It’s good to have Richie Hogan back, he was missed

He was building a legacy - one of the Kilkenny greats - before four cruel years of injury

Richie Hogan scores a goal for Kilkenny in their Leinster final win over Galway. Photograph: Inpho

Richie Hogan scores a goal for Kilkenny in their Leinster final win over Galway. Photograph: Inpho

 

On a frigid night in Croke Park, Brian Cody came to us radiating satisfaction. The press duties during this championship are conducted about halfway up the Hogan Stand, on the 45-metre line down towards the Hill 16 end. Ordinarily we’d have huddled up for warmth but instead we plonked our recorders on the little table that has been set up and complied with the GAA officials’ entreaties to spread out for social distancing.

Beating Galway and winning a first Leinster title since 2016 had Cody in relaxed and quietly happy form. He’s at this 22 years by now – almost to the day, in fact – and the song remains more or less the same every time. So hurling is hurling and a Leinster title is a Leinster title and sure look, he was very satisfied with everything really.

Except when we brought up Richie Hogan. Even through his black and amber facemask, Cody’s delight in what Hogan had contributed during his half-hour on the pitch was obvious. Not alone for what it meant for the match itself but even more so for what it signified for the player. Cody knows more of what Hogan has been through than the rest of us ever will. It showed.

“Richie was very, very influential,” Cody said. “There’s no doubt about that, when he came in. You talk about real experience, that’s a player who has given great service over the years for certain. It’s terrific, Richie has had an uninterrupted year from injury. He’s one of the players in the country who has benefitted from a lack of competitive games over the year. He’s had a free run to get injury-free. He contributed really, really powerfully when he came on.”

On the night, it was obvious that Hogan had changed the Galway game. There were no marks on offer for hanging the turnaround on his injection into the Kilkenny full-forward line, coming off the bench after 45 minutes. But on rewatch, it becomes obvious that whatever poems we wrote to him in the stadium probably still came up a stanza or two short.

Hogan was on the pitch for almost exactly 30 minutes. In that time, he got the ball in his hand on seven occasions. He scored 1-2 with three of them, pucked a wide with a fourth and completed passes with the other three.

Two of those passes set up scoring chances, one of which Liam Blanchfield tapped over the bar, the other of which Martin Keoghan just missed the far post with when trying for a goal. Also, into the bargain, his decoy run pulled Daithí Burke out of the Galway square to leave TJ Reid one-on-one with Joseph Cooney for the second Kilkenny goal.

All this, and he scored one of the all-time great Croke Park goals himself, a four-flick trick-shot routine that would have been audacious to try at training, never mind when your team is five points down with 13 minutes left in a Leinster final. By any measure, it was an extraordinary impact to have on a match.

Especially since that kind of thing is so rare in the game now. Hurling these days is such a whizzing score-keeping exercise, with shots at goal routinely hitting the one-a-minute rate. Scores come from all over the pitch, shooting from distance isn’t just licensed, it’s frequently Option A. For an inside forward to so completely flip the direction of a game like that felt very old school.

But it was Cody’s line about getting “a free run to get injury-free” that sang out from the night when all was said and done. Richie Hogan has not been injury-free for the longest time. His back issues have robbed him of his prime, in fact, crucifying him throughout the second half of the last decade.

Richie Hogan after being sent off in last year’s All-Ireland final. Photograph: Inpho
Richie Hogan after being sent off in last year’s All-Ireland final. Photograph: Inpho

In November 2016, Hogan picked up his third All Star in a row. For a sense of how rare an achievement that is, consider that only two other Kilkenny forwards have managed it in the Cody era. Eddie Brennan collected three on the bounce between 2006 and 2008 and of course Henry Shefflin outstripped them all with eight in a row between 2002 and 2009.

But TJ Reid has never done it. Neither did Richie Power or Eoin Larkin or Colin Fennelly or Martin Comerford or Charlie Carter. DJ Carey won three in Cody’s first four years and five in a row before he arrived. But DJ was special too - before him, no Kilkenny forward had managed it since Eddie Keher.

He looked untouchable then, the hurling world a Scrabble board for which he kept pulling all the right letters

This is the sort of realm Hogan had entered. He was 28 years old, he had won five All-Irelands on the field and gathered up another couple as a panellist, he’d been Hurler of the Year and Man of the Match in an All-Ireland final. He was among the most recognisable hurlers in the country. And he was about to become painfully unable to show why.

Hogan has always had back problems, with three bulging discs in his lower back - a legacy he says of his handball days as a younger man. In 2015, he needed two days of injections to free himself up to play in the All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford, telling us afterwards that he hadn’t been able to walk on the Friday because of a prolapsed disc. He moved heaven and earth to play in the subsequent final but had to battle a hamstring problem that was directly connected to the back issue.

Richie Hogan in action during the 2015 season when he won his second of three consecutive All Stars and four in total. File photograph: Inpho
Richie Hogan in action during the 2015 season when he won his second of three consecutive All Stars and four in total. File photograph: Inpho

Ever since, each year has been an ongoing fight to be able to suit up for games that matter. In 2017, he managed to mask it enough to get onto the pitch, just not enough to play well when he got there. He started all nine of Kilkenny’s league and championship outings that year but only finished four of them. He was taken off in each of their championship games and his scoring contribution for the summer was a solitary point against Waterford.

From there, it went further downhill with each passing year. In 2018, he missed 11 of Kilkenny’s 15 games completely. He started two and came on in two. Against Wexford in Leinster, he was hauled ashore at half-time, having struck three wides from three shots. He did manage to find some form towards the end of the year though, playing the full 70 against Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-final and scoring 1-3 from play.

It was a rare 70-minute outing, however. In the past three seasons, including the current one, Kilkenny have played 36 matches in league and championship. In that time, Hogan has started and finished just three of them. That Limerick match in 2018 is his only 70-minute championship game since the 2016 All-Ireland final.

One full match in four years of championship. Between missing matches, being subbed on, subbed off and, notoriously in last year’s final, sent off, Hogan has played in almost exactly one-third of all available minutes for Kilkenny since the end of 2016. And just over a quarter of available minutes since the end of 2017. History would suggest that 2020 might well have continued the trend, only for the sport going into pause mode.

“He got a break,” said Cody after the Leinster final. “The body got a break. I firmly believe - and I said it to him as well - that it has done him the world of good. He’s a player who doesn’t hold back. When he’s injured, he won’t just lie down, even if it’s a serious enough injury.

“He’ll keep going. He’s a fighter. So I mean he hasn’t minded the body from the point of view of sitting back and going, ‘I’m injured, I can’t play.’ He’s not like that. He always wants to play. And definitely he’s moving freely.”

Hogan himself has conceded that his tendency was always to overdo rather than underdo. Speaking in 2017, he talked about the torture of being in the car and heading up and down the road from Dublin for training. And his lack of interest in swerving it.

“It would depress you doing it,” he said. “Travelling home, getting out of the car and you’re so broke up after it. I just love training. I can’t do the Michael Fennelly thing of take it easy, get it right at a slow pace.

“For my own head I’m not able to do that. I love to be able to train. I’d walk from Dublin to training, I just love it so much. I can’t do that thing that he does. It becomes a bit of a head thing.”

By that stage, he had given up his teaching job in Clontarf and taken time out to try and get his body right for hurling. In early 2019, he started working in Croke Park itself as a commercial manager with responsibility for the GPA. He co-ordinates the commercial interaction between the GAA and the GPA and while the pandemic won’t have made it any less stressful a gig, the months of enforced healing to his body have obviously been of benefit.

His last All-Ireland semi-final was the replay against Waterford in Thurles in 2016. It was a feral night in Semple, a drama-filled to-and-fro that ended with one last despairing Waterford free dropping short and Kilkenny moving the ball to Hogan, alone in midfield. The crescendo of 140 minutes of hurling came with him nailing the sealing point, his clenched fist thrust in the air long before the ball split the posts.

He looked untouchable then, the hurling world a Scrabble board for which he kept pulling all the right letters.

Whatever happens now, it was good to see that Richie Hogan again. He was missed.

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