'I could stand back and admire what JJ did or go and try to create my own history'
Joey Holden reflects on his 'unusual' path to hurling's pinnacle in famed Kilkenny No 3 shirt
His accomplishments in the last two years are remarkable but the rise of Joey Holden has been anything but conventional, with the 25-year-old bucking almost every trend expected to garner inter-county success in Kilkenny.
The four main pre-requisites for donning a black and amber jersey at senior level are honing your skills at the famed hurling nursery of St Kieran's, representing the Cats at minor or U-21 level, or shining in the unique demands of the Fitzgibbon Cup.
Holden, however, is a unique case, having been educated at Scoil Aireagail Ballyhale and missing out on U-18 and U-21 with the county, while he admits his only college hurling in UL was "a bit of intermediate in fourth year".
The Ballyhale Shamrocks defender admits that he was a late bloomer but such disappointments didn't bother him as he knuckled down to develop into the accomplished hurler we see excelling on the game's biggest stage.
"I was always one of the stronger players in the club but I never really thought I was up to county level," Holden admits. "At club training I was watching the serious hurlers we had and I knew myself I was well behind them.
"I progressed slower than everyone else, I came along eventually. But even when I got the call to go in with Kilkenny, while it was a massive honour, you're still wondering what you're doing there.
"You're wondering 'how am I going to be kept on?' You just hope the things that you're doing on the field are being noticed, and I kept getting that extra bit of confidence every time I was getting the nod to stay on the panel while others were falling away."
It was an "unusual" route to hurling's pinnacle but Holden's apprenticeship was served in esteemed company and he was regularly trusted with marking the game's elite forwards in Ballyhale.
It wasn't always pretty but every day was a school day and he learned his craft against the likes of Henry Shefflin, current Hurler of the Year TJ Reid and his housemate Colin Fennelly, who regularly "cut lumps out of each other" at county and club training.
"You're put on the likes of Henry or TJ or Colin and you think to yourself that you must be getting better if they're giving you the responsibility to mark them. They're the cleverest players out there," he says.
"Even if you have a horrible day and they score for fun, you still learn so much when you're trying to stop them causing havoc, as opposed to playing somewhere else and just admiring them."
Such experiences helped earn a call from Cats boss Brian Cody, and in his debut season he started the epic 2014 All-Ireland final with Tipperary before losing his place to Padraig Walsh for the replayed win.
It was a "rollercoaster" year and while there was immense pride in his journey from inter-county obscurity to the starting XV, it was tinged with regret, although an extended run to St Patrick's Day club glory did help ease the pain.
"I kept thinking 'how in the name of God am I after getting to this stage?'," he says. "But to start the final, I was very proud considering I started off just being called in for trials that year.
"I learned some amount from the first day and you just want to put that into action the second day, but unfortunately I didn't get the call to play.
"Then I felt had something to prove to myself and the management - that I should be in there. You don't ever want to end a season like that, so it was definitely motivation. That was definitely the driving force for me to try take my game to the next level that winter."
A raft of high-profile retirements shook Kilkenny to the core that winter, and particular debate raged about who would fill the giant boots vacated by iconic full-back JJ Delaney.
Holden was busy winning a second All-Ireland club medal with Ballyhale so it "didn't register" with him. And such is the fluidity of the Cody regime, there was no great fuss when he did return; business would continue as normal.
He would fill the No 3 jersey, a shirt worn by Cody himself during two Liam MacCarthy triumphs, becoming only the fourth man to wear the Championship shirt during the extraordinary Cody era following Noel Hickey, John Tennyson and Delaney.
It didn't overawe him one bit, however, and the ciotóg (left-hander) made a seamless transition, with Wexford's Conor McDonald, Galway star Joe Canning (twice) and Waterford's Maurice Shanahan getting little change from the tight-marking Holden in his four outings.
Advice was not sought from his predecessor on the demands at the edge of the square; Holden, a technical graphics teacher in Kilkenny City Vocational School, preferred to draw his own path.
"Anytime I met JJ after it was probably on a night out and there was plenty of other things to talk about," he quips. "It's something you just have to go and do yourself anyway. You work on what you think you're doing wrong and you keep working on what you're doing right.
"I could either stand and look at what JJ had done or I could go out and try and make my own history and nail down my own spot. JJ did massive things for Kilkenny but it's not my job to stand back, it's my job to make the team."
And stand back he most certainly did not as he capped a memorable year with an All-Ireland medal, having the honour of lifting Liam MacCarthy as captain, before collecting a first All-Star in an extraordinary year.
Does he ever rewind and reflect on his incomparable path to the top? "Not really. I wouldn't be a lad to look back," he says. "When you're still playing you don't really look back.
"You just look forward to the next one that'll hopefully come around but it hasn't really registered with me yet and it won't for a while - it's been a good year and to be captain just topped it all off."
His words are indicative of the Kilkenny mentality, with a great year considered a good year. Is it any wonder that the Noreside juggernaut shows no signs of coming to a halt? This young crop have their eyes fixed on further silverware, bidding to follow in some trophy-laden footsteps.
Their 2016 journey makes a low-key beginning when they make the trip to Birr to face Offaly tomorrow, just six days after returning from a team holiday basking in the sunshine of Thailand.
It's a far cry from the conditions on home soil but Holden is "mad for hurling". He's carved an unconventional route to the summit but much like the Cats, Holden is here to stay.