independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Forward steps on path to goal

He loves his hurling but soccer comes first for Patrick Hoban, as he tells Dermot Crowe

IN late July, 2010, Patrick Hoban drove from Loughrea to Bristol in pursuit of his dream of a career in professional football. On offer was a one-year deal at Bristol City and the journey there seemed the most daunting aspect. Alone, almost 19, with no sat nav to guide him, he needed orientation. His mother, who is English, would ring to offer directions – 'take this exit, take that exit' – and eventually, with some relief, he reached his destination.

That year he had hurled through the group stages of the Galway senior hurling championship with Loughrea but soccer always had a hold on him. When he wasn't hurling he was lining out for Mervue United, then playing in the First Division of the Airtricity League.

With the journey via Holyhead offering ample time for contemplation, mostly he was excited by the possibilities of full-time football. Bristol City had narrowly missed promotion to the Premier League the previous season. Steve Coppell was in charge. David James had signed after competing for England in the World Cup. For a boy of almost 19 who aspired to playing 'across the water' this was a shot at the big time.

He is recalling that fateful journey now, a wise head on young shoulders, seated in a hotel in Dundalk. In this town he has been a revelation for the local football club since being signed by Stephen Kenny late last year. Prolific goalscoring has earned him the love of the Oriel Park faithful. He is their leading marksman, with 18 goals in all competitions, and shortlisted for both young and senior player of the year. In their transition from near-relegation material one season to surprise title contenders the next he has embodied that surpassing of all expectation. Few knew who he was when Kenny brought him in.

That's not the case now. While his two brothers continue to hurl with Loughrea, and will be hoping to win a county championship against Portumna tomorrow, he has been building a close rapport with Dundalk followers. He started shakily, going six matches without getting a look-in. Then he got back in the team and the goals started to flow: a hat-trick against Bohs, two against Shamrock Rovers, a couple of overhead finishes, the latest in their last home game, a thumping of Cork City last weekend. Such is his favour among the fans that they've composed a song for him – 'The Hobanator'.

The season finished on Friday night in Bray, allowing him to be back in Galway for tomorrow's county final, a year after making his last hurling appearance in the final defeat to St Thomas's. Dundalk is home now and he's signed another year's contract. Back in Galway, they call him Pa. "Up here," he explains, "they call me Pat. And I hate being called Pat." He prefers Patrick.

Has he been called worse? Indeed he has. Loughrea won their first senior hurling title since 1941, and only second ever, in 2006, but the match was mired in controversy after an ugly incident in which a young Joe Canning suffered a horrendous head injury. Loughrea had lost two county finals to Portumna in the previous three years and from then their name was sullied, the win diminished in the eyes of many outside the club. Patrick Hoban was at the game as a 15-year-old. In the years that followed, all Loughrea teams carried that stigma. He was on a wonderful minor team that won the championship in 2009 in a thrilling match against St Thomas's, but last year's county senior final again darkened the Loughrea name. There were ugly incidents on both sides, yet the prevailing YouTube hit was that of Loughrea's Johnny Maher's medley of unpunished offences near the game's close.

Paul, Patrick's younger brother, who was centre-back on the Galway under 21 side this year and on the senior county panel that reached the All-Ireland final in 2012, is dating Maher's sister. So, Patrick may be a little biased but he felt Johnny got more stick than he deserved. And Loughrea too.

"They have lived with that so-called bad name for the last few years, it's something they get on with, they let that fly over them. You can see they have been a fairly consistent team, they have reached a lot of finals in the last seven years, but had only one win. I think it's my brother's third or fourth final and he's only 20. My older brother Thomas has lost finals too. I wouldn't want to see them losing another one. It means a lot to them. But yes we had that reputation. If you go into a tackle they'd be calling you a dirty hurler. You'd hear a lot of that. Yeah typical Loughrea, dirty hurlers or whatever. We even got it underage."

In last year's county final, St Thomas's led comfortably but Johnny Maher's late penalty goal reduced the margin to three points and gave Loughrea a chance of rescuing the match. St Thomas's survived and went on to win the All-Ireland club. Loughrea lost the 2010 county final in a replay to Clarinbridge, who also went on to win the All-Ireland. They lost heavily to Portumna in the 2009 final.

"I thought it was a bit unfair in some ways," Hoban says of the bad publicity arising from last year's final. "I know he (Maher) shouldn't have done what he done. But he was getting a hard time as well, as he does in every game. It is a bit unfair he has that name on him now. I just thought, you know, there was another incident in that game, no point chatting about it now, but the referee could have sent someone else off in that game in the first ten minutes but he didn't. Okay, it (Maher's behaviour) looked bad but what had happened earlier was probably more serious."

The sequence shows Maher being fouled and reacting by digging his hurl into a player's groin, then pulling across another and after he scores he kicks a third. Incredibly, no action was taken by the referee. "He's big," Hoban says of the accused, "referees don't give him a free half the time because he's big. Lads dragging out of him. You would ask, 'How was that not a free?' Refs are more lenient because he's a big lad.It's not a nice thing to be labelled as a dirty hurler. I was at the (Pádraig) Pearses game (in this year's quarter-final) and any time he hit a shoulder or anything they were saying 'red card, send him off!' I felt sorry for him. He is a fantastic hurler as well. Galway could have done with him in the All-Ireland final (last year) I can tell you that for sure; he is a great target man."

On his own final day hurling for Loughrea, Hoban was emotional. "I knew after that I wasn't playing hurling again. I won't lie, I had a few tears, that's natural. I love the sport like. I am from a hurling town. I still watch hurling and try to get back. I support Loughrea through and through and Galway, and I will be there cheering the lads on."

But back to that journey to Bristol in 2010 and what followed. "The next day I was training for Bristol City and playing with professional footballers. We were told we had to go in with suits to see Steve Coppell, and I was in awe as I follow United. It was kind of nerve-wracking in a way but it was brilliant too, improved me so much as a player. I learned a lot about the business side of football as well. It is not just about playing. It's a sport I love but there is a massive business side to it. There is a lot of pressure in English football. Managers' jobs and everything. All the players are fighting for a place. It is dog eat dog."

They didn't have regular reserve football but he played around ten matches in that league and scored in half of them. But breaking into the first team squad eluded him and eventually the lack of match time saw him loaned out to a non-league side, Clevedon, along with the player who had signed with him, Jimmy Keohane, now with Exeter City.

"Mervue were better than Clevedon in my opinion. But I wasn't getting games every week. I was only training and it was quite hard. You'd have a reserve game maybe once a month. I went out on loan for a month or two. I knew towards the end of the season we weren't going back. And when we were told I was devastated. I went over there fully intending staying over there, that this was my life now. To be told that, you are not going to be at that club anymore . . ."

Ironically, the day they were called in he had trained better than ever, putting four past James in a training match. But their minds were made up. "They always tell you, always try to make you feel better, how they can see you playing in this league in the future, just not with Bristol City.

"And I remember, I took it like a man there in front of him, but when I got home obviously I rang my mam and stuff and others and I still went into training, as I would any other day, with a smile on my face and kept going. We were told not to change our attitude, stay the same way, and that was what I did.

"I remember when I was told I wasn't getting a (new) contract, I felt like I'd let my family down. I felt I let everyone down in my home town even. Like, I remember coming back and the whole town asking how are you getting on, and people wanting to know how you are doing. And I remember coming home and being absolutely devastated."

Which is where he sees his lowest point, sounding a great deal more mature than his 22 years. "My lowest point was driving home from Bristol. On my own. Lots of thoughts going through your head."

And his highest has been this year. "It's been a dream year for me," he says, listing various recognitions like player of the month for July, and being nominated for player of the year awards, winning the approval of his peers. When he came back from Bristol he could have crumbled, but he's resilient; it didn't break him. And he's had good people around. In Mervue, Johnny Glynn has been a huge influence and he brought him back into the team and helped rehabilitate his career.

"He helped me big time, I played the last ten games of the season and scored five goals. And my confidence started to rebuild. The next year I scored 12 playing up front."

That sparked outside interest, but Stephen Kenny beat all bidders and has been rewarded for his faith. "It was a risk for him as well. And for me too, I was leaving my family again, my girlfriend and my friends. I knew if I proved myself in the Premier Division, it might open a few doors."

After a bumpy beginning as reserve striker, he came on against Cork, a televised match, and scored late in the game. He started the next game and scored. And he grew from there. He still aspires to playing in England. If an opportunity arises he will be better equipped to handle it this time. If it doesn't he'll accept that too. For now, he is delighted where he is.

He remembers the game at St Pat's when Dundalk brought down 2,000 fans and his mother being present and hearing 'The Hobanator' for the first time. Fans chanting his name. She'd seen the two sides. "She got kind of emotional. She knows it is my dream. It was just great."

Much as he loves soccer, and Glynn always told him he was a footballer first and foremost, he talks with obvious affection of his hurling matches. "So different to soccer," he smiles, "completely different. I wouldn't say you go out like a mad man but you go out so . . . like, you could feel blood going through your veins. I would say it would nearly be like going into war. Like, the team talks, completely different to soccer. In soccer, they would be that bit more laid back. They are more relaxed. In hurling, it is totally different.

"It is a completely different state of mind playing a hurling match to a soccer match. Playing for my local town as well, there is a lot of pride there, in the jersey, the crest, pride in the town. Basically I love my town and there is that love and passion and desire and will to win. My brother is saying, 'Oh the hurling is standing to him'. Yeah big time. Mentally as well. Like, I wouldn't pull out of a challenge, you get some soccer players they mightn't fancy it; I wouldn't pull out of anything. That comes from the hurling."

With the former Galway hurler Greg Kennedy as trainer, the 2009 minor hurling title win is his most treasured memento from the game. St Thomas's were star-studded favourites. Neighbours. Rivals. They led most of the way and Loughrea won it with a late flurry. The crucial goal saw him catch a puck-out, handpass over his head to Johnny Coen who carried the ball on and found the goalscorer Neil Keary. He recalls the emotion at the end. His brother Paul was man of the match.

A year later, he was in Bristol, a training ground for life as much as football. "You have to be confident; if you show weakness you get exploited. That happened to me, being young. If I ever did it all over again I would try get a Premier club and then go over. But things worked out in the end. I had a good year this year, I never stopped believing and I still won't until I know I can't get over and try it again."

His immediate sights though were on Bray on Friday night, followed by a journey into the west to cheer on the brothers and friends in Loughrea. That's a drive he's really looking forward to. He can go there with his head held high.

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