Thursday 19 September 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Richie Hogan entitled to be wrong about feeling wronged after hellish struggles'

James Owens flashes a red card at Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan. Photo: Sportsfile
James Owens flashes a red card at Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

If a player has to spend over two hours warming up his body just to be able to take the field, then he is entitled to his denial when he is ordered from the same field long before the game is over.

Anyone who is prepared to go to these lengths should not be expected to judge his own actions with a scientific devotion to the evidence.

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Therefore Richie Hogan ought to be excused for refusing to accept what the television footage is showing loud and clear to just about everyone else.

We can see that the Kilkenny maestro struck Cathal Barrett's faceguard with his elbow or upper arm in last Sunday's All-Ireland final.

He has by his own account watched the same slow-motion replays as the rest of us, but is unable to come to the same conclusion.

Fair enough.

He has invested a lifetime of work to be there on days like this.

He has built his adult life around his hurling; he gave up his day-job as a primary school teacher in 2016 to become essentially a full-time amateur player; he has practised the skills on almost a daily basis; he has tended religiously to his physical conditioning. He has lived his career in exemplary fashion.

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It is not just a matter of all the hours he has dedicated to being the best he can be; it is a matter of emotional investment too.

It is a matter of heart and soul as well as technical mastery and physical fitness. Therefore it is perfectly understandable that he will deny he deserved the red card for going in head-high on Barrett in the 32nd minute.

People will rationalise all sorts of errors that do not cost them as much as it cost Hogan last Sunday.

And this is before we even factor in the hellish struggles he endured to make the first 15 a week ago. Hogan has been in a battle of wills with his own body for the last five years and more. Now 31, bulging discs in his back have been a scourge since at least 2015.

It was in an interview with Newstalk's Off The Ball show last Tuesday that he stated his case. ("My elbow doesn't connect with him, my shoulder does . . . It's just I didn't hit his shoulder and that's the way it worked out.")

Listening to him speak it was obvious that all the titles and trophies he has amassed in a glittering career counted for nothing last week.

But measured, for example, against the bare fact that Cork's Patrick Horgan doesn't have one All-Ireland, Hogan's disappointment will seem modest enough when cushioned by perspective in retirement. Many a player has had to live with worse.

And yet one cannot but feel sympathy for any sportsperson, no matter how much they have won, if they have spent a long time in the injury dungeon.

Hogan knows the agony of not being able to do the thing you love because your body won't let you.

He was born to play this beautiful game; it is his means of expression; he has touched greatness himself; he has played on great teams; he has revelled in the many victories; he has had the time of his life.

But bit by bit it has been taken away from him. The simple pleasure of training and playing has become complicated. The essential innocence of a stick-and-ball game has become a darker experience.

Perhaps it was this that lay at the heart of his miscalculation in Croke Park: the years of accumulated frustration generating an anxiety to perform, to make an impact, in the pressure chamber of such an occasion.

"Reality (is), I was patched up to play the All-Ireland final," he told Newstalk.

He had torn the medial ligament in his left knee against Limerick three weeks earlier and hadn't trained since.

"I started my warm-up two hours and 15 minutes before the match started. Between getting work done on my back, on my knee, other injuries that I may be carrying, you know it's not easy obviously."

He has had cortisone injections and epidurals over the years in order to play.

"I have multiple visits to pain specialists in terms of getting work done on the back and keeping myself in tune . . . I can only train (nowadays) when I have access to a physio so if I want to do some stuff on my own, I can't do that anymore because I'm just physically not able to do it without access to a physio beforehand."

A rehab regime that lasts for years, that has no end in sight and that regularly involves "pain specialists" must be mentally and physically draining. The man has suffered for his art. But he has stuck with it "because I want to play, it's as simple as that."

He wouldn't be the first athlete to ignore the warning signs and force his musculoskeletal system to the limit.

He was forcing it to perform on Sunday when it was compromised. The siren call of a big match was too seductive to resist.

And having moved might and main to make it onto the field, the referee sent him off it with more than a half of hurling still to play.

He therefore had earned the right to be in denial last week; he was entitled to be wrong about feeling wronged. There is only so much misery a person can take.

The referee, however, could not excuse the player.

James Owens handled the situation with impressive calmness and courage. After all, Hogan could have ended Barrett's All-Ireland early.

Justice was done. But on this occasion it is hard to blame the guilty party for protesting his innocence.

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