Vincent Hogan: Spreading good word to the Faithful
Not for the first time in his life, Ken Hogan is an accidental tourist.
Tipperary's former goalkeeping great has never been much further than a decent puck-out from one Offaly hurling field or another, yet his relationship with Coolderry wasn't exactly signposted with much fanfare. He blames the babysitter.
The Bradys' mother, Mary, looked after the Hogans' first two children and -- in mid-season of '09 -- she became the initial point of contact. Coolderry needed a manager. Would he be interested?
Two and a half years on, they've won back-to-back county titles for the first time since 1963 and arrive into the provincial club championship with the stealth of night burglars.
Tomorrow they battle Dublin champions, Ballyboden St Enda's, at Parnell Park for a place in the Leinster final and Hogan finds himself hugely energised by the sense of a community utterly at one with its team.
Coolderry's two pubs, The Mill House and The Black Bull, both have buses organised and, if Offaly hurling is seen as a kind of mildewed book these days, Hogan suspects a Coolderry win tomorrow could represent a major step forward in the restorative process.
Living just outside Birr, he recognises "an air of apathy" within Offaly towards its county teams. Habitual disappointment at underage and failure to claim a senior Leinster title since 1995 means expectation surrounding the Faithful county has become almost universally maudlin.
And maybe Birr's remarkable success even obscured the real measure of Offaly's club hurling in recent times. Take them out of the equation and the last team from the county to win a Leinster club title was St Rynagh's in '93.
Yet, Coolderry's successive county final wins have involved thrilling battles with, first, Tullamore and -- this year -- Birr. So, if the product isn't exactly blue-chip, it's not quite black-bin material either.
Hogan, who guided Tipp's U-21s to All-Ireland glory last year, was educated at Presentation College, Birr. When Offaly hurling was in its pomp, it was well nourished by the dual nurseries of Pres and Birr Community School. That stream though has, somehow, been let run dry. So the new Offaly manager, Ollie Baker, is now playing with a pretty restricted hand.
Yet Hogan insists his task isn't a forlorn one. "There's a lot of work going on in Offaly," he explains. "I'd be aware of pretty much all the players in the county and there's a number of seriously talented hurlers there.
"But these next couple of years are very important because the Bradys and fellas like Rory Hanniffy, Shane Dooley and Brian Carroll are all coming to the peak of their powers and I'm sure they'd like to make an impression in the Championship next year.
"The disappointing thing is the county has been ping-ponging between Division 1 and 2 of the National League in recent years. But now they're going to get top-quality games in Division 1B and that, at least, is a boost."
Hogan says he had no interest in taking charge of a club team when Mary Brady suggested the link-up with Coolderry.
Yet, the club sits hard against the Tipp border, just outside Roscrea, little more than 15 minutes from Ken's front door.
The circumstance of his recruitment echoed loudly of a previous involvement with Birr -- another lifetime ago. That, too, happened in mid-season, the club in desperate need of stabilising. Hogan was, at the time, just 27 and busy winning silverware with Tipperary.
"Shouldn't have done it really, looking back," he smiles. "Nowadays an inter-county player certainly wouldn't be training a club team. But I was only five minutes away from the field ... "
In '09, the Coolderry job wasn't exactly considered a golden ticket. "People were saying t'wouldn't be the easiest job in the world," he smiles. "But they've been a breath of fresh air. I was surprised by the level of commitment from the players. And you could see there was a line of talent coming through.
"They won a county minor 'B' in '07, a minor 'A' in '08 and an U-21 'A' in 2010, so there was a new group of youngsters coming through to join the established fellas like the Corcorans, the Bradys, the Teehans, Brian Carroll, Damian Murray and those. "It's a hard-working, family-oriented club at all levels and now they're reaping the benefit."
This year's triumphant defence of their Offaly title identified a maturity in the Coolderry team that Hogan hopes might stand to them now as they step beyond the county boundaries. He says they were outsiders at quarter-final, semi-final and final stage, just as they will be again tomorrow.
And, adding intrigue to the occasion is the fact that Ballyboden are managed by Coolderry native Liam Hogan. His brother, Colman, is Coolderry club chairman and another brother, Michael (like Liam himself) hurled for many years with the club.
Ken is a long-time friend of the Ballyboden manager and they spoke after this year's county final.
"Sure Liam knows our team like the back of his hand," grins the Coolderry manager. "He'd have his finger on the pulse as regards anything that's happening in Coolderry. But, in fairness to him, he has said he'll be blue and white when it comes to the crunch now.
"He has to nail his colours to the mast and he has done."
Coolderry were surprisingly beaten by Westmeath champions Raharney in last year's Leinster club, a defeat for which Hogan holds himself partly culpable. Immediately after the county final win over Tullamore, work requirements brought him north for three weeks and the only collective training Coolderry did in that time was at weekends.
Raharney should perhaps have been granted more respect.
"Look, there was no fluke in that result," he stresses. "It's important to say that. We knew the strength of Raharney. They play a lot of their challenge games in Galway, Tipp and Offaly. And they beat us fully on merit.
"Maybe we weren't prepared as well as we should have been and that was my mistake. But we could have no excuses."
And there'll be none articulated now about the challenge of playing Dublin opposition at a Dublin venue. At Wednesday night's training, it was stressed that, time-wise, Rathcoole is now roughly the same distance from Coolderry as Tullamore.
In any event, Hogan was in Parnell Park last weekend and describes the playing surface as "beautiful".
"Look," says the Tipp man, "there's no huge pressure on us in that we're probably unfancied. But, make no mistake, we'll travel with a steely determination, both for ourselves in Coolderry and for Offaly club hurling."