Wednesday 22 November 2017

Hogan stakes claim to King Henry's throne

Kilkenny star struggled for years to fight his way into team of bluebloods but, in Shefflin's absence, has emerged as Cats' key forward

Full-forwards: Richie Hogan (Kilkenny)
Full-forwards: Richie Hogan (Kilkenny)
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Hard times are part of any Kilkenny forward's education and Richie Hogan may only now be appreciating the emotional coldness of Brian Cody's classroom.

This peculiar summer has asked stark questions of the champions in their struggle to reclaim the attacking panache that was once a simple reflex. Through six hours and 10 minutes of championship hurling to date, Kilkenny have scored just a solitary goal from play.

They are surviving on an accumulation of cursory incisions rather than the blithe rapier thrusts of old. Almost exactly half of Kilkenny's 2-98 tally in this championship has come from placed balls, with only Hogan averaging more than two scores from play per game. In the continued absence of Henry Shefflin, Kilkenny's smallest man has become their attacking leader.

Yet, just 12 days short of his 25th birthday, it doesn't exactly represent a soaring coronation for a player Adrian Ronan regards as the last truly top-rank forward the county has presented to Cody for deployment.

Ronan was manager of the Danesfort team that won a Kilkenny Junior Championship in '06 (the club's first since 1930) before kicking on to claim the following year's All-Ireland. That team was, as he puts it, "back-boned" by three remarkable teenagers, Paul Murphy (16) at midfield, Richie Hogan (17) in the full-forward line and his older brother, Paddy (18) at centre-back.

Richie, naturally, was the team's primary score-taker and would deliver 1-6 in their All-Ireland final defeat of Clooney Gaels. But it was in the semi-final that Ronan remembers first seeing the kind of kid that Cody might appreciate.

They played Kilworth in a Dungarvan tempest and Hogan had two markers on his case, every step he took. "The thing about Richie is that he was already a star in primary school, which doesn't happen often nowadays," reflects Ronan.

He was only hurling 'Roinn C' with Bennettsbridge at the time and, because it was at a lower level, people maintained it didn't matter. But he broke onto the Kilkenny U-14s, then the U-16s and minors.

"So Kilworth would have known all about him and they earmarked him for huge attention. But that day Richie showed the character that Cody requires in a player. He didn't put up a huge score, but he grafted and grafted against all the elements and dug out a result for the team. We needed men that day in Dungarvan. And Richie proved himself a man."

That would have been no real surprise in Danesfort, given they'd first blooded him in junior championship as a 15-year-old, bringing him on for the second half of a northern semi-final against Conahy Shamrocks.

A cousin of DJ Carey's, they always believed Richie to be some kind of gift from the heavens (or at least a gentle act of kindness from the clerk who scribbled parish lines on a Bennettsbridge map, decreeing the Hogans' house on the hill to be, technically, in Danesfort).

Catching Cody's eye, however, was always going to be a trickier proposition.

THERE is no such thing as a shooting star within the Kilkenny dressing-room and Hogan's senior career has, accordingly, dragged its heels in pursuit of full expression.

He was an unused substitute for the '07 All-Ireland final victory against Limerick, most presuming the grand drum-roll to be merely suspended for a season. But, though Richie's senior championship debut duly arrived against Offaly the following June, Cody seemed broadly underwhelmed. Hogan was replaced by TJ Reid and did not feature again in that year's championship.

If he was a perpetual scoring machine for Danesfort and collected his second All-Ireland U-21 title with Kilkenny that autumn, he had yet to acquire the self-sufficiency that Cody demands of an inter-county forward.

In the 12 championship games Kilkenny played between '08 and '10, Hogan would start just three (being replaced each time), be deployed as a substitute in four and have zero involvement in the other five. Four years after first walking into the Kilkenny dressing-room, he was still a bit-player. Why?

Locally, it is believed that the natural rhythms of his club life demanded an on-field selfishness that, on county duty, became faintly ludicrous in the company of men like Shefflin, Eoin Larkin and Richie Power. Ronan suggests that Hogan averages between 10-14 scores in games he plays for Danesfort, roughly half of which generally accrue from play.

In a Kilkenny shirt, he felt compelled to replicate that kind of haul.

"I think it took two years of Brian Cody reminding him that he wasn't expected to win things on his own for the penny to drop," says Ronan. "He'd come into a team of legends and Cody had to tell him 'Richie, you're playing with a team now, throw the ball around!'"

If any single moment confirmed his assimilation into Cody's way, it was probably Kilkenny's opening goal in the 2011 All-Ireland final against Tipperary.

Shefflin caught Tipp off-guard by prodding a short sideline cut to Hogan, for whom an easy point was available. But Hogan spotted Michael Fennelly at his shoulder, a perfect lay-off enabling the Ballyhale man to torque towards the Tipp square without breaking stride. After that, the finish was rudimentary.

It was a goal that captured the essence of Cody's vision for an attack – good forwards hurling with their heads up.

But that vision has, palpably, blurred this season. Kilkenny's attacking coherence has left them and, within the county, a consensus grows that the forwards might not be strictly to blame.

Christy Heffernan talks of "question-marks over Kilkenny's style of play" as the convention of driving long puck-outs into a usually supplemented opposition defence flies in the face of logic.

"I can't understand it," he says. "And in Thurles the last day, defenders weren't off-loading to lads in a better position. So they were just driving it to hell or to Connacht, which isn't much good to a forward.

"The opposition can just plant themselves, seven against six for the high deliveries. They know where the ball is going to land. So if I'm in full-forward like Richie Hogan, even if I beat my man, there are two more lads waiting for me. There's no fluency there. The tradition of just driving ball out of the full-back or half-back lines isn't going to work anymore."

Heffernan's former county colleague John Henderson concurs. "The supply of ball to the forwards against Dublin in the (Leinster semi-final) replay especially was just atrocious," says Henderson. "Dublin cut it off at half-back and Kilkenny were just lofting in high ball, no thought put into it at all. You could see the full-forward line was getting totally frustrated inside.

"I mean you give the ball right to a talented forward inside like Richie Hogan, who has got a left and a right of equal calibre, someone who is almost as good as Eoin Kelly in his prime... as a defender you don't know whether to go left or right with him, because he can choose on a whim to go either side and score. Richie's very good in the air, but you still have to give him the right ball."

Henderson believes that Kilkenny's traditional aversion to short puck-outs, particularly against teams often playing with just four attackers, is rooted in obstinacy.

"I'd call that stubbornness, arrogance," he sighs. "Nothing to do with intelligence. I could be wrong here, but the Kilkenny psyche seems to be 'You beat us whatever way you can, but this is the way we play ... '"

Cody's record all but defies criticism but, in the absence of their old coherence, the scoring burden has been taken up primarily by Hogan, Power and, in two games particularly, Walter Walsh. But their scores have, largely, been triumphs of individual resistance rather than the consummation of a plan.

As Ronan sees it "We haven't clicked as a unit, but Richie Hogan has clicked. And that's why we've been getting out of trouble."

IN A COUNTY ACCUSTOMED to decanting forward gods, the dread of seeing Shefflin slip into the sunset is now settling on every home.

For the hope that either Hogan or Power might step towards that kind of altar hasn't exactly come to pass. Both have mastered the business of steady productivity, but they are still some distance short of the preferred altitude of, say, an Eddie Keher, a DJ or a King Henry.

Hogan will certainly feel that he should have more championship goals to his name by now (just four in five seasons), but he is congenitally tough and recognised in Danesfort as a man selfless in his devotion to the collective.

Gerry Doyle was a selector for the 2011 county intermediate winning team, captained by the younger Hogan. In the final against Rower-Inistigoe, older brother Paddy was sent off maybe 10 minutes into the second half. Not long after, Richie took a heavy blow.

"I remember running in to him," recalls Doyle. "He was down on his knees after taking an awful shot and I was full sure he wasn't getting up.

"'Richie are you okay?' I asked. And he said 'Just give me a second, I'll be grand in a second!'

"Well he got back up eventually and, with us down to 14 men, proceeded to give an exhibition. If I have a memory of that day it's just before the final whistle and Richie clearing a ball out of his own full-back line."

Cody recognised something of that same quality last year when Hogan broke two ribs and punctured a lung in a collision with the opposing goalkeeper during a facile National League defeat of Galway in Nowlan Park. The incident occurred near the end of a game that finished with a scoreline of 3-26 to 0-10.

"A lot of players wouldn't even have bothered to go and contest that ball," said Cody.

In contesting it, Richie Hogan confirmed to the Kilkenny manager that he had the competitive integrity he so cherishes. Yet, within the county today, there are worries that for all this storied self-sufficiency, the champions now need to go to war with a plan.

Heffernan says that he would play Hogan and Walsh as a two-man full-forward line. "Whether there were two or three lads marking him, Walter could break up the play," suggests Christy. "He mightn't get the ball himself, but he might make space for Richie."

Ronan describes Hogan simply as "gifted". "For a small man, he's able to go up like Tommy Walsh and beat any six-footer to a high ball," he says. "If anything, one of his strengths is in the air. You can hit any ball in to Richie.

"There'll never be another Henry, but Richie is the next – well we hope the next – leader of the attack. He's the man best equipped to take up that mantle. He has that discipline, that belief, that arrogance, that skill.

"He has the equipment and, maybe most importantly, he has developed that Cody character."

In a summer crammed with the noise and tremor of rebellion, might he yet be the one to bring his old master peace?

Kilkenny's top championship scorers from play this year: Richie Hogan 0-13, Walter Walsh 1-8, Richie Power 0-9, Colin Fennelly 0-7, TJ Reid, Aidan Fogarty 0-3 each.

Irish Independent

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