Maybe it’s not so easy standing in for Vilanova or Cody
Kilkenny and Barcelona find their seasons running in a curiously parallel fashion
In the Nou Camp on Saturday night, Cesc Fabregas filled out his blue and red Barcelona shirt far better than he’d been doing for the longest time. With six minutes left on the clock against a Levante defence whose iron will had kept the no-Messi Barca at bay all night, Fabregas at last found a square foot of space near the penalty spot. The ball from Alexis Sanchis was on the heavy side of crisp but with the kind of touch would have trapped a kid’s Fairy Liquid bubble without popping it, Fabregas soft-shoed the room he needed to ping a low shot into the bottom corner for a 1-0 win.
Long-term, it was probably a more important goal for Fabregas than it was for Barcelona. Their record-breaking start to the season – 18 wins and a draw from their first 19 games – has left them with not so much a cushion as a 100 per cent Egyptian Cotton Eiderdown St Geneve. That’s the world’s most expensive commercial pillow. Although quite what a non-commercial pillow would be used for or indeed by whom will have to remain unexplored, at least here.
No, this column will be about Brian Cody. Eventually. For now it is about Barcelona, the parallels between whose season and that of Kilkenny’s grow ever more uncanny. While it may not be so unusual for a side to temporarily lose its manager with a health issue midway through a campaign, it can’t have happened too often in exactly this combination. Not to the best team in the country, not with one of the sport’s Mount Rushmore players missing for some of it as well. For Kilkenny, Cody and Shefflin read Barca, Vilanova and Messi.
Tito Vilanova is back in the Barcelona dug-out now after three months of chemo, radiotherapy and rest to treat the cancer in his throat. Barcelona got by in his absence but there’s getting by and there’s getting by. While their lead at the top of La Liga was never remotely threatened, they did go through what passes for a rocky spell around February and early March, a run that included back-to-back defeats to Real Madrid and the 2-0 Champions League loss to AC Milan.
People are decent on the whole and cancer’s grim drain is a secret to very few. And so normal human empathy prevented any over-zealous questioning of Jordi Roura, Vilanova’s stand-in. Or at least it did up until that point. But the prospect of going out of the Champions League – especially when Madrid were still in with a chance of rounding out Jose Mourinho’s reign with his third win in the competition – broke the dam.
Jordi Roura’s credentials had never really been examined before. Suddenly it became far more relevant that his last experience as a head coach had seen him fired as his team got relegated from the third tier of Spanish football. When his time at Barcelona was picked over, it was pointed out that his main job under Pep Guardiola was opposition research. Now he was the one telling Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and the rest what to do.
It was interesting to watch at the time and well worth delving back into now with Kilkenny in mind. The club stood by their man but still put out story after story to mollify supporters. They let it be known that Vilanova was still involved, was watching matches and training sessions from his hospital bed in New York, even giving team talks occasionally by video link. At one stage, Barcelona president Sandro Rosell was compelled to admit that Vilanova’s absence was having an effect. “The experts say that after 30 days of a leader’s absence, there is a drop in performance,” conceded Rosell.
Hard though it is to imagine that sort of chat escaping the lips of Ned Quinn over the coming months, we can assume that any and all Kilkenny missteps in that time will be seen through the prism of Cody’s absence. Martin Fogarty and Mick Dempsey didn’t ask for stretch of miles in Cody’s shoes but now they face a league final against a Tipperary team playing with their tails up and their wrists loose. They don’t know when Cody will be back, they don’t know when they'll be able to throw Shefflin a jersey.
For now all they know is that they’re the ones charge with keeping the show rolling. They’re an enjoyable double-act to look at, if nothing else. Where Cody prowls up and down the line, plugged into the action as if by mains, Fogarty and Dempsey stood in the one spot for the afternoon yesterday and looked for all the world like a couple of workmen guarding a hole in the ground. If they’re overwhelmed by the responsibility suddenly thrust upon them, they’re doing a fine job keeping it together.
They might only be doing this for a couple of weeks, they might end up with the job for a few months. Everything is indefinite just now. All we know for sure is that there will be tougher days ahead.
Barcelona overturned that 0-2 deficit to get past Milan and Roura handed Barca back to Vilanova in reasonable shape. But the theory that had gained ground early in his reign to the effect that this Barca team didn’t need a coach was well and truly shown up for the canard it was by the end.
Kilkenny’s players showed yesterday that they don't need Cody rubbing his hands on the sideline to make them work hard and locate their ruthless streak. But it won't be this straightforward next time out. Then and then only will we see what difference Cody’s absence makes.