3 the magic number for Joey Holden

It was only weeks after JJ Delaney’s retirement at a function in Kilkenny’s Cíllin Hill that Brian Cody was approached by a supporter about replacing what the manager himself has described as the greatest defender he has ever seen.

3 the magic number for Joey Holden

“Do you know who you’ll put at full-back?” asked the inquisitive and intrepid fan.

“I do,” returned Cody, with no intention to elaborate. Typical Cody, the man got an answer to the question but not as much information as he would have liked.

Conversations with Cody usually go that way: he’s liable to get more out of you than you of him. But given he has used so very few full-backs in his previous 16 seasons — Noel Hickey, John Tennyson and Delaney — it wouldn’t have taken too much guesswork to figure out just who he had in mind to step into Delaney’s spot.

Conor Fogarty’s name has been mentioned while Paul Murphy took up the mantle for the entirety of the league, even when Joey Holden returned for the relegation final against Clare, after his success with Ballyhale Shamrocks.

But now 12 weeks on, it’s Holden who looks odds-on to be stationed in front of Eoin Murphy. He will at least wear the No 3 jersey and Cody’s thinking became a little clearer about his position when he featured at full-back in the June Bank Holiday Sunday challenge win over Limerick in Inistioge.

Maybe given the history of Kilkenny captains who have found themselves unable to break into the team, (Charlie Carter in 2003, his Shamrocks’ club-mate Michael Fennelly in 2009 and Lester Ryan last year come to mind) Holden, 25 next month, considers inclusion in the Kilkenny defence more of a priority than his position.

“Since JJ left, I suppose there has been a position open. I just try to be as competitive as I can in training, whether it’s full-back or wherever I’m played. You have to give it your all in training first. If you’re given the nod to be picked in matches, just see how it goes. Try and be as competitive as I can. Not let my man get on top.”

A ciotóg like Delaney, it’s not just Holden’s agility and flight of foot that will appeal to Cody. As a left-hander, he has the jump on right-handed forwards (pun not intended). As DJ Carey pointed out before, reaching for the ball with a different hand can make a forward think twice. That split-second hesitation is all a defender needs.

This time last year, the grooming of Holden as the heir apparent to Delaney seemed a distant possibility as he made the right-wing back spot his own from the Leinster semi-final replay win over Galway to the drawn All- Ireland final with Tipperary.

Being dropped for the replay stung him. “You want to play every game. You don’t want to be on the bench or dropped but I learned a lot from it. Hopefully, I can use that as motivation for this year. It’s up to you to be on your mettle to build yourself up and give it your best shot.”

Being such a key protagonist in Ballyhale’s success in Kilkenny and Leinster at the tail-end of last year helped but then he faced the challenge of taking up the full-back mantle for the first time. As he showed against Gort and then Kilmallock in the final, he embraced it with gusto.

“We had a good victory that day,” he says of the March 17 decider. “Things went my way alright. Maybe a couple of mistakes. Overall, it was a good enough performance.

“This year was the first year I’ve been put back there. Usually, I’m half-back or centre-back with the club. It took a few games to get used to that’s your position. I started getting used to it then, enjoyed playing back there.”

He doesn’t see it as a negative that he has yet to play a competitive game at full-back for the county. “A couple of games probably would have been good but we try to make training as competitive as we can so when it comes to a match, you’re right up at that championship level. I don’t think it’s a disadvantage. We still have time to get ourselves ready in training.”

Being able to spar with Henry Shefflin these last five or six years with the club and last year with Kilkenny has been vital to Holden’s nurturing as a defender. Shefflin was principal in a school of hard knocks but Holden gave back what he got too. “Just because it’s Henry Shefflin, you’re not going to go easier — you’re going to go harder. That’s the way you want it. No love lost in training.”

And No 3 is the way it is now for Holden.

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