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
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?
BC: “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?
BC: “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?
BC: “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?
BC: “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?
BC: “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?
BC: “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”.
BC: “[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 . . .’
BC: “Euphoria [Laughs].”