently fed Colin Fennelly and TJ Reid both days as well as grabbing points of his own from distance. Andy Smith especially put it up to him physically in those games but Hogan – whose upper-body strength has developed impressively over the years – more than held his own. For a decision he was to some extent pushed into, Cody can’t but be delighted with how it has paid off.

“Well, he’s a player you’d always be quite happy to play in the forward line but we found ourselves in a position where we were short midfielders and we looked at options. Richie Hogan played midfield in the All-Ireland final against Galway a couple of years ago as well and you’d always be thinking a fella like him can do so many different jobs for the team,” says the Kilkenny boss.

Still, with Rice out for the season and Fennelly unable to catch a break with his recovery, there were plenty of avenues open to Cody around the middle third.

While clearly minded to give Pádraig Walsh his head in that sector, Cody could easily have gone with Lester Ryan, Conor Fogarty or even Tommy Walsh in there alongside him. Yet it was Hogan he pressed into service.

“I just thought that he’s an outstanding hurler,” Cody says. “Skill wise he’s excellent, he’s got himself into fantastic shape physically. Obviously there’s huge fitness levels involved in playing midfield now with the amount of running and covering that’s involved. He’s a willing worker.

Clinical finisher

“He was a player that was seen as an outstanding inside forward and clinical finisher but he’s brought so much to his game over the past few years. He’s really worked hard on his game and developed his overall fitness. His touch and everything about him is so good and he’s just working so hard for the team. With the skills he has, he’s capable of playing any position from midfield.”

In a way, we’re probably looking at this from the wrong angle. While Hogan’s ability to shape-shift and adapt to his new role is impressive, ultimately it’s Cody’s insistence on him being able to carry it through that has made it a success. In a season where Richie Power has been injured and Henry Shefflin has only been fit for a supporting role off the bench, how many other managers would have risked taking Hogan out of the forward line?

This has always been one facet of Cody’s genius. Never let players get too comfortable in one spot, always make them push the boundaries of what’s achievable.

Even this season, after a decade in stripes, Jackie Tyrrell was shifted to centre-back for a couple of games having never played six before. It didn’t work out – Brian Hogan came back in for the Leinster final. Then again, maybe it can be argued that his display in that game meant it did work out after all.

“I’d have a huge confidence in the panel and the potential for players to play in different positions,” Cody says. “The option is still there that Richie Hogan could line out in any of the forward positions either or during the game. Players being available or not available decides things for you.

Natural midfielder

“Our midfield in the last few matches, neither of the players in the position would have been considered a natural midfielder but they’ve done very well for us. And who knows what midfield we’ll come up with the next day? Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice would have been considered two midfielders and both of them were out of the equation at different times. Look we’d be happy enough that we have good options in midfield.”

In Brian Cody’s world, good options are the least he expects.

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