It’s a career that has produced five All-Ireland titles between club and county but Joey Holden would be the first to admit it hasn’t run smoothly.
Dropped after minor and U21 Kilkenny trials, the 29-year-old knows the meaning of the word rejection. And just when he seemed on top of the world in 2015, having added an All-Star to a second Celtic Cross, along came the following year’s All-Ireland final when his marker Seamus Callanan fired over nine points from play.
What followed were two seasons of doubt. One game Holden was a starter, the next he wasn’t — until 2019 when a third All-Ireland title with Ballyhale Shamrocks provided the platform for an All-Star-nomination season, one of four from the club honoured.
To claim confidence was all that was lacking is easily said but it was like a bar of soap for Holden, a natural pessimist about his own game. “It would take a lot for me to say I played a good game because I want that perfection when my man doesn’t get the ball at all, but from experience and learning you realise he is going to get it but have you made it difficult for him.
“Confidence is a hard thing to judge and it’s a hard thing to manage because when you’re in it you don’t really realise but when your confidence is back, things just automatically happen easier. It’s a hard thing to say your confidence is low or your confidence is high.
“It’s only when you play these games and look back [that] it’s easier to analyse, but it’s a hard thing to suss out. It’s not that I’ve changed anything about what I’ve been doing, it’s just doing the things right. Maybe don’t be as critical on yourself sometimes. Sometimes your man is going to get the ball and sometimes he’s going to score but what can you do to make yourself better in those situations?
“I’ve re-analysed how to be critical of myself but that comes with understanding of the game. The club game, you might be able to give a yard depending on the player and where he is on the field but give the county man that yard and he’ll put the ball over the bar from over his shoulder.”
Marking Henry Shefflin, TJ Reid, and Colin Fennelly in club training down through the years was a school of hard knocks for Holden but provided priceless lessons. Trying to negate Shefflin would have been as much an aspiration for him as playing alongside the local and national hero.
“When I was younger looking up to Henry and those type of players you want to be like them and you want to get a chance to mark them. It was drilled into us from our parents. I remember my father asking me one time, ‘Who is your favourite Kilkenny player?’ I was a back, I didn’t actually know, I was surprised by the question.
“I said Andy Comerford and he turned on me and said, ‘What? There are these Ballyhale lads on the team — you have to pick one of them!’
“That was it so. It was drummed into us that we were representing Ballyhale and the history that you want to emulate, and respect that by doing your own little bit for the club.”
An avid huntsman, Holden would have put away the saddle on St Stephen’s Day to walk with the hounds. Other sacrifices like missing out on the Kilkenny team holiday to Orlando have had to be made.
But for Ballyhale’s county contingent who have had little or no break since theend of 2017, at least they havea manager who has worn thet-shirt.
“It’s good to have Henry there because he’s been there and he knows the challenges for inter-county players so he would be very understanding. We’ve got used to enjoying our breaks when we’ve been given them.”
Holden expects a battle with Slaughtneil on Sunday and knows that they are tired of losing All-Ireland semi-finals. “They’ve won three of the last four Ulster titles and even talking to Chrissy (McKaigue) there, I was asking him how were the celebrations after the final and he said, ‘OK but we’ve done it before. We want the next step.’ So we’re well aware that they’re looking for the push on and we didn’t need to be told that.
“You saw St Thomas last year (narrowly beating Cushendall), it’s a mental thing that you’re playing a northern team but it’s not, like... I was in America in 2013 and hurled with some savage hurlers from the North, a lot better than I was back then and I have no problem admitting that.
"They’re looking forward to this and they’ll be fit and strong. They’ve plenty of good hurlers, a strong community and a lot of heart will bring you a long way, especially in club hurling.”