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25/10/2021

INTERVIEW: Tipperary legend with the midas touch in Offaly on county final bid

Ken Hogan interview

INTERVIEW: Tipperary legend with the midas touch in Offaly on county final bid

Ken Hogan

THERE may be plenty of rivalry, bordering on mutual distaste, mainly friendly but occasionally disintegrating into real acrimony, in the border hotbeds between Offaly and Tipperary. It is clearly not something, however, that Tipperary hurling hero Ken Hogan feeds into in any way and his CV proves this beyond all doubt.

A fiercely proud Lorrha man, Hogan was a brilliant goalkeeper in the 1980s and 1990s, winning five Munster (1987, '88, '89, '91 and '93) and two All-Ireland (1989 and 1991) Senior Hurling Championship in a senior county career that spanned from 1987 to 1993 with one All-Star award on his mantlepiece.

The next stage of his hurling life had begun while he was still playing as he led Birr to a famous Offaly Senior Hurling Championship title in 1991 and since then he has built up a fine reputation. A coach with Nicky English as Tipperary won the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship title in 2001, he was the Tipp manager for two seasons in 2004 and 2005 – they didn't manage to win anything during his tenure - while he led his home county to an All-Ireland U-21 hurling title in 2010.

He has been a phenomenally successful club manager and has plied his trade in Offaly for a good bit of this. A garda based in the Templemore Training College, he has gravitated towards Offaly as he has never wanted to manage a club against his beloved Lorrha in Tipperary, whom he has guided.

Like a lot of Lorrha people, Hogan went to school in Birr and was part of a great side that won the Leinster colleges senior hurling title on two occasions, playing alongside Joe Dooley, Paddy Corrigan, Jimmy Carroll of Shinrone, the late Aidan Rosney and others – beaten in two All-Ireland finals, they were the first Birr side to beat the famed Kilkenny nursery, St Kieran's. Birr is their main shopping centre, a town where they do a good bit of socialising and he has always had great respect for Offaly and hurling in the county.

He was in the first Leaving Certificate class in the then new St Brendan's Community School, sitting his exam in 1991 and he speaks fondly about the input that Br Denis and Padraig Horan had on his hurling development. “We had great times. We reached two All-Ireland colleges final and I played with some great hurlers from all around Offaly. There were some fantastic hurlers there. Paddy Corrigan was unbelievable. Joe Verney of Birr, an uncle of Michael's. I had great times and learnt my trade there. Fantastic memories.”

Offaly hurling goalkeeping legend Damien Martin coached Hogan in Lorrha and had a massive influence on his development.

His late father Hubie had been a prominent inter-county hurling referee back in the 1950s and 1960s and he took charge of a number of Offaly senior hurling finals in those decades when they appointed outside referees for big games. “We have a huge association with Offaly,” he remarked – his first time to see the Sam Maguire Cup was at his own dinner table at home in Lorrha when the late Mick Verney, a County Board treasurer and great friend of his father, brought the cup out.

Offaly hurling was notoriously tough in those years but Hogan has met a lot of the old hurlers from Drumcullen, Clareen and Coolderry and others in Willie Smith's hairdressers in Birr and they have spoke fondly about his father. He still regrets the fact that his father died prematurely, struggled with arthritis, brought on by an old hurling injury, and was never fully healthy in his lifetime - he refereed finals in six different counties, Clare, Limerick, Offaly, Tipperary, Galway and Laois as well as an All-Ireland senior hurling semi-final in 1952.

Now in his third year as St Rynagh's manager, he led them to a dramatic Offaly Senior Hurling Championship success in 2019 and now they are back in the decider, facing off against Kilcormac/Killoughey in a final to set the pulse racing this Saturday.

He also managed Coolderry to the Sean Robbins Cup in 2010 and 2011 (he was also the U-21 manager as they won in 2010) but has had connections with every club he has trained. They won the Leinster club title in 2011, reaching the All-Ireland club final in 2012 where they were beaten. He had great respect for Coolderry, with the mother of Joe and Kevin Brady, minding their children in their formative years.

In Rynagh's, that connection is provided by his first cousin, Noel Gallagher, who won Senior Hurling Championship medals with them in their golden era in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“There has always been some strange connection because I am not one to go around clubs. I am so involved with my own kids and my own club. Your own savage loves his native shores. I love coaching and training as well and I play golf poorly. I am not a big socialiser and I just love the challenge of coaching and meeting younger fellows with better ideas than I have.”

Managing St Rynagh's was something that has been on his horizon for several years but it never happened due to a mixture of reasons: family commitments, involvement with county and club teams and the time was never mutually right until 2019.

He got his first introduction to management with Birr in 1990 while still playing for Tipperary. They had been knocked out of Munster, beaten in the final by Cork in those pre back door days, and he was asked by then Birr chairman John Gibbons to “fill the hole”. They reached the county final where they were beaten by a St Rynagh's sqaud that included his three current selectors – Martin Hanamy, David Hughes and Eunan Martin.

It was a short term thing and he left at the end of the year but came back in again during mid season – Paddy Kirwan was the player-manager and when that didn't work out, Hogan stepped into the breach one again. He had a busy schedule as Tipp won the All-Ireland that year – he had a “quiet wife” but no family at that stage. Birr's subsequently phenomenally successful manager Pat Joe Whelahan was a selector with him and it proved to be a fantastic year as they ended a twenty year famine by winning the championship.

He appointed a 20 year old Brian Whelahan as the captain and ironically, Paddy Kirwan played a pivotal role in the Birr success – playing in goals, he scored a dramatic late winning free from way out the field on a dirty wet day that had the final in doubt until near throw in. They won their first Leinster club title that year and reached the All-Ireland club final where Galway's Kiltormer proved too strong. Fate conspired against Birr as the then brilliant Adrian Cahill was ruled out with a broken leg - “Adrian Cahill was one of the finest stick men I have ever coached,” Hogan smiled about the Birr hero who died suddenly last year.

After that Hogan moved on, concentrating on playing and rearing a family – his first son Cian was born and he continued playing with Lorrha, until winning a Tipperary Intermediate Hurling Championship medal with them in his last game in 2007. His son Cian came onto the senior team the following year but they didn't play together - “It was time to go at that stage, I was 44,” he smiled as he spoke of his pride of getting Lorrha back up to senior status following their relegation in 1998. “My conscious wouldn't have been clear until we got Lorrha back to senior status. I was absolutely thrilled about that.”

In 1991, he had taken a career break from his garda job in the Task Force in Dublin to take up a the first full time role as a Coaching Officer with Munster Council before becoming coach with Nicky English from 1999 to 2002.

As such a successful manager in Offaly, he has attracted interest for the county senior job and was very close to taking it on one occasion. He would have been approached on a few occasions but his commitments with Tipperary and family meant that the timing was never right but he very nearly bit the bullet a few years ago. He went so far as to try and put a package together, meeting a handful of ex Offaly hurlers and he was surprised and saddened when they declined to become involved on his management team. He got the vibes from this that things were not right in Offaly and unsurprisingly, he opted against becoming involved.

He is savouring every moment of his time in St Rynagh's, though this year has provided different challenges with the Covid-19 shutdown and doubts about the season going ahead. Unlike with Offaly, the three men he targeted as selectors, Hanamy, Hughes and Eunan Martin came on board as selectors with Galway's Andy Smith in as trainer. “We are a very close knit group. We are good friends but we are also very straight talking and everything is teased out.”

He is also very happy with the back up support from St Rynagh's Hurling Club and the facilities in Banagher, pointing out that the club is very strong at all levels with the camogie side winning their senior title and the footballers in the intermediate final. “They love their sport down here. It is good to be back in county finals but as Theo English, the Tipperary man said, medals don't come in the post. You have to earn them.”

It very nearly unravelled for them in the 2019 final against Birr. Hogan remembers looking up at the scoreboard with quarter of an hour to go and they trailing by 1-11 to 0-7. “The strength of your team is the panel. As I said to the lads, it is not the team you start with, it is the team you finish with because ultimately, you get the opportunity to go that little bit further. We try and keep all the lads ticking over, we try and get the young lads involved and some of them have matured very well. You need a couple of rabbits in the hat, come a situation.”

He spoke about the strength and pedigree of Kilcormac/Killoughey as they won three in a row after their initial breakthrough in 2012. “They have beaten St Rynagh's in finals and they know what it is like to win county finals. It hurts our lads that they have come out on the wrong end.”

He agrees with the suggestion that the best two teams are in the final. He saw K/K in their semi-final against Belmont and couldn't but be impressed with their physicality and scoring prowess. “We are under no illusions that they have pedigree, they have county medals in their belt and they have three in a row won. They know how to win county championships.”

When it was suggested that St Rynagh's were able to over power Birr in the closing quarter of their semi-final but won't have a physical advantage over K/K, he replied: “Physically, they are very strong. You just have to go out and keep going. Birr felt disappointed last year and came at us hard this year. They are making great progress and when you see the young fellows coming in, tyhe Niall Lyons, Luke Nolan's, they are making progress. Barry Whelahan is doing a great job on them. We knew it would be a hell of a battle and we would have to be up for the game.”

Against Belmont and Ballinamere in the group, St Rynagh's ended up hanging on after being in a position to pull away. He is a bit concerned at this, remarking: “It is a human factor really. We never make it easy for ourselves but I think we would be disrespectful to think we can just go and win those games, to Ballinamere-Durrow who were county U-20 champions and fancied to come as well and playing in Tullamore, and also Belmont, our old nemesis, they are a team who have won and lost against Rynagh's. Near neighbours, probably the unluckiest team in Offaly. And Belmont, it is tough going with the dual tag and you have to admire them, playing senior football and hurling at the top level. “

While aware that the championship is going to ten teams this year, he stated that the eight team one is particularly hard fought with two teams qualifying – he is a big fan of that format with only two going into the semi-finals. “Without a doubt. It adds a bit of zip into the game and every game has to be won. You have to go for it. “

He talked about the importance of the GAA in galvanising people of all ages and communities in a challenging year such as this, even if there are limits on spectators at games.

He kept in touch with players during the lockdown last year and while they had programmes and were asked to train on their own, he wasn't worried about them returning unfit. He pointed out that compared to his own playing days when players would “winter well”, putting on weight in the off season, young people now are so conscious of their body shape and being fit that it wasn't an issue. “I had no qualms about the fact that 99% of lads would come back fit,” he said, stating that the break actually allowed them to come back fitter.

He praised the County Board for providing streaming of games, pointing out that the quality is great and he has streamed games in Tipperary, Cork and Offaly – he even streamed the Intermediate Football Championship semi-final between St Rynagh's and Clonbullogue and with a number of his hurlers involved, it was only natural that he would have an interest in that.

He had no problems with St Rynagh's dual commitments – his senior hurling preparations were disrupted a bit last year with Rynagh's preparing for the intermediate football final (which they won) but he is delighted to see the players committed to their cause. He has had a great working relationship with St Rynagh's football manager Gary O'Connor and had no hesitation in giving his dual players time off to concentrate on football.

“I found that, god forbid injuries, the lads come back in good form, fresher and hungrier for the fray. We have had no issues with that at all. St Rynagh's football take the game very seriously. They are promoting it and they have had Pat Camon and Dermot Shortt back this year.”

There are other players St Rynagh's footballers would like to have but Hogan stressed that he never attempted to influence any player about what to play.

He was delighted to see Diarmuid Horan come on in their semi-final win over Belmont – he also mentioned Niall Wynne, who would have been playing for both footballers and hurlers last year but had to opt out for the season having sustained a couple of concussion injuries last year.

A physiotherapist and nutritionist based in Chicago, Horan returned home in 2019 to play a pivotal role in St Rynagh's county final success, having been away for a number of years. He played from the last round of the group and returned home in June 2020, staying at home since. He has tight hamstrings which take a lot of rehab work and this ruled him out of the group stages this year before he came on as a sub in the semi-final win over Belmont.

Unfortunately for Rynagh's, it now looks like Horan won't be able to play. He will be back from America on holidays but having injured his metatarsal, Hogan expects that he won't be able to line out now. “He trains smart and he hurls smart. He is obviously not a youngster either.”

Joey O'Connor missed the semi-final through suspension and will be fighting hard for his final place. “He will pull out all stops to play. He is a very decent, genuine fellow, a great anchor in our midfield.”

Hogan loves the whole experience of big days, the honour of playing in a final and the excitement it generates. He rates O'Connor Park very highly as a venue, praising its pitch and facilities but as a Lorrha man who did so much growing up in Birr, he has a great affinity with St Brendan's Park. “Any player would be a liar to say they don't like playing in Tullamore, it is a beautiful stadium and pitch but if you asked me for my favourite stadium, I wouldn't be saying Semple Stadium, I wouldn't be saying Croke Park. I would be saying St Brendan's Park. I was born and reared in it. My father brought me there. I played there with the school. I have managed and coached there. It has a special atmosphere of its own. I think the day will come when there will be county finals in Birr again. I think they have made huge strides. There was a little bit of anger and animosity at one stage but I don't think the Birr club have that now. Pat Thompson, John Irwin, they have done fantastic work in there with the pitch and facilities and they are in no way acrimonious about it. They are facilitating Offaly hurling and football. With goodwill rather than pressure, there will be county finals played there again and it won't be a huge issue.”

Having endured a famine from 1993 to 2016, Hogan knows that this Rynagh's team have to extract the most from their golden spell and that success can dry up. “Every team has their few years. Birr were an exception, they were an unbelievable team and proved it as All-Ireland club champions four times. Other than that, every team has their period, whether Coolderry, Kilcormac/Killoughey, Rynagh's or Clareen. You try to make the best of that. They have won a couple and they have lost a few as well. They are still there or there abouts. They are an experienced team but with a great sprinkling of youth.

“Both teams are very similar. Kilcormac are the very same. Experienced but a sprinkling of young fellows coming in. The Jack Screeney's and Lochlan Kavanagh, Dylan Murray in the middle of the field. Then you have the huge experience of the Grogan's, Kilmartin's and Healion's all thrown in and Conor Mahon running the whole show.”

He agreed that it is as close to a 50/50 game as you can get. “I'd say it is. You would have to toss a coin. Anyone who can predict who will win this will definitely know their stuff. It is all on the day.”

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