Joey Holden already at home in position of trust

Ballyhale Shamrocks defender has sharpened his game against some of the best

Joey Holden (right) in action against Dan Currams of Kilcormac/Killoughey in the AIB Leinster Club Senior Hurling  Final at  O’Moore Park in  Portlaoise. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Joey Holden (right) in action against Dan Currams of Kilcormac/Killoughey in the AIB Leinster Club Senior Hurling Final at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

Some young hurlers approach the All-Ireland club final with terrifying wonder, and then there’s Joey Holden. He’s approaching Croke Park with Ballyhale Shamrocks as if marching in some local St Patrick’s Day parade.

“Pressure is only for tyres,” says Holden, which is one way of putting it, although not all 24-year-old full backs might agree. If Ballyhale are to extend their record All-Ireland tally to six then he’ll need to withstand some considerable pressure from the Kilmallock forwards – all eager to end Limerick’s wait for a first club hurling title.

Holden’s youthful calmness, however, masks his steely determination, and indeed experience. He actually featured in Ballyhale’s last final appearance, in 2010, aged just 19, as a second-half substitute: he also started for Kilkenny in the drawn All-Ireland final against Tipperary last September, at wing back, and although he didn’t feature in the replay, “it’s all part of the learning curve,” as he says himself.

No wonder Ballyhale have also trusted Holden with the Kilkenny captaincy for 2015, as was their right after winning another county title last November. There’s no guarantee he’ll nail down a starting place, yet the retirement of so many defenders, including full back JJ Delaney, has certainly raised Holden’s value, even if Brian Cody clearly valued it already.

Ballyhale actually had several candidates for the county captaincy – namely TJ Reid, Michael or Colin Fennelly, or even Henry Shefflin – yet opted for Holden, and not just because it was his turn. Both the Fennelly brothers held the captaincy before (Colin in 2013, Michael in 2009), Reid was captain in 2010, while Shefflin also won the 2007 All-Ireland as Kilkenny captain, and yet Holden’s qualities are now standalone.

Indeed he’s been a rock of sense and consistency since taking over the full back position for Ballyhale this season. It helps that he’s always practiced his defensive skills against the very best, whether that be a Shefflin, a Fennelly, or a Reid.

“Of course that has helped,” he says, “but I don’t think you realise it, or think about it. You just try your best, and try not to think it’s Henry Shefflin that you’re marking. And I would also have played with Colin Fennelly the whole way up along, and that’s been a massive help, marking the calibre of talent of those players.

“TJ Reid as well. His skill level is unbelievable. I couldn’t even say who’s been the hardest to mark, because it changes. They all bring different challenges. And the first thing you’re told, in Ballyhale, is about the tradition that’s gone before you. We had all the pictures up in our house.”

It probably helps too that Holden still lives in Ballyhale, and teaches in the Kilkenny City Vocational School, which means there is no threat to his commitment to either club or county. Naturally, he hasn’t looked beyond the club final, although the challenge in wait will be to secure a starting berth with Kilkenny – possibly even the vacancy at full back left by Delaney.

“I really haven’t given it much thought, or the captaincy. It’s all about Ballyhale for now. We’re lucky in Ballyhale that we’ve won the county championship the few times, so we can pass it down the line a little bit. And it’s very nice to get nominated.

“And of course the priority is to get a starting place. Definitely. That’s the priority for every player on the Kilkenny panel. I’m no different. And of course JJ Delaney has left some very big boots to fill. I’m sure whoever gets the position will do alright a job.”

Holden may have played most his hurling a little further out the field, actually he feels increasingly at home at full back: “It’s grand, just about getting used to it. It’s a bit of a change, in that I find you have to concentrate even harder, and might be on the ball even more. The balls that do come into you have to be dealt with fairly precisely, or else you end up giving something major to the opposition. So you’d be a little nervous, at first, but I think you grow into it.”

One experience he says he’ll never forget was that drawn All-Ireland final against Tipp: “It was such a high quality game, 55 scores or something, and definitely the fastest game I ever played in, but enjoyable. And hopefully one that will stand to me.”

One last question he can’t avoid is whether or not we can expect to see Shefflin in a Kilkenny jersey again – given the 36-year-old has deferred all talk of his intercounty future until after St Patrick’s Day.

“Well his appetite for the game is still phenomenal,” says Holden. “The way I see it at the moment, he’s just loving his hurling, loves being a part of Ballyhale. It’s up to him, obviously. And I think he’ll just do what’s best for him, and his family.”

Spoken like a true Kilkenny captain.

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