Richie Hogan raring to lead the title defence

The 2014 Hurler of the Year played a key role in Kilkenny’s All-Ireland success

Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan was last year’s Hurler of the Year. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan was last year’s Hurler of the Year. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

The school where Richie Hogan teaches on Dublin’s northside is about 10 minutes on a bike from the Clontarf seafront where we’ve arranged to meet. This being Ireland in the springtime, those 10 minutes are enough for him to arrive so thoroughly drenched and frozen as to make The Irish Times worry that Kilkenny might lose the hurler of the year to severe pneumonia.

With his hair drenched and his backpack sopping, he resembles nothing so much as one of the schoolkids he’s just finished his day teaching. If this sounds like the sort of casual insult a 26-year-old man shouldn’t have to listen to, don’t worry – he’s heard them all and worse by now.

Go way back and he was always the youngest boy in his class. He was born in August – his date of birth is 8/8/88 – and he started school a year before the boys who were born in September. You could surmise that it followed he’d always be the smallest player on the pitch but he’d tell you himself that age had no bearing. He was the smallest then, he’s the smallest yet. If he walked into St Kieran’s College tomorrow, he’d be looking up at most of the senior team.

Yet though size and age buy you a fair chunk of credit when it comes to schools hurling, Hogan had the skills to always pay cash up front. There were three teams in St Kieran’s – juvenile (first and second year), junior (third and fourth) and senior (fifth and sixth). If you’re good, you make it onto the juvenile team in first year. If you’re seriously good, you make it onto the senior team in fourth year.

When Hogan was in third year, he played on all three teams. The quirk of his age meant that he was still eligible for the juvenile team and his place on the juniors was a no brainer. But to play for the seniors in St Kieran’s while still only 14 had a way of changing how people saw him. The meaning of youngest and smallest tends to melt when there is such clear potential for best.

That became the way of it. Hogan played minor for Kilkenny at 15 and scored 1-9 in an All-Ireland final against Galway only a month past his 16th birthday. The summer he turned 18, he played both minor and under-21, stealing a last-minute goal to draw that year’s All-Ireland under-21 final against Tipperary.

He trained with the seniors as an 18-year-old and was added to the bench the week of the All-Ireland final against Limerick.

“I got the handiest All-Ireland medal anyone could get in 2007. I was added to the subs the week of the final. I was training with them the whole year but I bought my ticket into the semi-final. Myself and my father went to it.”

So far, so straightforward. He was every inch the prodigy and every newspaper mention came freighted with a reference to him being a second cousin of DJ Carey. He was the surest of sure bets.

But life isn’t an equation and there in the middle of this sure bet was an 18-year-old kid trying to find his way. Talented, sure. Confident, yes. But quietly and nervously aware that a reputation was building that he was going to have to live up to.

“I was, yeah. Especially when I was minor, that would have been something that had an effect on me a bit. Like, I don’t read the papers very much but sure your mother can’t help it. You might be in the paper and you’re trying your best not to look at it and sure what would she do only stick it up on the bloody fridge! And she’d be going, ‘Oh, look what this fella is saying about you!’ or giving out about what another fella said. It does put a bit of pressure on you, yeah.

“I wouldn’t have found that a problem at minor or even playing under-21. You just go out and do what you’re there to do and you feel that this is within your reach. You feel like you should be able for this. But as an 18-year-old going in with the seniors, it’s a different thing. You’re going in there and you’re looking across the dressing room at Shefflin and JJ and Tommy and because they were playing senior when you were only 12 or 13, you automatically think that they’re from a completely different generation.

“You go from being the best player on all the teams you’ve played with up to that point to automatically going straight down to the bottom of the food chain. I found that hard. No matter what team I played on before then, I was always nearly considered the best on it. So to be in amongst those lads, I found it difficult. Not so much the playing side of it, more the not playing. Like, I found it hard because there were so many ahead of me. I was pissed off, to be honest.”

Prodigies come and prodigies go. Even if they stay, they go. That’s because the simple act of hanging on means they aren’t prodigies anymore, which in turn means they’re not cut the same slack. Hogan made his championship debut against Offaly in the 2008 Leinster semi-final but tanked and didn’t play again all year.

There was no disgrace in it – this was Kilkenny 2008, after all. He had a poor game against Offaly but the chances were that he’d have lost out eventually to the returning Richie Power anyway. He was annoyed all the same. “I gave him a handy opportunity to get back in,” he says. “That was the lesson, absolutely. Don’t make it easy for Brian to drop you.”

One year turned the next. A brilliant league final in 2009 gave way to an injury-wracked championship. A broken finger and torn ankle ligaments clawed the guts out of 2010 on him. By the time the summer of 2011 came around, the player who had scored 1-9 in the 2004 All-Ireland minor final still hadn’t played a full championship 70 minutes. The prodigy years were long gone.

“That (2010) was definitely the most disappointing year because you’re there and you’re 22 and you’re thinking, ‘Well I’ve put a big effort in here for a couple of years now and I’m constantly missing out on chances to play.’

“When you’re under-21, even if you’re in and out with the seniors, at least you have something to keep you going. You’re totally psyched up to play a senior match but then you don’t get on or you get 10 minutes – well, at least you have the under-21 game to fall back on and you transfer that energy across into the following Wednesday or whenever that game is.

“But when you reach 22 then, you find yourself thinking, ‘Well am I going to train the whole year here and not play any games?’ Sure how could anyone do that? It’s a complete waste of time. I wouldn’t say I was watching the clock and thinking the years are running out or anything like that. But it’s more that you’d be giving yourself a kick up the arse and going, ‘Right, no matter what goes wrong this year, you’re going to make sure you’re playing.’”

Easier said than done, though. In Kilkenny, you find your place and you do your job. But what was Hogan’s? In every team he’d played on, he was the go-to guy but with Kilkenny, that job was already taken. Tall lad, ginger hair, green helmet. It’s hard to be the man when The Man is still the man. Hogan doesn’t dismiss the theory but isn’t fully convinced either.

“That’s a common misconception, I would say. From when I came into the dressing room – and I presume beforehand as well – there was nearly always somebody that stepped up in any particular game. People say it was always Henry but it wasn’t. Eoin Larkin in 2008 stepped up in practically every game. Richie Power in 2010 I think was similar, he just took on the mantle and off he went. Other lads as well.

“But I understand what you’re saying as well. I remember that drawn All-Ireland against Galway in 2012 for example. We had all had a poor first half – Henry included. But whatever happened to him – he might have thought he wouldn’t have another chance to get back there or whatever – he took over the place in the second half.

“I remember with nearly the last puck of the game, Michael Fennelly had a chance from about 45 yards out and he was completely on his own, all he had to do was put it over the bar. But he saw Henry standing about three yards away and handpassed it to him. Henry’s shot went wide in the end.

“That would be a classic case alright. If that had been the other midfielder, let’s say, I don’t think he would have passed it. But because it was Henry, you might dish it off. It could maybe be a factor, yeah. It never bothered me, I have to say.”

Whether it was a factor or not, it’s certainly the case that Hogan started to nail down a spot in 2011 when Shefflin missed the league. He was handed the free-taking gig for that spring and though Shefflin took over again come the summer, Hogan was finally released from the tyranny of wondering when his number was next to be flashed up. He ended the year with his first All Star and a goal that adorned the final.

By the beginning of last year, we all knew where we stood with Richie Hogan. Or we thought we did. A proto-knacky inside forward, gym-built blocky in the modern way, desperately hard to knock off the ball, deadly with the posts in sight.

That was until Cody brought him off the bench at half-time in the league against Tipp and named him at midfield as he read out the reshuffled team. No preamble, no quiet word. He’d played there in the 2012 All-Ireland final so Cody presumed he knew his business. As it turned out, he knew it better than anyone else knew theirs.

“My attributes actually suit midfield play more than others. Everybody assumes you have to have a big fella in there who will lord it in the air and break up play when the other team have it. But I looked at it a different way. Every time I got the ball playing corner-forward, I had no choice but to try and make space for myself because it’s so hard to score.

“Because that became my natural instinct, I automatically did the same when I was out in midfield. But what I found out there was that it’s actually so much easier to find space because the marking isn’t as tight. It meant that I could do things that bit quicker in midfield than I was able to inside.

“A lot of the time when you get the ball in midfield, the fella marking you isn’t up your arse. He’s backing off, if anything. He’s looking to play his game. So it’s a matter of just getting on the ball. What helped me too was that I had played with every single one of the forwards. I knew exactly what they were going to do and how they wanted the ball.”

He ended the year with an All-Ireland, an All Star and as the year’s outstanding player. All, he says, because he was set free to go and find trouble before trouble found him.

“Previous to last year, I would often play two good games and then have a poor day. It would be the sort of poor day that happens in the forwards because some days you just don’t get the ball. Simple as that.

“What I found last year was that no matter how poorly we were playing, I was in the middle of it. I was in control of whatever I wanted to do on the pitch. I was completely non-dependent on anybody. If I wanted the ball, I could go and get it. If I wanted a score, I could go up and get a score. If I wanted to defend and hang back, I could do that. I was completely in control and that was the main difference – I was basically dictating the sort of game I was going to have.

“Plus, there was no pressure to score. No matter how good you’re playing as a corner forward, if you don’t get a point or two people will say you’re not contributing. If you’re out the middle of the field and you score two points – and it’s sometimes much easier to score them out there than inside – you might have played poorly but people will say, ‘In fairness, he got two points’.

“So rather than playing two good games followed by a bad game, I ended up then being consistent the whole time. And I put that down to the fact that I was consistently getting on the ball. No matter how the team was playing, I could play well.”

If no single performance by any player matched what Hogan produced in the drawn All-Ireland, his day didn’t go as well in the replay. Cody moved him to centre-forward on Pádraic Maher and the two teams proceeded to keep the ball away from the opposition’s talisman. Though Kilkenny won, their star performers were along the half-back line. Hogan was called ashore well before the end, to his obvious disgust.

“You don’t want to be taken off in any game, not to mind an All-Ireland final. So of course I was annoyed. But the thing about it was that although it pissed me off no end at the time, it didn’t bother me in the slightest afterwards. Because I knew that there would be other games. The club championship was starting the following week – great, another game.

“As a younger lad, being taken off like that would have stuck with me for a couple of months. I would have been killing myself for being taken off in the last game of the year. But this didn’t have any lasting effect, didn’t bother me in the slightest. Somebody actually said it to me on the way down to Cork for the first game of the league.

“‘You’ll be mad up for this now after the way the year ended last year,’ they said. And I went, ‘You’re after reminding me of it now. That’s the first I’ve thought of it. I had completely forgotten it.’ It didn’t stick with me, I didn’t give it another thought. Once you forget about it, you forget about it.”

That sort of perspective is far d removed from the 18-year-old kid who fretted when his mother stuck a newspaper article up on the fridge. The youngest boy grew older, the smallest boy grew too, if not up then out. Richie Hogan has an All-Ireland to defend and an appetite to be the one his people turn to when that defence needs to be led. That’s his whole horizon, nothing else.

“I know that we’re going to be involved in big matches. I don’t know that we’re going to be involved in the All-Ireland. I don’t know that we’ll even get to a semi-final. But what I do know is that we’ll be involved in big matches and if we’re beaten in them, we’ll be beaten by a team that’s going to fancy themselves to win it.

“So I know that those matches are what lie in wait for me in the summer. And when you have that in your future, you don’t waste time looking back at a bad game you played last year. You learn from experience that it’s not worth it. It’s a complete waste of your time.”

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