Friday 22 November 2019

Hogan knows Cats must get it right earlier

The Kilkenny captain anticipates another close contest today, writes Damian Lawlor

Damian Lawlor

BRIAN HOGAN downs tools after a day's work and paints a picture of Kilkenny's All-Ireland final deadlock with Galway. The drama ended in epic fashion and as the curtain closed Hogan stooped low with the adrenalin still pumping hard, trying to figure whether he should be downcast or glad to have a second chance.

"There are so many thoughts rushing through your head," he admits. "It's a very unusual experience. You go 53 years without a draw in a final -- on the one hand you're thinking 'we let the match go'. But then you're thinking 'well, we were five points behind at one stage'. At the final whistle I wasn't sure what to do. So I just stood around."

The uncertainty lingered into the evening. The atmosphere at the team banquet was eerie to say the least. "It was completely muted," Hogan recalls. "As soon as we walked into the banquet hall you could almost hear people's conversations. We got a bit of food and then went home. It was just like . . . a big dinner.

"The supporters didn't know what to be at and half the panel didn't know what to do either. The decision was made that we would sleep in our own beds that night."

Hogan had only ever once played in a drawn final for Kilkenny -- the 2009 league final against Tipperary which they eventually won after extra-time. But back then he was too busy attending to a broken shoulder in hospital to get overly wrapped up in the result.

This time around, you could see the stalemate was unwelcome. Players from both sides wedged their hurleys into the ground with displeasure.

"A lot of people said afterwards they had a feeling it would be a draw but these geniuses were few and far between the week leading up to it," Hogan laughs. "I suppose we both felt we had a chance to win and yet we each could have lost. Both teams had periods of dominance so it depends on your psychology -- it's a case of glass half empty or glass half full."

The next day it dawned on him that a planned trip to New York would have to be scrapped. Last Wednesday, a close friend of his got married. He was due to be there in the middle of it all, but he shrugs the shoulders. Just one of these things.

"My friend knows the score, he fully understands. Elaine (his wife) understands too because she comes from a hurling family. There is no point complaining. Maybe some people don't see the personal side of it, we do make huge commitments but it is easy for me because I love doing it. For Elaine, it's tough. But I wouldn't dream of doing anything else. And yeah, it's a long year now but it would be a hell of a lot longer if we had lost. What's three more weeks in the grand scheme of things?"

Not much. And the truth is that after 20 minutes Hogan would have gleefully snatched an offer of a draw. Although the O'Loughlin Gaels man has only lost one championship game since his debut in 2005, it looked odds-on that they were going to be blown away by the Connacht men. For the second time in this championship Galway began the match in frantic fashion.

Joe Canning's moment of wizardry conjured a goal that seemed to be worth an extra three points such was the approval that greeted it.

"The difference between the Leinster final and the All-Ireland final was that in Leinster we were overrun. We weren't at the races," Hogan explains. "The last day, that goal was a big score for them and it took us two or three minutes just to settle things and get our composure back. But once we did we got a couple of scores and actually finished stronger than them in the first half. We took a lot of encouragement from having pulled back a few scores. There is a big difference between a five-point deficit and an eight-point deficit at the break."

Before the game, Hogan was 6/1 to win the hurler of the year award. Andy Smith had exposed a few chinks in his armour in the provincial final but his form had been fine. He knew Galway wouldn't let him sit deep but he surely didn't expect to be filleted like he was in the first 35 minutes. For once he looked devoid of answers.

Niall Burke employed a different tack than Smith. He went toe to toe with the Kilkenny number six, dominated him in the air and even when he eventually got on top of Burke, the Galway forward still managed to sneak in for a goal after Hogan and Kieran Joyce collided going for the same ball.

"It was one of those things," the centre-back smiles ruefully. "I wasn't happy with the way I was going myself and obviously he is a strong player. At the break I needed to try and sort it out. Then he got taken off near the end -- that's an example of how strange the game was."

He admits the Kilkenny dressing room was a solemn place of reflection at the interval. They knew themselves they were playing well below par. They didn't need a headline to tell them.

"Your hardest critic is always yourself," Hogan points out. "You never hear a player saying, 'Ah, that was brilliant' reflecting on his own performance. Henry Shefflin is a prime example -- how many games does he go out and star in despite all that he's done?

"We could see there were certain things in the match that were working and those were the things that were mentioned, lads were showing for the ball a bit better in that last 10 or 15 minutes.

"We don't need to be told stuff -- it is very much player-driven as well. Brian would always say that. It's more powerful when it comes from the players rather than the same person standing up in the dressing room every day and roaring and shouting."

Hogan sat much deeper in the second half, roared onto balls almost from the full-back spot and swept up on the right side of defence for good measure. The next 35 minutes saw a reversal of roles.

Alongside Paul Murphy, who met Galway head on from the first whistle, and Shefflin, who played a major role in stirring his team, Hogan lifted the siege.

Suddenly, Richie Power, Eoin Larkin and the rest started putting Galway to the sword. Galway had won the first-half puck-out battle 19-10, scoring 0-5 from that possession alone, but Kilkenny turned it around. They won nine catches in the second half and led by a point with time running out.

As Joe Canning stood over that last-gasp free, Hogan waited for the crowd to tell him whether it was over or not. He had always sensed it would go down to the wire; each one of the Galway team has either minor or under 21 medals. Quality seeps through their side.

"I suppose this year they brought all that talent they have together and they are hurling for each other. Their management has brought belief into the set-up. They know they can beat anyone now and that's a huge thing to know. It hasn't been turned on overnight either; they've built up over a year or more. They kept plugging away when we got on top as well. There is very little between us."

The three weeks between the draw and the rematch were carefully choreographed.

Mick Dempsey, their fitness coach, didn't pack too much in because he wanted to keep guys sharp and the first week's training was limited because players were sore and tired. They stepped it up after that, clocking in at 6.30 to catch the last rays of daylight.

"You don't want to go nuts either and start hurling each other out of it because you can leave your hurling on the training field. It's a balance," Hogan spells out.

"But the lads who didn't start the final want to go flat out, knowing there are opportunities to put their hands up -- if not to start, to come in. They are bursting because they haven't had a match."

He smiles when he's asked about Joe Canning's comments about sportsmanship, JJ Delaney being angry with Shefflin for not going for goal, and all that jazz.

"There wasn't much made of it inside in training," he insists. "A few sniggers."

Henry didn't take a few swipes at JJ in training?

"We had to keep them separate," he jokes.

"No, Jesus, there was nothing like that. In fairness, Henry didn't know about it and somebody said it to him. There was a bit of crack about it that night but there was nothing more made of it."

The whole country was locked in a debate after Shefflin opted to take his point from the penalty spot but Hogan says he made the right call.

"At that stage a point is a huge score because the margins are so tight," he notes. "Hindsight is great; had it been saved the ball could have ended up at the other end and who knows what would have happened? Any kind of score at that stage was vital. A point is a small score in hurling but at that stage it was huge."

And so the chance to help Shefflin win a ninth medal remains. Surely that's massive motivation for the others as they face up to today's rematch?

"No, not really," Hogan says. "It hasn't been mentioned at all. It's probably in the back of Henry's mind somewhere but he wouldn't be the sort of lad who would say: 'Go out there and do it for me'.

"The motivation comes from a selfish perspective. You want to win it for yourself first and foremost and then for the team. If it does happen great, he deserves every bit of it, no better man. But ultimately first it is Kilkenny and Henry would be the first to say that. He wouldn't want to be drawing attention to it himself."

And after two sluggish starts in succession, Kilkenny will hardly need much encouragement to storm the opposition from the start.

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