Brian Cody refreshed and ready to go

Leading Kilkenny into a 16th season is not a hardship for Brian Cody. It is a choice

For those who thought the light had gone out on the Kilkenny hurlers and coach Brian Cody, the message is clear: he is as switched on as ever and eager for the fray, starting with tomorrow’s NHL opener against All-Ireland champions Clare. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

For those who thought the light had gone out on the Kilkenny hurlers and coach Brian Cody, the message is clear: he is as switched on as ever and eager for the fray, starting with tomorrow’s NHL opener against All-Ireland champions Clare. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

Sat, Feb 15, 2014, 01:00

Brian Cody begins his 16th season as Kilkenny manager tomorrow when his team face All-Ireland champions Clare in Cusack Park. He is the longest serving county manager in either football or hurling. With nine All-Ireland titles won, his position as one of the most influential figures in the history of the association is past debate. What keeps him going?

When he walked in to a hotel in Kilkenny city on a crisp Monday afternoon, he looked lean and refreshed and was deeply engaged by the prospect of the season ahead.

It is easy to see why. Kilkenny rallied from the 2005 semi-final defeat by Galway by winning the next four All-Irelands and falling one short of an unprecedented five-in-a-row.

They responded to losing to Tipperary in that absorbing 2010 final – and to the assumption that their best days were past them – by claiming the All-Ireland in 2011 and 2012. Responding to the last year’s gripping championship which finished in Clare splendour – and to the sense that hurling somehow evolved last summer – is the next challenge facing Cody.

Returning to the pinnacle in 2014 would arguably be the team’s greatest achievement under Cody. Although he has acquired the reputation of being a monolithic figure on the landscape of Irish sport, he has consistently rejected the idea there is anything mystical about his success and insisted he is what the eye sees: a school teacher and a former hurler who is privileged to manage the county team.

One entry into the diary section of his autobiography will always stand out as it captured the manager the day before the Cats would win the Liam MacCarthy Cup for the fourth consecutive year:

It reads: “Saturday September 5th, 2009: Cut the grass today. Very relaxing.”

That might be as apt an allusion for Brian Cody as any: that he is tending to an inheritance as best he can and content on his own patch.

KD: Does your preparation differ for a season when you haven’t won an All-Ireland they previous September?
BC: “
Well, this time we were knocked out of the championship earlier than, say, has been normal in the last number of years. There was no team holiday this year either. So it was a new scenario and it was great that we were able to get back and do a bit of training in December for the first time.”

KD: Does the motivation become different too? When you win, you have something to hold on to?
“In general terms, the motivation is there. The New Year comes and the All-Ireland is up for grabs. Mmm . . . we had a bad year last year. There is no doubt about that. There is a challenge now. There are several teams out there, serious competition. And we are not up at the top. We are definitely not up at the top. We have slipped. So there is a serious motivation and challenge facing us to get back up into a challenging position. In getting beaten in the All-Ireland quarter-final it means you are not even challenging for All-Irelands. That is where we are. That is the reality of it. So there is a serious challenge there now to try and . . . improve.”

KD: At press conferences after All-Irelands, you are always asked that question: what about next year? And you always say after every season you will go away and think about it. What are the questions you ask yourself in deciding if you will stay on?
BC: “I don’t ask any questions, to be honest. Your thoughts will tell you very quickly. If you start questioning yourself and wondering if you want to do it . . . if those questions are coming into your head, then you really have to start asking yourself questions all right. But that hasn’t happened me. I know the expectation and challenge and it either appeals to you or it doesn’t. It either motivates you or challenges you or it doesn’t. That’s the way I feel about it. There is a great challenge now. And I’m . . . I’m interested in it.”

KD: In your book, you said you felt things had become “too nice” in the squad by 2001. After 2005, there was a belief you were yesterday’s team. After 2010, there was a sense that Kilkenny were spent. Kilkenny have been given the last rites again. What happened last season?
BC: “It was a bad year because we weren’t competitive enough. And now we have to do whatever it takes to make sure we are back up there.”

KD: Did you have a sense during the summer that you weren’t at the competitive tilt you wanted to be at?
“We won the league even though we weren’t playing well. We were also a hair’s breadth from fighting relegation. Then we ended up playing well in the semi-final and final, so it was a strange league win. I wouldn’t say we were playing at a standard that should have been good enough to win the league. Championship . . . we conceded goals we couldn’t have been happy about against Offaly. Against Dublin, both days . . . we were well beaten. Not on the scoreboard perhaps in the first game but we weren’t playing the kind of game that was going to bring us where we needed to go.

And then the Tipperary game became a huge game . . . Nowlan Park, terrific occasion and played very well. Went to Thurles and played Waterford and . . . there was nothing falling apart. The effort was there. The genuineness was there. But the quality was not there in our play.

The spirit was powerful and we worked and worked and the effort was there but there was no particular flow to our play. We were grinding out matches, which is something we have always been prepared to do. But it wasn’t enough and we got found out the next day.”

KD: If you know you are not where you want to be and the motivation is there, how is it that can’t be rectified in time?
“It’s a difficult question to answer. It is difficult to say why we were struggling. Our overall panel strength was struggling too. We suffered because we lost the first two league matches and there are so few league games that winning became very important to us and we didn’t get to look at the overall strength of our panel and giving players experience of those kind of matches. Suddenly, it was almost championship matches we were playing.

As it turned out, we won the league but didn’t expose enough players to championship action and we needed to do that. That is just one reason . . . it is not a definitive reason. But it was a mistake not to do it, I would say, on my part. Regardless, we should have done it. And it is something that won’t happen again.”

Here come Clare
KD: I remember sitting in front of Davy Fitzgerald and he was talking about attending the 2009 final. He had a pretty good seat near the Kilkenny bench and he talked about how he spent it watching you on the sideline. Last year, you watched him. What did you think of what he has done with Clare?
“Well, he has done excellently. It was an outstanding achievement . . . it is difficult to win an All-Ireland and he did it with a very, very young team. He did it having suffered along the way. They didn’t sail through Munster and took on whoever they met. It looked like they had the All-Ireland final lost the first day and came back and snatched that draw. They won difficult matches in a big way, pressure matches with a lot of young, very skilful players. It was a huge achievement and I think he did a brilliant job, absolutely.”

KD: There was a lot of talk about last year’s championship being perhaps the greatest ever. And also that the hurling “changed”. I’m not sure what that means. Do you know what that means? And do you agree with it?
“I don’t fully understand that either. What does tend to happen is that when a team wins, others find out how they train and they train like that. Suddenly, the most recent All-Ireland final is the greatest game ever. I would say there have been many, many great championships played in the last number of years. And many great All-Ireland finals. I have heard all this before. I have heard it for the past 15 years that there is a new way of playing the game.

“There may well be. I don’t know everything about it. But I don’t see it that way at all. I don’t believe it for a second. Clare play the way they play and that is terrific. Cork play how they play and so does every other team. But hurling is hurling: it is a game of skill and it is a physical game. It is a game of vision and thought and tactics and it has always been like that and I don’t see it suddenly being on a different plain.”

KD: This may just have been attributed to Henry Shefflin but he was quoted as saying he found the speed of the All-Ireland final “frightening” . Did it strike you as a particularly fast demonstration of hurling?
“I enjoyed both finals. I enjoy watching hurling anyway – any sport, even. The game was played how it was played. I thought the pace in lots of matches over the past number of years has been comparable. So . . . frightened? Henry? I doubt it very much. Doubt it. Doubt it.

KD: I’m pretty sure it was “frightening”.
“[Laughing] He may have said it. But fellas say these things to reporters too, you know.”

KD: The All-Ireland replay was a wonderful occasion – Saturday evening, a great game. And it occurred to me that because Kilkenny had won so much down the years, people were glad to see different coloured shirts out there. And that that perhaps contributed to the sense of: ‘Jesus, we are free . . .’
“Euphoria [Laughs].”

KD: Could you understand if people felt that way?
“Yeah, maybe people felt like that. I would say what they witnessed in the previous years would have been worth witnessing as well. But do I understand that people would like to see change? Of course I do. It is the same in any sport.”

KD: Do you recognise that hurling needs counties like Clare or Galway to succeed for the game to flourish?
“The more teams that are competitive, the better it is and right now it is probably greater than it has been for a long time. There are so many teams out there. Look at the semi-finals last year. Leinster alone is hugely difficult to win now. Wexford drew with Dublin last year and took Clare to extra-time. You would be foolish to think that they are not competitive now. Limerick faltered against Clare but are a serious team. Waterford are coming with a young team. It is a fantastic time for hurling. The quality of competition is serious. And that’s good.”

The conveyor belt
KD: When things were going very well for Kilkenny, this phrase ‘conveyor belt of talent’ was often used. As if there was a factory on the outskirts of town. And this sense that you were virtually untouchable. You always said the day would come when Kilkenny get beaten. You live in Kilkenny. Can you talk about the collective effort that goes into ensuring that a county with a small population can compete for All-Irelands? In your book you say that you are all ‘custodians of something sacred’. That it is not this thing that automatically happens?
“It doesn’t and can’t automatically happen. The tradition is strong and that means the ambition is there and the example is there. Young lads have something to aspire to. The primary school structures are good and a lot of teachers actively promote the game. The same is true of our secondary schools. Having said that, we haven’t been as competitive as we should be for the last few years at minor or under-21 level.

“That would be something I would be concerned about. But you can still be competitive at senior level by bringing in a certain number of players on an annual basis. That can continue. If you get one or two of any minor team, you are doing well. But I would like to see us getting back at minor and under-21.

KD: Do you have to win All-Ireland minors to win at senior level?
“No, you don’t. Kerry footballers have been proving that for a long time. You do need to be competitive and be constantly developing. I will say that what has been very effective in Kilkenny is that the clubs are very strong. It doesn’t mean they are churning out club All-Irelands all the time. But the competition is strong and there is a huge passion for the game. And just on that, the loyalty that players have for their club is hugely important.”

KD: I presume it is still true that your greatest joy was watching James Stephens win the county and All-Ireland titles?
“That was massive. That is the way we are and how we should be. But that doesn’t mean there is the slightest minimising of how I feel about winning with Kilkenny. They are separate things.”

KD: Does part of your job entail a working knowledge of the 14 and 15 year olds coming through?
“Well, being a primary teacher and having an interest in the underage in our club, I get to see players. I do get to see players. Maybe that is an advantage. But I would have an awareness of what is happening with different players as they develop, yes.”

KD: I remember Kilkenny playing Waterford over 10 years ago and a young player you gave a debut start to scored a brilliant goal...
“I remember him, yeah.”

KD: But it never really worked out for him. There are several hurlers, given the density of talent in Kilkenny, out there who feel they never got a proper crack. Is it true that you sometimes need to be a bit lucky to get a little window of opportunity?
“There is no doubt about that. It is like a job . . . people are sometimes in the right place at the right time.”

KD: So do you ever worry or wonder if there have been times that you let a player slip through your fingers . . . someone who could have turned into a Martin Comerford?
“Well, I’d like to find him all right . . . a Martin Comerford! I would for sure. No I don’t have anything like that. I would have followed my instincts on what is right to do. That doesn’t mean it was right for someone else. But I have to do what I believe and working with the people I work with as well, obviously.”

KD: You saw James McGarry and Derek Lyng through their playing careers and now they are alongside you on the sideline. When you are a manager, time sort of stands still. Is that a strange sensation?
“See, I don’t see anything strange about it. People talk about how long you are going to do this job and all that kind of thing.”

KD: That’s not what I was driving at...
“No, I know, but it is tied up in that. The fact I am still here while the lads have gone through their hurling careers and retired for a few years and now they are part of the management set up. And how come he is still there? That kind of sense, you know. It is a job you can stay doing. You can’t stay hurling forever. If you could, I’d be right back. But it doesn’t work that way.”

KD: That is more it . . . the years when you are a player are really finite. It is quite a short period. And to see guys like Derek Lyng who gave it everything hold their hands up and say: ‘I’m done’. As a manager, is it tough for you to see them face that realisation?
“Yeah . . . and not everybody gets to go on their own terms. Some people say: ‘Look it, I’m happy out, had it good and now I’m bowing out’. And other lads want to just go again but sense they are not getting a game and that they are surplus to requirements. But the reality is the two lads played when I was manager for a fair number of years. I was part of the process when their careers came to an end.

“Both were hugely committed players. The time came when their careers passed on and they went and played with their clubs and that’s it. And now I can see good and very valid reasons why they can play an important role in team management. So it is, like you said: my role is constant and their’s has evolved to where it is.”

Leadership skills
KD: You wrote to James McGarry to tell him he wouldn’t be involved in the 1999 panel. I presume it would be rare enough that you would write to players?
“He still has the letter! He just had a huge attitude. He came back and was an outstanding goalkeeper and he is bringing a huge amount to the role now, as is Derek.”

KD: When you were a player, you didn’t have a vague inkling that you would become a manager?
“Not with the county. I knew I’d be involved with the club, all right.”

KD: So are there things that Fr Maher would have told you as a player that are relevant now?
Well, definitely. I was lucky to be part of a couple of very good Kilkenny teams under several different managers and you store away stuff subconsciously. It was all logical stuff. You play the game and have an instinct for it. And I was involved coaching or selecting because I was teaching in my own school from 20 years of age and was a selector with the senior team when I was still playing. It was a natural progression. So it was happening for me for a good while and the experiences I would have picked up from various people would have influenced me.”

KD: Were you interested in Alex Ferguson’s reign and what he said on his retirement about how “control” made him successful? Is he a figure that interests you?
“He would interest every sports person, I imagine. The phenomenal reign he had. And I would be up to date with what was happening in all of that and followed it absolutely. Mmm . . . ‘Control’?

KD: Well, the phrase that was often used about you . . . ‘ruthless’.
“All those words were thrown about for years. But I have never forced myself to be anything in this job. From day one. I just go in and do it. I don’t spend hours planning this or that. You do put thought into it. You talk to your management team and you put very good people in charge of whatever is needed. I don’t find it stressful in the slightest. I don’t find it demanding. Not at all.”

KD: Really? Hurling doesn’t consume your every waking thought?
“Well consume means almost as if it is a penance. If it is consuming you, it is hardship, almost. It is not a hardship. It is pretty natural. And I can never figure it out. I see this lately about the hardship of being an inter-county hurler or footballer. That there is no fun anymore. It confuses me. Because it’s voluntary, this whole thing. It’s a choice. So it doesn’t consume me because it doesn’t eat me up in the slightest.

“We lose – and God knows we have lost matches – and it doesn’t bother me. My head will tell me if the job wasn’t good enough and I will say right, that better not happen again. But I think there is a huge amount of . . . almost pretence about the hardship. As if it is something horrible you are doing but someone has to do it so; poor me has to do it. I think it is great to be doing it and it is great for the players. And I am fed up reading about the hardship, to be honest.”

Home life
Q: Well, that may be media-driven in that players will be asked a question about the demands of the modern game blah blah blah . . .
“In sport, you decide what you want to do and go do it. You can play at a slightly lower level with your club or tip around at a bit of football at night. But it is competitive and it is a challenge and you are pitting yourself against the best. So if you want to do that, do it. But I wish people would stop pretending it is a savage ordeal. Because I happen to have been a player and manager and don’t find it an ordeal. I never did. It is a choice.”

KD: So are there times when you choose to switch off from hurling?
“Well, I have a job! I work for a living. That is what I do. I don’t manage Kilkenny for a living because I don’t get a scrap for it, nor do I want it. I am a principal of a very busy primary school, which I am enjoying very much. That looks after my day.

“We have holidays and we don’t work until 6pm every day – even though I often do and with a principalship, you are busy outside of school hours. But the two roles can be married simply. Obviously I have total support from my family set-up which allows me to do that. That is there, thank God. That takes up a fair amount of time. The perception is out there that I am this guy who lives, eats and breathes hurling . . . I don’t, I don’t. I watch other sports . . . soccer, rugby, I’m pretty normal, even though people don’t think it!”

KD: Well, people only see you when you are on TV in summertime on the sideline and you are pretty animated there, for obvious reasons.
“As you should be.”

KD: And then you come down here and live your life.
“I would say, also, there are people in the GAA in a general sense – people in clubs – who give more of their time than these high-profile managers like myself who are supposed to be run off their feet. Rubbish.”

KD: Do you think you would have enjoyed life as a professional sportsperson?
BC: “It never crossed my mind. It is like everything: you presume there is this wonderful thing out there: if I could be doing this management thing for money I’d be in there every day and on the pitch every day . . . well, the vision is very different to the reality, I would say. I am very happy to be doing what I am doing – not just with hurling but with my job and life in general. Your situation is your situation and who knows what the other situation would be like ?”

KD: What do you think about the way managers can influence teams? For instance, what was your opinion of what Jim McGuinness did with Donegal?
BC: “Well, it was just really interesting to watch. They were a team with one All-Ireland win, in 1992, so that happened as well. They have talented footballers. Jim McGuinness came in and did what he believed he had to do on his terms. So there is no gospel for it. His way was right for him. That is how it works. I was never interested in being somebody else or being bits and pieces of other managers. I just wanted to do the job in the way I believed or how it came naturally to me. Just being myself in the job. And I suppose you are either cut out for it or not.”

KD: On the Meaning of Life show with Gay Byrne, he alluded to you not being easy to live with after a defeat. And you said, ‘Well, actually I am’. Are you able to just leave a defeat and get on with your life?
“I am, yeah. Your subconscious is there and you are thinking without even trying to think about it. But very easily you can see on the day as it happens in front of you whether the things you want there are present. And if they are not, you have to be honest enough with yourself to say you are responsible, as the manager. The players will play as they play but I have always believed the players will play with the desire and passion and hunger and work-rate that is my responsibility to instil. Anything can happen on the field – you can miss a ball, have a day when nothing goes over the bar. Those things happen. But if the fundamentals are good and if the desire is there, the honesty is there, then fair enough, I am happy enough then. Sport is sport. I have played it for a long time. Lost matches, won a fair few matches and that is the way it is.”

KD: Do you think too much is made of statistics?
“Again, you do what you think is right for yourself. I’m not hung up on them at all but other people . . .their minds work that way. My mind doesn’t work that way. You follow what is right for yourself. I don’t knock any of it. It is just not for me.”

KD: You are quite animated at matches . . .
“Sometimes . . .”

KD: It has been said you can be intimidating on the sideline?
“Well . . . intimidating for whom?

KD: Your record means you are up there with the all-time GAA managers . . . it could be said a referee or linesman might be influenced by the fact you are you and what you have achieved in the game and if you argue the toss, it could have an influence?
“Recent history would suggest otherwise!”

KD: Well, when you are coaching a game, are you unaware of how you are perceived?
“I just do what I do. I don’t ever go out to deliberately influence anything or anybody. I go out to influence my players and panel – that is my job. And like most normal human beings I react to what I see in front of me. I have huge respect for referees. I don’t have huge respect for the way the whole thing has gone: constant pressurising the referees with ferocious assessment. I know this will be refuted but it’s my opinion. Not saying I’m right. There has been huge talk over the years about “physicality” over the years as if it is an awful word that needs to be taken out of the game.”

KD: And a lot of it directed at Kilkenny? That the name Kilkenny could not be mentioned without the word “physicality” following shortly afterwards?
“Absolutely. And that’s fine.”

KD: That must have been irritating though?
Mmm . . . It was deliberate too. With certain media pundits, it was deliberate to put a stop to the fact that we were being successful. I have absolutely no doubt about that. It was concerted. But the reality of it is I don’t mind. We have played the game over the years in a very, very good way. I feel we have been dignified in victory and defeat, which is very important. I have never come out and slated referees after matches. There were matches when things didn’t go our way but I didn’t use that as an excuse and none of the rest of us have either. There is a responsibility on me as the manager to not always say what I believe or what it is in my head. And that is part of discipline. And I would say we are a very,very disciplined team and played the game very well. And if people want to brand us with whatever adjectives or abstract nouns they want to use, then that is fine. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. We are going to continue to play the game and I will continue to do the job the way I have always done it. If I am intimidating to some people, well it is tough on them . . . but I don’t feel intimidated by anybody.

KD: Finally, I know you have always been about the collective . And in your book, you say the past gives Kilkenny confidence but with that comes an inherent modesty. That it’s not really done in this county to be shouting about yourself from the rooftops. What Henry Shefflin has achieved means he is a singular figure in the game and in the camp. I presume he is as important to Kilkenny this season coming as ever he has been?
“Just to clarify, you say Henry is singular within the camp. Well, I wouldn’t go with that, you see. He is part of the panel. I am well on record with what I think of him as a player and person and leader and everything else. That will never change, obviously. But he is a player in our panel now and he is working away as he always has done. He has overcome lots of adversity in his career and has come shining through the whole thing. But he is now in a position where he is on our panel and he is working hard to try and get on our team. The same rules apply and he wouldn’t like it any other way. Because great players don’t need that.”