He may be 33. He may have been out of the Kilkenny team in the early part of the season and at the start of the championship. But Brian Hogan never lost hope.
“If you start doubting you are lost,” was the way he explained his unwanted situation and how he coped during what were dark and trying times during the season.
Hogan, winner of 20 major awards (6 All-Irelands; 6 National Leagues and eight Leinster championships) knew from experience that his chance would come. And he had to be ready.
“The fact I didn’t start a championship match at the beginning was a bit different, but it didn’t change my trail of thought,” he said of his delayed break into the team this year.
It didn’t happen until July. He got to warm the bench....a lot.
“Look at Henry,” Brian said when he took up the story again. “He is two years older than me. Look at the condition he is in. I said to myself, hold on a minute, what is the problem here. It is a matter of how well you look after yourself. If you look after yourself you shouldn’t have any problem.”
The medical rep looked at all the variable. He felt he ticked all the right boxes. He looked at Waterford’s Tony Browne. He played at the highest level into his forties.
“I think I am safe enough at 33,” was the conclusion reached by the powerfully built O’Loughlin Gaels central defender.
Looking after yourself, what does that mean for the modern day hurler?
“It takes on a bit more importance I would say as you get older and it is a bit harder,” he explained. “If you are 19 or 20 you can go through things and jump out of the bed the next morning. Knocks and exertions doesn’t take a funk out of you. With the likes of me it is about doing proper recovery.
“Do the stretching you are supposed to be doing. Be careful if you are nursing an injury. Be pro-active about things and don’t take a chance that things will be okay. If you have to go into the pool or whatever, do it.”
He said he was careful about his diet, but he gave himself some leeway. He wasn’t prone to putting on weight. He ate wholesome food, but he did allow himself the odd Kit Kat as a treat.
But back to those trying days!
All the time he was sitting on the bench, during most of the successful National League campaign, he never dropped his head, never doubted his form or ability. The lads who were in the team were hurling well, he conceded.
Brian Kennedy was in; Joey Holden was there too. They were flying. Jackie Tyrrell was the centre-back most days.
“I have been there long enough,” Brian said of his patient approach. “I knew it was a matter of trying to keep my form where I wanted it to be, and keep in there at training to make it difficult for the boys in terms of the selection and then hope I got the opportunity.
“I have been at the other side of it. You can feel lads breathing down your neck when you know they are going well in training. You are saying to yourself I need to perform. You know if you are not that someone else is capable of coming in.
“That is the way you look at it. It is a long year. Through experience I knew I would get a chance at some stage. Thankfully that was the case. I always felt my form was good. I never really had any concerns there.”
His strong self belief was a powerful weapon in his fight for survival. His knew that current form always determined all in the Kilkenny. He pushed and pushed. The man who once owned a jersey was looking for it back.
“You need to keep your form because Brian (Cody) will make a change if you are not performing to the standard,” he kept reminding himself. “That is the way he has always operated. Every year someone was left off and people were saying how was he left off.
“It would have been easy to get frustrated, but because of experience I knew how Brian operated and I would get the chance sometime.”
It was no comfort when he looked across the bench and saw hurling giants like Tommy Walsh and Henry Shefflin sitting beside him. He knew that others were looking to get into in the team as well.
“Henry feels he has no right to be in the team,” he said of the attitude that dominates the camp. “Brian makes that clear at the beginning of every year. It is a way of bringing us back down to earth. What you achieved before is history.
“Everyone starts with a blank canvass. He practices what he preaches. The fact that Tommy was sitting beside me on the bench - he was peppering to get in - was no consolation.
“You want to play. That is what it is about. If Brian felt we were sitting on the bench and weren’t too bothered we wouldn’t be there for long. He wants to see that in lads that they want to be playing. I certainly did want to be playing.”
Now on Sunday - believing he will make the team - he faces what will a torrid head-to-head against the tear away Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher, who is in the form of his life. What were his thoughts?
“He is flying, and has been all season,” he said of Maher. “He has arguably been Tipperary’s most consistent player all year. There is never any guarantee against any player. You have to be prepared for anything just in case there are changes.
“You never know what is going to be thrown at you. You concentrate on your own game and try and get that right. Croke Park is a huge pitch. The space is there. You can’t be afraid of it.
“The way the game has gone now you will be brought into positions you wouldn’t ordinarily be used to. A few years ago at one stage in a final I was corner-back for about five minutes. Then I was wing back. Then I was in the centre. It was the same against Dublin in the Leinster final.
“You have to be comfortable and confident to move around. The fortunate thing is that our six backs will be confident enough to play wherever the challenge brings them. It is not something I am concerned with.”
He won’t lose sleep worrying that Tipp might try and drag him around the place. All these matches are a battle of wills. Each team wants to impose their own game plan.
“It is a matter of who does it best,” Brian smiled. “At the same time, the likes J.J. (Delaney) won’t be bothered whether the ball comes in high or low. He is comfortable against either. Likewise the rest of us. We will be going out with a particular emphasis and game plan.
“No doubt, Tipp will have their idea. During the opening 10 minutes we will size each other up in that regard. At the same time, you will be drawn into positions you are not used to. It is a matter of dealing with that. It won’t happen that I will be left to play away at centre-back.”
The competition within the panel was razor sharp, Brian insisted. Everyone wanted to be playing every game. He did anyway. During the League it was difficult sitting on the bench, he admitted.
His first taste of championship action was as a sub against Offaly. He eventually won back the No. 6 shirt. But is there a sharper edge to things in the camp this time because of the rotation policy adopted by the selectors?
“There is an edge there all the time,” he reminded. “Maybe. Possibly. To be fair, the fact that so many got game time, got a taste of things in the National League or championship, they know there was a strong chance of them getting in.
“It means that 1 to 30 the guys are pushing, and not only for the team. There are lads pushing to make the match day panel of 26.
“Unfortunately the way things are there will be five or six lads who won’t be able to tog out on the day.
“The competition is all good. It is a great problem for Brian (Cody) to have. It is a good problem from our point of view.”
This final will have a sub text, a possible story for history. Henry Shefflin will be chasing a never before achieved 10th All-Ireland winners medal.
“It hasn’t been mentioned at all,” the O’Loughlin’s man assured. “Probably the way last year went, no one was getting ahead of themselves.
“Having been put out of the championship so early then, everyone was focused on getting to the final. We got a scare against Galway. We were very wary of Dublin.
“No one was talking about the All-Ireland. Then Limerick were on the rise. The circus that went on a few years ago about the possible five in-a-row, maybe learned from that. There hasn’t been any mention of that.
“It was literally ‘we are in the All-Ireland now’ after beating Limerick. That was it. Each match was taken as it came. After we beat Limerick was the first time we thought about the All-Ireland.
“With Tipp as the opponents you won’t get carried away with any of the other things that surround the All-Ireland,” he ended.