Friday 21 July 2017

Last man standing still in it for the long haul

Richie Hogan is the only surviving Cat who started the 2009 All-Ireland final - he's far from finished

Richie Hogan is the only surviving Cat who started the 2009 All-Ireland final. Photo: David Conachy
Richie Hogan is the only surviving Cat who started the 2009 All-Ireland final. Photo: David Conachy

Dermot Crowe

On his first evening training with the Kilkenny seniors in March 2007, Richie Hogan was put on Jackie Tyrrell, the start of a long and informative acquaintance. "Myself and Jackie had huge battles," Hogan notes appreciatively. "I remember in my first session lining him up for a shoulder. I hit him square on; the two of us just hopped off each other and he drove the ball up the field. I remember thinking that if I'd hit anyone else the way I hit him he would have been gone."

He recalls another time in Wexford when they were "going at it" for a while and Tyrrell's arrival in the ice-baths raising a laugh when the players noticed him generously tattooed in battle marks. "All the cuts and marks and the bruises that were all over his back and his chest and legs," recalls Hogan. "And I was the same, black and blue."

You inflicted those marks, the five-foot-seven hurler is asked? "They were the marks I put on him," he states definitively. "And mine were the ones he put on me. And nobody said a word, nobody opened their mouth to each other. There was a huge amount of respect between us. We shared the dressing-room for years. It certainly helped my career, I am sure it helped his as well."

At St Kieran's College, Hogan was on the senior team at 14, a county minor at 15, blazing a trail, richly talented, a player in a hurry. He was accustomed to winning early and often. Being a second cousin of DJ Carey led to favourable comparisons and expectations of him being the ­natural heir. None of this necessarily made a difference when he was summoned to the senior ­hurling team's training, making the squad for the tail-end of the 2007 All-Ireland when they closed the year winning a second title in succession.

But the lessons were everywhere he looked. Eoin Larkin was taken off in five of his first six championship games, even if that bald statistic is not an entirely reliable barometer of form. He went on to have a brilliant career, Hurler of the Year when Kilkenny's play entered another galaxy in 2008. You didn't pick Larkin out immediately as the best conventional hurler but that was the point: there was much more to making it in this environment than hitting a tidy point or playing tricks with the ball.

Tyrrell's recent career ending was soon followed by the announcement of Larkin's retirement from inter-county hurling. These departures signal to Hogan that his own time is advancing although he believes, barring serious injury or some unforeseen event, that he can hurl at the highest level for another six years or more. He is 28 now and he will not go easily.

"Next year will my 11th season. I wouldn't like to see myself bowing out at 31 or 32 because I love it too much. Appetite will never be an issue. The day I retire will be the saddest day of my life. I want to go as along as I can. Look at Henry Shefflin who trained really hard and looked after itself incredibly. He hurled till he was 36.

"I met him in the jacuzzi one day in Kilkenny, after the Ireland final, I was trying to do a little it of a detox and he was in there. I thought I was a great lad going in there at eight o'clock in the morning and there he was, absolutely ripped at 38 years of age because he wants to win another county championship. And I think I can learn a lot from lads like that."

Hogan has been an All-Star for the last three years and Hurler of the Year in 2014. If you were to pick a couple of players that might be regarded as virtually indispensable to Kilkenny in that time he'd have been one of the first to spring to mind. That loaded responsibility is what he expects of himself but it took time to materialise. And he has seen so many big names come and go that he knows that next year the slate is wiped clean again. Nothing in the past offers security of tenure.

The latest departures leaves Hogan as the only survivor of the team that started the 2009 All-Ireland final. "In the dressing-room they were two completely different characters," Hogan says of Tyrrell and Larkin. "Jackie would be a little bit quieter but had huge inner confidence. Eoin was a big talker in the dressing-room. When you talk in the dressing-room that puts pressure on you to perform. What I always admired about Eoin Larkin was that he was a big talker and a big performer and he always delivered on the big day for us.

"There is never any pressure on our players to stand up in the dressing-room. There is certainly pressure on our players to stand up on the field."

Neither player had the luminous pedigree that Hogan enjoyed as an underage player, with a bloodline that tied him to a number of players who played county, the most renowned being his second cousin Carey. He is also related to James McGarry and Mark Kelly, and his brother Paddy is also an All-Ireland winner.

Around the time the Kilkenny management decided it was time to bring him in, he'd lost his mobile phone on a night out around in Dublin. Calls went unreturned until eventually his mother told him Brian Cody had rang her at home looking for him. "I presumed she was messing. So you can imagine it was fairly daunting, as an 18 year old, having to ring Brian Cody's house. I remember he said to me, 'it'd be easier contact the Pope than it is contact Richie Hogan'. And I thought that's not the best first impression to be making."

Hogan had his first senior championship start in 2008 against Offaly but didn't start again that season. He starred in the 2009 National League final before picking up an injury and only returned for the All-Ireland final in September. The following year brought more frustration. In the first round to he league against Tipperary he lost the top of a finger, ruling him out of the rest of the league campaign. By the start of 2011 start he still hadn't established himself as a player who might be seen as a sure-fire starter. Adjusting to not being the axis on which the earth moved took time.

"It didn't make sense to me to be a sub. You'd go up the ladder and fall back down again." You were impatient? "Very impatient. You get a sharp sense of reality. I never opened my mouth or offered an excuse. I looked at other people who have been down that road. That's not the way I wanted to be either. I never got frustrated with management. The thing was to leave Brian Cody with no choice but to pick me."

He has been on a career break from teaching since May of last year. There have been various job offers but he is biding his time until he finds out what exactly it is he wants to do. He has a masters degree in business and is interested in studying psychology. In the meantime, come January, he will be launching a sliotar into the market bearing his name.

"This time last year I broke three hurleys in the puck-around before training. Now (Kilkenny kitman) Rackard Cody left the sliotars in the back of his van. And they were frozen solid. But I remember even at club training, you'd pick up this sort of a yoke and that sort of a yoke, and there was no consistency to the balls a lot of them. I looked at different types and samples and got one I was happy with. If you are putting your name to it you want to be happy. They are fantastic quality."

Hogan continues to live in Dublin - renting a house with five others on the northside - and the free time allows him to train religiously. He is keenly interested in all aspects of preparation. His astonishing fielding ability, he says, has been the result of regular attention to his jumping and close scrutiny of players like JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh, who were experts in the field.

"I am five-feet-seven, I am giving away at least six inches to whoever I am marking. Tommy was about five-feet-eight, five-feet-nine. He was never beaten in the air. I always looked at the timing. And such a simple thing as not closing your eyes. Many times the ball hit Tommy's hand it stuck, it never hopped. That was a big thing for me. And as a forward I need a huge spring, while other players may not need that, if they have that height. I need to be able to get off the ground and catch the ball at the absolute pinnacle of my jump. You really have to catch it at the highest point. That is all practice.

"A big thing for me was not being caught under that ball as well, not being in too early. Then you can be held down. For me it is all about keeping that momentum and being in there at the right time. Tommy and JJ were the greatest catchers of the ball I've ever seen. Their timing was incredible."

Hogan was exceptional when introduced in this year's Leinster final against Galway after the half-time interval, scoring five points from play, having returned after an injury lay-off. He maintained his performance levels in the two semi-final matches with Waterford, scoring four points from play each day, and his 1-1 in the final against Tipperary doesn't soften the blow of losing or his own disappointment with his personal contribution.

Kilkenny's defence was wasted by Tipperary's inside forward line but Hogan was part of a half-forward line unable to curb Tipp's dominance from where many of the attacks stemmed. "For the second (Tipp) goal the ball came down from a puckout on myself and Cathal Barrett and I remember feeling in behind me and thinking I have to back into this fella to hold him off me so I can catch it. I remember backing in and he just rolled me off to the side and got his hand to it, burst out with it, drove it down and Bubbles O'Dwyer had it in the net before I got off the ground. It's those things. It can be small things on the day. I think it was their hunger that was the most significant thing. Some call it hunger, others might call it intensity, will to win, whatever it is they had it on the day in abundance. We were maybe lacking it that little bit.

"Every time the ball was landing there were more Tipperary men there than Kilkenny men. It was a case of, especially around the middle third where I played, of numbers being the key to it. They dominated the breaks. They dominated those physical exchanges in the second half especially. Those things filtered through; they got scores.

"From Tipp's point of view their forwards will get all the plaudits for their win. And from our point of view the defence will be the scapegoats. But nobody will notice that Cathal Barrett caught the ball over my head and then burst out past Conor Fogarty. Nobody will notice those things. It is very easy to make the defence the scapegoat but we are 100 per cent sure that that was not where the game was lost. The game was lost as a team all over the pitch."

He regards his own performance unsympathetically. "Ronan Maher got the better of me when I was out there (centre forward). I played a lot out of midfield too, and there I felt I did not get on the ball enough. I tried hugely hard. I came back off the field and I was wrecked tired. If you clocked the miles I probably did as much as I did in any game but it just didn't work out. I had the ball more times than Ronan Maher, which is amazing, but if you were looking on from the sidelines you would say I was losing that battle which I was."

Kilkenny have to start again but he looks at positives like the late-career progress made by Jonjo Farrell, the impact of Liam Blanchfield, the prospect of a return to fitness for Ger Aylward and Michael Fennelly. The learning goes on. "I think it was Michel Jordan who said: you fail your way to success. With me, I've make so many mistakes over the last five or six years, but yet they have been the best five or six years of my career."

Dealing with the frustrations of his earlier years has helped him gain a better understanding of not looking too far ahead. "It's often talked of in sports psychology: the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset. I think I was very much a fixed mindset sort of young fella coming in.

"You see with Henry Shefflin, who had to deal with failure in his career early, he often tells us of the time he was told to stick to playing in goal, as a 17-year-old. And then he grew as a player and became a leader. Even in Henry's later career, any time Henry played a poor game it never affected his confidence, he always got better, that bit better, he was very good at brushing it off. And I think I am good at brushing things like that off now, if I have a poor performance and moving on to the next one. These things can help you as a player and help you mature that bit."

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