Perseverance paid for late bloomer Holden
By John Harrington
A two-time All-Ireland winner with both Ballyhale Shamrocks and Kilkenny, Joey Holden is the very definition of a high-achieving hurler.
His story is as much a tale of perseverance as it is natural talent, though.
He wasn’t ear-marked for greatness at a young age, and failed to make both the Kilkenny minor and U-21 panels.
“I would have been called in for a trial but I would have dropped fairly quick,” admits Holden.
“Listen, I wasn’t at that level, there’s no point in lying and saying I was.
“I didn’t think I was at that level when I was brought into the Kilkenny panel but I developed and things started moving along quicker.
“I’d probably put it down to marking Henry (Shefflin) and TJ (Reid) in club training and learning so much off marking those lads. Things started clicking with you then, things start going right and you get confidence.
“So I wasn’t very good at U18, minor, some people say I’m not that great now! But listen, that’s the way it goes, you just go out and try your best.
“Some days, things haven’t gone right for me, other days, they have. Listen, it’s only a game of hurling.
“When I started at U11, they threw in a little white ball and they’ll throw in a little white ball on Paddy’s Day, it’s still a game of hurling!”
The game might not have come as easily to Holden at a young age as it did for some of his peers, but he stuck at it and can still vividly remember the moment when he knew for sure he was on the right track.
“I remember one game, I just couldn’t do no wrong, I went up to catch the ball and then I came down and the ball was in my hand - it was just one of them things,” said Holden.
“Things just started clicking, you probably train so hard that these things just become automatic. I suppose it’s when you’re not thinking sometimes, that’s when you’re at your best. You just go out and hurl and do your best.
“You don’t really know if you’re good enough until you’re in there and training. I was in training and I still didn’t think I was up to it, but then lads were getting dropped and you’re still there...next thing you’re wearing number five, then you’re like, right well I will try hold onto this until the next day.
“Then the next day you could be getting 17 - but you’ve learned so much up to there, don’t just throw it away. Keep doing what you’re doing and you might get another chance then.”
Holden is living proof of the soundness of that advice.
He might not have made the cut at minor or U-21 for Kilkenny, but he quickly made a name for himself on the club scene with Ballyhale Shamrocks as a highly promising young defender.
By the age of 23 he had done enough to catch the eye of Brian Cody, and in 2014 was called into the Kilkenny senior panel.
“I was surprised, I would have played well with the club but you don’t know what they’re thinking or what they’re looking at,” said Holden.
“You’re just walking into the dressing room - loads of Kilkenny heroes around you.
“You’re marking these lads like Taggy Fogarty, you learn so much from them. They could roast you at training, but, whenever you get a roasting, you learn more than you would have had going in. And, whenever they get the ball, you’ve to learn to try and stop them.
“There will be good days and bad days but you just have to learn things on the way and try to improve.”
Holden won an All-Ireland medal in his first year on the panel in 2014 and the following year he had the honour of lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup as Kilkenny captain.
Not bad going for someone who never made the grade with his county at underage.
He credits the lessons - some of them painful - he learned from his team-mates at club and county level for developing his talent sufficiently to make it at the highest level.
No-one hit harder in the school of hard-knocks on the training pitch with both Ballyhale Shamrocks and Kilkenny than Henry Shefflin, but these days he’s dispensing his lessons from the sideline as Ballyhale’s manager.
He’s won county and provincial title in his first year in charge and is now just one more win away from an All-Ireland title.
Holden hasn’t been in the least surprised how easily his former team-mate has made the transition from playing to management.
“Being a teacher, I look at teaching concepts and if you understand the concept, you can bring that into any question that's asked," said Holden.
“He has serious leadership skills and if you look at the leadership concept, it's the same thing. You're just maybe delivering it in a different approach.
“He would always have been a leader - you probably would have seen that yourselves, you don't need to be a genius to see that. Now he's just delivering those leadership skills in a different way.
“Some results, we got lucky and maybe he's made some mistakes along the way - I don't know, I haven't seen them - but he's probably learned from those.
“It's a learning curve for everybody but you just go out and do your best both on the sideline and on the field and if that's good enough, we'll take it; if not we'll learn from what we've done wrong.
“He has developed, you can see that yourselves. He'll probably say it himself, from where we started to where we've come now has been a good journey so far.
“It will be very good if we manage to finish it off but we're up against a serious St Thomas side. That's the challenge.”
Ballyhale Shamrocks won the All-Ireland title as recently as 2015 while their opponents in Sunday's Final, St Thomas’ of Galway, were champions in 2013.
Both teams are stacked with Kilkenny and Galway county players and boast serious firepower, so it’s shaping up to be a serious game of hurling.
“It’ll be a titanic battle,” said Holden. “St Thomas’ have won two of the last three Galway titles, they got pipped by a point another year in one of the quarter-finals so they’re ultra-competitive in championship games, they won the club All Ireland in 2013.
“I think overall Galway probably have the upper hand in the amount of club All Irelands teams have won so they’re always competitive.
“We just hope we can match the experience that they have.
“I know they’ve a lot of lads, nine or 10 who would have played in the last All Ireland, we don’t have as many so we hope we can match their experience and match their work rate and hopefully we’ll try and pip them at the end of the day.”