‘You don’t stop. This defeat should be a challenge to start another era. I’m confident it will be a challenge’
The Kilkenny project has been steered by careful, watchful men, and it goes on
Brian Cody heads for the tunnel after the recent championship defeat to Cork at Semple Stadium. Those charged with guarding the traditions of Kilkenny hurling and plotting its future see light, however, at the end of the tunnel. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Mid morning and mid week, Kilkenny under a caul of rain. The streets are a cold sizzle.
This week has been busy with obituaries, the obvious end of era emphasis. Pat Henderson is brusque about such talk. He poses a question: “What was any different last Monday morning than the Monday morning after the 2010 All Ireland final? That was meant to be the end of it all too.
“The whole thing goes on. If it doesn’t, you have the wrong people involved. You don’t stop. This defeat should be a challenge to start another era. I’m confident it will be a challenge.”
Pat glints with conviction. Some find him forbidding, a Clint Eastwood mien. Henderson far likes silence to foolishness.
Brendan O’Sullivan nods, easy in this company, comrades of forty years. Now retired as principal of Thomastown Boys NS, he is commonly regarded as one of hurling’s most authoritative observers. Among the many roles filled was acting a selector for the Kilkenny seniors in 1983, when Henderson led them to the top in a drenched and wild Croke Park.
Both are notably robust about prospects in the short and the medium term, feeling the core remains sound. “We are blessed with our secondary schools,” Brendan notes. “There’s no county in the country with more schools. When you’re in a primary school, it’s easy enough in its own way. But in secondary school the pressure is fierce, exams and everything else. More accurately, we are blessed with the people we have in those schools.”
Pat immediately has the number of teachers involved: 23. They likewise insist that the development squad system thrives. “That’s a continuing and changing process,” he says. “But by Kilkenny being able to measure itself, from the start, against other counties, I feel we’ll continue to succeed.”
For them, bonds forged within the various squads are equal with coaching gained. “The lad from a small club is now friendly with the lad from the big club,” Brendan says. “Which wasn’t always the case, going back. We have an edge there, in that lads will die for each other on the field.”
Pat Henderson forms, with Brendan O’Sullivan, the core of Kilkenny’s Politburo. They are joined today by Richie Mulrooney, current U21 manager and a youthful 48, someone who will be co-opted in due course, his managing days done, which will not be for a fair while. The Kilkenny project has been steered by careful. watchful men, teachers in the main and abstainers from alcohol in the main, prudent to a fault. It has never been fashionable but it works.
Richie says: “There is no end of era. The era started in 1904, when the first one was won, and it continues unabated. You wake up last Monday, desperate disappointed. But that’s part of it too. We probably think far more about hurling when we’re losing.”
The notion of mass retirements brings a set to Pat Henderson’s jaw. “Frank Cummins was 36 when he won hurler of the year,” he recalls. “Without him, we wouldn’t have ’82 or ’83. I think Michael Fennelly, for instance, can become another Cummins, hurling on well into his 30s.
“We know now, mainly from soccer, that players can compete perfectly well, in physical terms, through into late 30s. But injury is the x factor. None of the current panel should retire, unless they have some private personal reason for doing so.”
He continues: “There must be space for new panellists. So there has to be movement. But players shouldn’t be brought in because of their age, just as players shouldn’t go because of their age.”
Thinking of Cummins and Noel Skehan in 1979, he insists: “You really need older fellas as a benchmark in the dressingroom. They are what the younger lads want to become.”
There is bemusement at certain developments. Brendan counted 57 cones on the field before a recent championship match. “There were balls here, there and everywhere as well,” he says. “A warm-up is basically about getting the sliotar from A to B.”
Richie interrupts: “What happens now is that we lose a senior match or an underage match and someone says: sure, how could we win? Did you see their warm up compared to ours?”
Levity lids seriousness. Possession-obsessed traits in contemporary hurling are a recurrent topic. Pat Henderson is stark: “I’ve a fundamental belief that the most important thing in hurling is skill level.”
He specifies Dublin: “The interesting thing about them ¨D and I know a bit about their specific programme this season ¨D is that the concentration last year on physical training is [open italics]gone[close italics]. Suddenly they’ve recognised that it’s not about weights or a seven man defence or a ten man defence.
“They’ve gone to the [open italics]skills[close italics]. They concentrate now on skills, and that’s what has brought them the next step.
“Now I think it’s probably too late for this Dublin team. The skills training should have been done at minor and U21 level, and brought forward.”
Like many, he can see sense in going back to the future: “I think there’ll be a bit of a return to ground hurling, which is gone out of the game. Sooner or later, there is merit in that. There’s a Plan B in that. At worst, it’s a 50:50 ball.”
Richie Mulrooney is a bit hesitant. I sense the makings of a generational difference here. This debate is not abstract for him. As U21 manager, he has the sharp end of counteracting current predilections for running possession out of midfield.
He instances how the U21s set up versus Galway in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. “Pádraig Walsh started corner-forward,” he recounts. “But he didn’t hurl there. He came out, to roam between the half and full back lines. He was in that pocket all the time, trying to link play.
“But it was all based on skill, skill, skill. And I felt we had too much skill for that Galway defence, in that particular 60 minutes. And we tried to bring the same thing forward against Clare. But, despite a heroic effort by the lads, particularly in the first half, it was the [open italics]skill[close italics] of the other fellas that beat us. It was their sheer ability, rather than anything else.
“As regards this Clare tactic of coming deep, Well, whatever ball you like, wherever on the field, you still have to able to take the pass to hand. Move it quickly, under pressure, instinctively. And the current Clare hurlers very much do that.
“People are now lauding that Clare team, and rightly so. Nine of them played against Galway last Sunday.”
He offers the glass half full: “All that hurt, and the hurt from the Wexford defeat this year, will stand to those players. The biggest thing now is: let’s see the club action and let’s see those players come to the fore.”
All three are fascinated by the intricacies that remain. They wonder about Clare’s chances against Limerick. Brendan remarks: “Clare had three solid months last summer to prepare for the U21 All Ireland, where they were involved in U21 only. Our lads were over and back to Senior training.”
Pat adds: “The Clare U21s have the same problem we had last year. We’ll see how they get on ¨D at both grades.”
Taking measure never ends, even with Kilkenny down off the big stage. It has been a terrific summer, despite hands hanging in August. Yet Brendan is oddly wistful when he tries to capture the slant of his decades, all those careless as him of their hours.
“I always felt, in Kilkenny, everyone looking after youngsters was the same,” he says. “I always felt the aim was that, some day, you’d have some young lad in Croke Park, to take part in the Senior team. Some young lad who had gone to school to you, come up through the ranks, school and club.
“That was the proudest day of your life.”