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'They’re three phenomenal club men' - The O'Loughlin Gaels stars in the Kilkenny defence

Mikey Butler, Huw Lawlor and Paddy Deegan have been to the fore for the Leinster champions.

Mikey Butler, Huw Lawlor and Paddy Deegan.
Mikey Butler, Huw Lawlor and Paddy Deegan.
Image: INPHO

IN THE HALF-back line, Brian Hogan looked at the pair flanking him and saw a hurling future for Kilkenny.

The O’Loughlin Gaels team that reached the peak of Kilkenny club hurling in 2010, went on to add a Leinster senior title and journeyed to the All-Ireland decider in 2011.

By the time they returned to the county senior showpiece in 2015, their team had undergone some reinvention.

Hogan’s inter-county retirement occurred in late 2014, after a glittering career in Kilkenny colours. He was still to the fore for O’Loughlin Gaels 12 months later with 19-year-old Huw Lawlor and 20-year-old Paddy Deegan occupying the wing-back spots as they lost narrowly to Clara.

In 2016 they made amends in taking down Ballyhale Shamrocks to claim the silverware.

brian-hogan-lifts-the-trophy Brian Hogan lifts the trophy after the 2016 Kilkenny senior final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“They mightn’t have had stellar underage careers, Kilkenny weren’t winning minors, they would have gone under the radar to a certain extent,” recalls Hogan.

“We knew in the club, we could see as they developed. Paddy was always very mature for his age, an extremely driven individual, a solid character. Huw was on a more successful underage team in the club.

“I got to know them as they were breaking into the senior club side. They came of age in 2016, I think Huw was marking TJ and Paddy was marking Henry at midfield. Nothing really fazed them. They relished the challenge. Seeing them in those few years, the way they went about things, there was no messing. Every day they turned up and that was what was needed.”

paddy-deegan-and-henry-shefflin Paddy Deegan and Henry Shefflin during the 2016 Kilkenny county senior final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Now they are providing what is needed on a bigger stage, a pair of pillars in the Kilkenny senior rearguard. Kilkenny contested All-Ireland finals in 2016 and 2019, in between the defensive structure was revamped by Brian Cody, Lawlor and Deegan slotted in place.

This year they have been joined by another club-mate at the back.

Hogan can recall a younger Mikey Butler making his mark in Kilkenny in a different way.

“Mikey is the only young lad I remember that was a ballboy at one stage with Kilkenny. He was allowed in for a while as Rackard Cody’s (Kilkenny kitman) helper. He would have been in the dressing-room handing out the bottles of Lucozade and milk into the bags for players, pucking the balls back out to the boys after training if they were doing shooting practice.

“I’m not sure how he managed to get his way in there because it’s hard enough to get into Kilkenny training in any capacity. Brian keeps a fairly tight ship, the backroom is a lean machine. I think Mikey was just always around and Rackard was happy enough to have a lad there carrying the crates of milk.

“Mikey is a great lad, fast forward a couple of years and he’s in there now playing.”

Together they ensure a strong O’Loughlin Gaels flavour on the biggest hurling weekend of the year. Kilkenny head to Croke Park tomorrow evening with ambitions of reaching the All-Ireland final and with half of their defensive unit likely to be sourced from the city club across the road from Nowlan Park.

Butler is the fresh burst of life to the setup this season. He had made underage progress when O’Loughlin Gaels won a county U21 final against Ballyhale just before Christmas 2019. The personal prize from that game was a nomination to captain the Kilkenny U20 side but a torn cruciate in a senior club game in 2020 scuppered those hopes.

“That was an example of his attitude and dedication.” says Hogan.

“I remember seeing him a couple of times on the road out running. Since he’s come back from that he hasn’t looked back, he’s been flying it.

cian-kenny-and-mikey-butler-celebrate-after-the-game Mikey Butler celebrates Kilkenny's Leinster final win with Cian Kenny. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I don’t think anyone expected him to have the year he’s had in terms of taking on all-comers. To such an extent now, I think he’s actually Brian’s go-to man for any kind of man-marking job.

“That rise over the last nine months has been fantastic. I wouldn’t have imagined he’d get there that quickly but I would have had huge hopes that he would get there for sure. I knew the setup inside in Kilkenny, and that he’d relish that intensity and that kind of environment.”

Lawlor embraces challenges presented in front of him as well. He has become the go-to individual at the back when it comes to detailing lethal attackers.

“I would say arguably it was the only real contest in that Leinster final was the two lads”, says Hogan of the battle between Lawlor and Conor Whelan.

“Conor scored two outrageous points. When a guy does what Conor did out on the Cusack Stand side in the first half, there isn’t anything you can do in that situation. I thought it was a great battle and it continued on really from the battle up in Salthill between the two of them where Huw broke his hand. It was a proper contest.

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2Full-back is a specialist position but I think it’s even more so now the way teams set up and hold onto possession. It takes huge discipline not to foul. You need huge acceleration. With Huw, I know from experience, for a tall guy he’s got massive acceleration. Within the Kilkenny squad, he’s one of the fastest in there. It’s an unforgiving position but he’s really nailed it down over the last few years with Kilkenny.”

conor-whelan-and-huw-lawlor Conor Whelan and Huw Lawlor. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Deegan is also to the fore of Kilkenny’s defensive effort. If there were misgivings amongst the Kilkenny hurling community when he emerged, Hogan feels that talk has been dispelled.

“When he broke through initially, lads were saying he’s not fit and he’s too slow. Maybe lads interpret the gait of players, the stride, where they run differently. I know Paddy, since he was 15,16, he’s been massively dedicated and focused on what he wanted to do.

“I can guarantee you there’s not many players in there fitter than Paddy. His mental toughness is his biggest asset. The harder it is, the more enjoys it in a perverse kind of way.

“He’s a lovely hurler. For some people who might have been critical towards him or not understood him, I think a real eye-opener was last year with the club where we positioned him at full-forward and centre-forward. He completely changed our team around. He’s so aggressive and gave us a massive focal point.

“On top of that his scoring ability, some of the points he scored were outrageous, even in the county final against Ballyhale. He has a loopy, left-handed strike but it’s not to be under-estimated.”

The chemistry between the trio from their club involvement has all helped their contributions to the county cause. Hogan thinks of the help he got in his early Kilkenny days from the Comerfords and the Dowlings, sensing that Deegan and Lawlor have done the same for Butler and Conor Heary, another youngster on the Kilkenny panel.

Last weekend Hogan was up watching O’Loughlin Gaels play a challenge match at home to Offaly’s St Rynagh’s. Their county standard-bearers were all present to watch, it all ramps up the anticipation for tomorrow evening.

“They’re three phenomenal club men. No matter what they’re asked to do, presenting medals or whatever they’ll do it. Their time is precious as well.

“It’s a novelty factor almost playing Clare, I know a lot of lads are heading up. It’s set up for a cracker. I’m gutted I’m missing it (in holidays on Spain). The Leinster final was a damp squib and I brought the kids up to that. This will be different I think. There’s huge interest and excitement around, having our lads adds to that.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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