Thursday 23 November 2017

The day I put Richie Hogan in hospital but he never looked back after that

Michael Verney challenges Richie Hogan during Offaly’s game against Kilkenny in 2011
Michael Verney challenges Richie Hogan during Offaly’s game against Kilkenny in 2011

Michael Verney

He sits atop hurling's elite with a confident swagger. His ability to find space and trigger the scoreboard draws wonder. But it wasn't always this easy for Richie Hogan.

At one stage his flower was threatening to wither. Rewind to Dr Cullen Park, June 24, 2004 - a day he might not remember but I will never forget.

Pedigree was never in question, a second cousin to Kilkenny icon DJ Carey meant the word was on the street before a ball was pucked. With lineage comes expectation, and maintaining his huge reputation often proved problematic.

The underage hurling world had been taken by storm. Electrifying touches, deadly accuracy and an ability to deliver premier performances on the biggest stage flagged him up as 'The One' for the future.

An ill-prepared Leaving Certificate left me a shell of young man when I crossed paths with Hogan in a Leinster MHC semi-final.

Thin, gaunt and nervous, a bead of sweat rolled down my back as my eyes scrolled across the match programme.

Kilkenny's No 13 was none other than Danesfort's Richie Hogan. When I took up position I was met by a little powerhouse. An early point when his 5ft 7in frame fielded easily over my head was a sign of things to come. Then, bang.

Having drifted out the field, a neat pick-up sent him soloing in my direction. Only yards away he was a sitting duck.

I went to deliver the bone-crunching tackle but a jaw-dropping dummy handpass caught me hook, line and sinker and he goaled spectacularly.

As the crowd wooed his special talent, I felt naked. I remember little else about the game, that one defining incident wouldn't be forgotten by anyone in attendance. It was clear he was different, he could make the ball talk.

An opportunity for revenge materialised nine months later in a Leinster Colleges final. Placed at corner-forward for the famed hurling nursery St Kieran's, he dictated the game with a dazzling 1-3 from play. At full-back I hadn't got my hands on him but with the game over as a contest, history repeated itself.

With Hogan careering towards me at speed, thou shalt not pass rang through my head. As the ball left his hand for the now 'signature' move, I stood my ground. Not this time. I didn't fall for it and instead he crumbled to the turf a broken man. Substituted, savaged and hospitalised.

His career followed the expected graph and we duelled again in 2008 on his Kilkenny debut.

While we have now become accustomed to greatness from the current Hurler of the Year, he struggled on the biggest stage in his early days.

As a corner-back the mantra was always to concede no scores, by whatever means necessary. When you reach inter-county and you're assigned the most exciting prospect in the land, that entails some dark arts.

Pulling, dragging and largely forgetting about the ball often occupy the brain. It's eat or be eaten and there was no way I was going to be feasted upon again. We resembled sardines given our proximity and I was intent to halt his progress by fair or foul means.

We were blitzed by 18 points at the hands of the three-in-a-row-seeking Cats but Hogan's senior bow was inconsequential apart from looking out of his depth. It mightn't have been what the purists wanted but negativity was the only way to handle him.

He was frustrated, this was not what the script suggested and I had found some chinks in the armour. Perhaps, he was a little too big for his boots as it was clear he didn't yet gel with those around him. Martin Comerford was constantly in his ear, he didn't seem part of the set-up.

He was out of his depth and lacked the tireless work rate required by Cody's troops. Cody wasn't happy and he was replaced after 63 minutes with one point to his name before disappearing off the radar.

Hogan didn't feature again that year as the Cats romped to All-Ireland success and it wasn't until the 2011 All-Ireland final and that all-important goal against old rivals Tipperary that he announced his comeback. His turnaround is an example others would do well to follow.

After a couple of years threatening to burst through the shadows, a mature Hogan has picked up from where Henry Shefflin left off. His repositioning to the open spaces around the middle of the park has been key.

Great players can be tied down in the corner but it's much harder in open space.

He has been shooting the lights out, averaging at least a handful of scores in every game, with no man-markers in sight as of yet.

So how do you stop a problem like Richie Hogan? No team has found an answer in recent memory and for Galway to claim their first title since 1988, they must shut him out. Someone will have to be nominated as a sacrificial lamb.

Just ask Limerick, who could have contested last year's All-Ireland final if they had taken him down en route to scoring the game's crucial goal. Sometimes it's the most unglamorous tasks that pay the highest dividend.

The 27-year-old's game has come full circle however. The scintillating ease with which he plays is a sight to behold. The flashiness is absent. Dummy handpassing has been replaced by hard work and graft, which have taken him to the top.

His apprenticeship has been served. The king may have vacated his throne but after some early turbulence, the prince has picked up his sceptre.

Irish Independent

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