It is now five years since Richie Hogan played a full championship match. During that stretch you might have occasionally wondered if he had in fact retired, perhaps slipping discreetly out the gap with Brian Cody.
But the 2014 Hurler of the Year wasn’t ready. And he’ll only go when he’s ready.
Hogan has played just over half an hour of championship hurling in three years – his sole involvement so far in the 2023 Leinster championship was a substitute appearance in the 60th minute against Antrim. His last championship start was the 2020 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Waterford. His last full championship game was against Limerick in 2018.
But bona fide magicians don’t require 70 minutes to conjure up moments of sorcery.
His sole start this season was Kilkenny’s league semi-final win over Cork at the end of March. It was also his only league appearance. In the opening exchanges, Hogan received the ball near the middle of the field and with his first play of the year he clipped over a monster score from over 65 metres out. All in less than 15 seconds. Voilà!
But if Hogan didn’t have bad luck with injuries, he’d have no luck at all. He came off during that encounter and it later transpired he had a broken bone in his hand. Just another war wound for the field hospital.
Frustratingly, his career has been curtailed by injuries, many directly related to a troublesome back problem. There have been knee injuries, hamstring strains, broken bones, you name it.
There must have been a temptation in recent years to clock out and await the tossing of garlands at his feet. For many top players, ego wouldn’t allow them wind down their careers sitting on a bench or battling to make a match day 26.
But Hogan keeps enlisting for duty. Most recently, he was a late addition to the squad against Wexford.
He will turn 35 in August, still a young man, but with miles on the clock and dents on the body. There is no escaping the fading of the light, but few players have raged against it with such belligerence as Hogan.
“If I didn’t know him maybe I’d be wondering why he’s still there,” says Michael Walsh, who managed Hogan to an All-Ireland under-21 title in 2008.
“But I’m not one bit surprised he is. I was fortunate to manage him for two years at under-21 level and I would have seen evidence of his intensity and absolute determination to succeed.”
Walsh remembers Hogan’s powerful intervention during half-time of the 2008 All-Ireland under-21 semi-final. Kilkenny and Galway went in level, but before the break the Tribesmen had gained the momentum. Hogan had been enduring a bit of a stinker in front of the posts too, several frees veering wide as if he had struck them with a ladle.
As the Kilkenny players and management stewed over their predicament, Hogan suddenly addressed the room. You could have heard a ladle drop.
“He spoke about how he was letting people down with his performance and how he was going to rectify it in the second half,” recalls Walsh. “He had every right to just sit in the corner and think, ‘Jesus, I’m after missing this and that.’ Instead, he stood up. It was some speech.
“He just talked about how he was going to get back out there, put in a hook or a block, mentioned how he had played with the lads in that room all the way up, that they were his team and that he wasn’t going to let them down.”
Hogan finished the game with 2-5 and was the man of the match. Three weeks later Kilkenny won the All-Ireland under-21 title.
“From when he was a young fella everybody knew about his talent,” adds Walsh. “But obviously you don’t know what’s inside a fella until you meet him. My admiration for Richie only grew after the two years working with him.”
Cody could never have been accused of sentimentality. He had no problem cutting senior players adrift over the years, but Cody never edged Hogan towards the exit. Perhaps because the characteristics Cody espoused as non-negotiable to be a Kilkenny hurler have always seemed built into Hogan’s genetic code. Honesty of effort was one of Cody’s guiding principles. Hogan knows no other way.
Hurling statistician Leo McGough tallies that since making his senior debut in 2007, Hogan has played on 132 occasions for Kilkenny and scored a staggering 26-356.
Paul Murphy knows Hogan better than most. They have hurled together since they were kids, carving out careers as club and county colleagues. Hogan initially played with a different primary school but by the age of nine or 10 they were team-mates.
Murphy had been tipping away nicely at that age and felt confident in his development as a player.
“Then Richie comes along and you are thinking, ‘Jesus, I’m not a fraction of the hurler this fella is,” recalls Murphy, who would go on to become one of Kilkenny’s greatest ever corner backs and finish his intercounty career with four All-Ireland titles and four All Stars.
At under-14 level they were playing in Roinn D. The stories of Hogan’s scoring exploits at that grade make him sound like a young Lionel Messi. Lionel Richie.
“He’d be doing ridiculous things, scoring 7-14, nine or ten goals in games, some people might think that is exaggerating, it’s absolutely not,” continues Murphy. “He was light years ahead of everybody else, very quickly in Danesfort we realised that. He was a trailblazer really for us at underage. Richie is the player that has had the most influence on my career.”
There is no denying injury has denied him, and us, some of his best years. But Hogan’s place in the hearts of Kilkenny fans was clear last July when he came off the bench in the 59th minute of the All-Ireland final against Limerick. A hearty roar started in one corner of the ground and spread like a wave sweeping across the stadium. Some supporters rose to their feet. It was his first appearance of 2022.
Four minutes later, David Blanchfield arrowed a ball down the Hogan Stand sideline. Blanchfield had shown good vision to spot the Danesfort man free on the opposition 45, but the pass was slightly overhit.
Hogan jumped, raised his hurl skyward and with his first touch of the season expertly killed the sliotar. Hogan controlled the ball on its bounce, eyed up the posts, noticed Seán Finn haring in, bought a yard of space by taking a step backwards and smacked over what was at the time an equalising point. Magic. Voilà!
“When he came on in the All-Ireland final last year it was a very emotional moment for me because as a friend you knew how much he had been through to get there,” recalls Murphy.
“The recognition he got from the crowd was wonderful, they realised how much of a stalwart he has been for Kilkenny. And then to get his point, it was a bit of magic. And he has always had that streak of magic in him.
“Just when we think maybe he won’t be able to do what he used to do, he constantly reminds us he still can, the score in the final, not many players would have scored that.”
It is even more incredible the seven-time All-Ireland winner has been doing this while managing a litany of injuries, and it’s important he finds the right balance to ensure he can approach his post-hurling life in the best shape possible. In an excellent interview with Joe Molloy on Off The Ball in January 2022, Hogan elaborated on the extent of his back injury.
“I try to manage it as best I can, but I would have constant back pain,” he explained. “The best way I can describe it, I don’t know if you get that sensation when you grind your teeth, I can feel that grinding sensation in my back constantly. So, get up in the morning, if I move left or right I can actually hear it or feel it, I can feel the joints almost grinding off each other.”
A determination not to allow injuries dictate his fate is not a recent personality trait.
Walsh remembers the morning after the 2009 All-Ireland senior hurling final. Hogan, still under-21, suffered a serious ankle ligament injury during the match. The All-Ireland under-21 decider between Kilkenny and Clare was on seven days later.
“It was a very bad injury and when I got to see it on the Monday I immediately felt we’d be planning without Richie. But he just said, ‘I’ll be ready’.
“There is no way he should have been able to play. He had just won a senior All-Ireland as well,” says Walsh. “Another player might have just said, ‘Ah, I’m injured, I’ll leave the under-21s off.’ But that was never him, he just wanted to play.”
And play he did. Kilkenny lost, but Hogan scored 0-5, forced an outstanding save from Clare goalkeeper Donal Tuohy and was one of their best performers in that final.
“From there on your admiration for somebody like that just sticks,” says Walsh. “With his injuries, why is he still playing? Because he’s hugely determined. As a matter of fact, of all the players I’ve ever dealt with I’ve never seen a more determined character.
“And he absolutely loves the game, he has won everything there is to win, multiple times in many instances, yet he’s still there because he loves it.”
Hogan won his first Leinster minor title in 2004. Two decades on, he is still chasing down silverware with Kilkenny. He has 11 Leinster senior medals.
His last appearance in a provincial final came in 2020, emerging from the bench to score one of the most audacious goals in Leinster final history. Kids all over the country spent the days afterwards getting dizzy and falling flat on their faces trying to recreate Hogan’s pirouette and over the shoulder finish. You could watch it 100 times and still not be sure how he combined all the elements so rapidly to score that goal. In the end, you can only conclude it was witchcraft. Voilà!
“That streak of magic again,” smiles Murphy.
And for now, the show goes on.
“It hasn’t been an easy road for him with injuries” adds Murphy. “But it just shows his grit and determination, and I know the lads still dread marking him in training because he has that insatiable appetite to perform.
“He just has such resilience and mental strength. With the injuries he has had, 99 per cent of players would have walked away long before now.
“A lot of specialists would have advised him to step back too, but I think Richie is determined to finish on his own terms.”
He’ll go when he’s ready.
Kilkenny appearances: 132 – 56 championship, 66 league, 10 Walsh Cup.
Scoring record: 26-356 (434); 25-239 (314) from play, 1-117 (120) from placed balls.
Last full championship game: 2018 v Limerick
Championship appearances since 2020
2020: (3) Introduced as a sub v Dublin, Leinster semi-final; Introduced as a sub v Galway, Leinster final; Started v Waterford, All-Ireland semi-final
2021: (1) Introduced as a sub in extra-time v Cork, All-Ireland semi-final
2022: (1) Introduced as a sub v Limerick, All-Ireland final
2023: (1) Introduced as a sub v Antrim, Leinster round-robin
League appearances since 2020
2020: (3) Started v Carlow; Started v Wexford; Started v Clare
2023: (1) Started v Cork, Division One semi-final