Richie Hogan: Kilkenny’s ultimate game manager

Richie had to be moulded into a Cody player... Cody put manners on him, says Adrian Ronan.

He didn’t quite become the new DJ. Instead he became something far more interesting and rounded. He became Richie Hogan

Among the spectators at last year’s Leinster final was an Australian gentleman called Dave, sitting in the front row of the Cusack Stand with his brother-in-law from Kilkenny. Dave had never been to a hurling match before but, having played Aussie Rules to a reasonably high level back home in Melbourne, he had a pretty good idea of the dynamics of team sports.

His man of the match that day? Richie Hogan, who was more or less in front of him for the entire afternoon and who captivated the visitor with his powers of orchestration. “He was managing the whole thing,” Dave gasped in admiration. He was managing the whole thing and a few months later he was clutching the Hurler of the Year trophy.

Richie Hogan, Hurler of the Year. That was no surprise to anyone in Kilkenny who’d watched him as an underage player. The young Hogan was seen coming from a long way off, trailing the same clouds of glory that Cha Fitzpatrick (a couple of years older) and Tommy Walsh (a couple of years older still) had trailed and that Henry Shefflin emphatically had not.

Hogan was small but he was deadly, and being both a cousin of Gowran’s best known resident and a world champion handballer as well, the tag was unavoidable. The new DJ.

As far back as the weekend of the 2004 All-Ireland final, one national newspaper went so far as to proclaim that the number 13 striped jersey was being reserved for Hogan.

In the event, lacking Carey’s withering turn of foot, he didn’t quite become the new DJ. Instead he became something far more interesting and rounded. He became Richie Hogan.

Might he have become Hurler of the Year a few years before he did? At home in Danesfort, they’d have expected so. It wasn’t that Hogan was big for his age; quite the reverse. It was that he was astoundingly mature.

In his last year minor, he appeared in the All-Ireland U21 final. In his first year out of minor, he was close to being brought on in the closing stages of the 2007 senior decider against Limerick. In his last year at U21, he was man of the match in the national league final. Then the unforeseen happened. Hogan, gifted and all as he was, found himself having to stand in line for a while. The shooting star didn’t fall to earth but it lost some of its momentum and its lustre.

It turned out to be a blessing, allowing him to develop in his own time without — unlike DJ — being required to be a saviour from the off. Blessed with the resources he was, Brian Cody wasn’t looking for a superstar. He wasn’t even looking for an exciting new forward. All he wanted was a promising panellist.

“Players fit in in different ways and at different speeds,” says Cody. “Richie brought wonderful talent to the team. An outstanding young player with huge skill – that’s obvious. There was huge competition for places at the time and he contributed massively from day one. Now he has developed as a player in many different ways. Physically. Every single way.”

To Adrian Ronan, who coached Danesfort to county and All-Ireland junior success, the adjustment process was a necessary one. “Richie had to be moulded into a Cody player. That’s what took the three years. With Danesfort he was the go-to player. He was winning games on his own. ‘Give it to me and I’ll do the damage.’ Cody put manners on him. That’s what had to happen.”

Hogan’s temperament helped. In the way of these things, his teenage reputation automatically invited the heavy stuff from opponents; he never stood back. One night in Nowlan Park a few years ago he half threw a box at someone during a scuffle in training and had a hurley broken off his chest in return. In the showers afterwards the welt of the hurley was visible, glowing like a beacon on his chest. “You’d better bring a bigger stick the next time,” he calmly advised the other lad.

While Galway supporters may recall with some trepidation his 0-4 from full-forward in the 2012 All-Ireland replay, Tipperary readers disappointed their boys aren’t involved next Sunday can take some consolation from the fact that at least they don’t have to face Hogan again. God only knows what they did in a previous life to incur his wrath.

There was the last-gasp equalising goal in the 2006 All-Ireland U21 final and the clinching point in the replay in Thurles. Man of the match in the 2009 league final. The game-breaking goal, killing the sliotar on his bas and dispatching it back across Brendan Cummins without taking it to hand, in the 2011 All-Ireland final. Man of the match in the 2014 league showpiece. Man of the match first time around last September. The Tipp Slayer.

He started the second half of last year’s drawn All-Ireland at midfield, quickly winning a free that TJ Reid converted. Then Padraic Maher cleared a couple of balls, whereupon Kilkenny decided they needed, in Derek Lyng’s words, “a different influence there”. Switched to centre-forward, Hogan proceeded to land five points from play between the 43rd and 60th minutes in addition to slinging a monster handpassed assist for Brian Hogan to nail one from distance.

One of his points entailed him outfielding Kieran Bergin, a taller man, under a Kilkenny puck-out. Another involved a give and go with Michael Fennelly. But they weren’t flashy scores and apart from the one with Fennelly, they didn’t involve a solo run. Arguably Hogan’s greatest gift is the ability to get into places without being seen. Like Thomas Muller of Bayern Munich and Germany, he is an interpreter of space.

Ronan disagrees with people who say he’s not fast, incidentally. “He’s not lightning fast, he’s not DJ or Eddie Brennan. But he’s very fast. The brain tells him where to be. And he has low gravity. The brain is the thing, though.”

The 2009 National League final was the day he made his bones. Every established Kilkenny forward has one game that really impresses Cody, a game where they almost single-handedly carry the day. This was Hogan’s. It was an afternoon of bitterness and broken collarbones and late tackles and early dismissals and it was totally and utterly compelling. Although Kilkenny finished with only half of the XV that had destroyed Waterford the previous September, Hogan was a rock through it all and scored 1-10. The consensus among the players afterwards was that he was sorted for life. He was three months short of his 21st birthday.

Having played in four different positions in All-Ireland finals his optimum location remains a matter of mild debate. “Centre-forward allows him to play as a third midfielder,” Lyng vouches. “He’s very good on breaking ball because he gets low to the ground very quickly and he’s very good in the air. But at midfield he’s outstanding.”

For the last few years he travelled to training from Dublin with David Herity. Herity, not being the uncommunicative type, would have preferred a passenger who talked to him, or failing that someone who at any rate listened. That wasn’t Hogan, who after “five minutes of mumbles” would immediately fall asleep and not wake up again until Nowlan Park.

“Looking at lads in the dressing room before a match, you know if they’re worried or anxious,” says Herity. “Not Richie.”

Once out on the training field he preferred the economical to the flashy. TJ Reid would customarily pull off some blinding piece of skill before fizzing a shot that did a figure of eight on its way to the top corner. Hogan in contrast was content to do the simple thing and pop his points from distance. When Shefflin left the stage not one but two vacancies opened up in the orchestra. Reid has taken over as first violin. Hogan, inarguably, is now the conductor.

How has he been this summer? Against Wexford he was playing a different game to everyone else on the field. He was man of the match in the Leinster final and against Waterford he was good if unusually imprecise, the sloppiness attributable to a back injury suffered the week beforehand. In the second half, he hit two bad wides but he also scored three points from play in the space of eight minutes, won a converted free and picked out Pádraig Walsh with a slightly overhit crossfield ball, from under the Cusack Stand to under the Hogan Stand, that Walsh retrieved and turned into a point for Eoin Larkin. “That was all down to Richie Hogan,” Donal O’Grady acknowledged on RTÉ.

A cameo three minutes from the end of the semi-final illustrates the scope of his role as field marshal. Hogan fouled Stephen O’Keeffe as the latter went to gather a dropping ball outside the Waterford square. When O’Keeffe had recovered he took the free and deposited it just outside the Kilkenny 50-metre line. There, standing a couple of metres off and facing his own goal, was Hogan. The break went his way and he gathered the sliotar, looped around a posse of players and set Kilkenny attacking again.

He is in the form of his life. A slight hamstring issue has cleared up following sustained work at the National Athlete Development Academy in Dublin. He’s able to box-jump four fifths of his height. He won’t be Hurler of the Year again but he’ll be an All Star. In short, he’s become the player they always hoped and expected in Danesfort and beyond.

He is not the new DJ. He is Richie Hogan. That’s more than good enough.

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