2000: the year Cody broke the losing duck

 

ALL-IRELAND SHC FINAL KILKENNY v TIPPERARY: Keith Duggancasts an eye back to when Kilkenny faced an unenviable three in a row - defeat to Offaly would have meant losing a third consecutive All-Ireland hurling final

BEFORE KILKENNY ever had to deal with endless speculation about three, four or, in Brian Cody’s perfect term, anything-in-a-row, the county had to cope with the spectre of a less welcome record. It seems like a long time ago now since Cody faced the pressure of possibly managing the first Cats side to lose three All-Ireland finals in a row.

In September 2000, as they prepared a team to face Offaly, that was the predicament facing the Marble City man. For all the talent in the county, they looked to be on the verge of developing a knack for losing All-Ireland finals.

The ’90s were, in retrospect, a mixed bag for Kilkenny hurling. After claiming the back-to-back successes in ’92/93, they were forced into the hinterlands for the five-year period that would be termed the revolution years, when the emerging forces of Clare, Wexford, Offaly and Limerick defined the summers.

By the end of the decade, the old order was beginning to reassert itself and Kilkenny returned to an All-Ireland final in 1998 under the stewardship of the laconic Kevin Fennelly.

They might have won that day too, but for the comic-book heroics of Brian Whelehan, waylaid by flu all week and weathering his way through the match at left half back until Michael Bond sent him up to cause mischief in the forward ranks. Whelehan scored an unforgettable, final-clinching goal, Kilkenny were beaten and, that winter, Brian Cody replaced his cousin.

All through the 1999 league and in the championship, Kilkenny looked driven and formidable and knocked in goals for fun. But in the final, they hit something of a wall against a tenacious and highly disciplined young Cork team. That 1999 final was played on a wet day, 62,000 people showed up and Kilkenny failed to score over the last 10 minutes.

The final score was 0-13 to 0-12. DJ Carey did not score over the course of the match. It brought a shuddering halt to the season.

Kilkenny started a 15 that, viewed now, seems like a bridge between Cody’s early vision and the marauding team he has since created – James McGarry; Philly Larkin, Canice Brennan, Willie O’Connor; Michael Kavanagh, Pat O’Neill, Peter Barry; Andy Comerford, Denis Byrne; DJ Carey, John Power, Brian McEvoy; Ken O’Shea, Henry Shefflin, Charlie Carter.

One of the early signs of Cody’s progressive and thorough methodology was to persuade John Power to return to black and amber colours. The John Lockes man had been left out of the squad for the ’98 season and, as was the way for too many decades in the GAA, received no letter, no phone call. The silence was supposed to communicate all.

Cody banked on a resurgent return to form from the flame-haired, combative centre forward and he was rewarded. The following season, Power’s form had not dipped and once again, Kilkenny looked like the team to beat.

But the disappointment – and doubts – caused by those back-to-back All-Ireland losses could not be discounted.

After the ’99 loss, captain Denis Byrne had said passionately: “Our training was absolutely brilliant and you won’t get a better-trained team in the land. That Brian Cody, I wanted to win it for that man.”

A year later, in the days before the final, Cody sat down and reflected on how his squad had grown in the previous 11 months. His remarks radiated an openness that would, in subsequent seasons, disappear.

He spoke frankly about the shattering nature of that 1999 defeat. “But it is not the end of the world, it’s not death. You have to experience death to realise that.”

He recalled hearing about the terrible assault on PJ Delaney, the popular Kilkenny hurler, and how that transformed the mood in the county from moping about another All-Ireland loss to just wishing and wanting this young lad to get better.

And he remembered how, when the management had organised some early training sessions for some potential Kilkenny squad candidates, a few of the regular players showed up on their own accord, just eager to get back to it again.

“At the end of the day, we are hurlers,” Cody said.

He did not make much of the pressure that he must have been under back then, the back-of-the-mind worry that standing on the sideline calling the shots to a Kilkenny side that lost three finals in a row would indeed be a lonely place.

Instead, he spoke easily about the changes the year had brought. “We have a few new players in there now. Noel Hickey at full back, Eamon Kennedy in the centre, the backbone of the team. You go with certain players and hope it works out.

“That John Power is going well is a big thing, we moved Brian McEvoy to midfield because Denis Byrne just prefers wing forward and is more comfortable. Things like that happen and later they are looked upon as inspirational, but often they just happen.”

Kilkenny played Offaly – the wild bunch were back against all expectations – in that September’s final. They started: James McGarry; Michael Kavanagh, Noel Hickey, Willie O’Connor; Philly Larkin, Eamon Kennedy, Peter Barry; Andy Comerford, Brian McEvoy; Denis Byrne, John Power, John Hoyne; Charlie Carter, DJ Carey, Henry Shefflin.

There was no mistake this time. As Power put it: “We came up to Croke Park to blow everyone out of it.”

The final score was 5-15 to 1-14. A young Graigue-Ballycallan man named Eddie Brennan came in to flash one of the later goals.

“It was just a spirit, a reaction under pressure,” Power said of the performance.

Although Cody wasn’t personally at the helm in ’98, the indelible stain of three September losses in a row had been avoided. More importantly, the slate was wiped clean. Cody had his first All-Ireland victory.

The make-up of the 1999/2000 Kilkenny teams would change smoothly in the following seasons, leading to the polished, multi-functioning team that will take the field this Sunday.

Now, Shefflin, Kavanagh, Hickey and Brennan are the hurlers who seem to have travelled from a very different age of Kilkenny hurling. They sensed it that day, though. John Power did not know how right he was when he reckoned Kilkenny would be “a force for a while now”.

DJ Carey knew they had tapped into something too.

“With days like this,” he said, “you’d stay going forever”.