The tall man in the peaked cap has been part of Irish summers for 24 years now and it feels as though the nation knows less about him than ever. The more recognisable that iconic figure becomes, the foggier our understanding.
“My role is constant,” Brian Cody said in an Irish Times interview in 2014.
He was responding to a question about what must be one of the strangest ways to measure the passing of time; to see young players break into the team, to preside, then, over their lionhearted years and to make the judicious calls as they begin to decline and to see them inevitably bow to the limitations of age and the body and finally leave again. To see them come and to see them go.
A crowded room of the great and the garlanded have passed through since Cody was the surprise Kilkenny appointment back in 1998. The Kilkenny hurling house has always been free of leaks and loose talk but once players step away, it was natural that little stories and yarns would leak out about ‘who’ Brian Cody is to them.
Early-era players recall a looser, more relaxed version of the manager of the early years; of a more approachable figure, of Cody sharing tins of beer with the team following a paint-balling outing before the 2003 semi-final.
That changed after 2005 and then Kilkenny went on a berserk tear of greatness. Big names filled that era. He has been a huge part of their lives. Jackie Tyrrell sat before him as a fifth-class pupil in St Patrick’s before emerging as the dauntless, powerhouse corner-back in the seasons when it looked as if Kilkenny might never be beaten again. He reasoned that if Brian were coming looking to talk to him, it could only mean trouble.
Some players reported courteous phone calls when they departed. Others left under a cloud and without a backwards glance from their manager.
Trawl through the Cody archives and you will never once find him offering the common GAA lament about the ‘demands’ of the modern game. It’s one of the (many) cliches that tests his patience and his solution to that conundrum has always held a light-sabre simplicity: If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. Nobody is making you.
One of the biggest hassles the Kilkenny board has had lies in persuading him to lodge expenses receipts. Cody’s hurling resume was gilded as a player and light as a manager when he came in. Since then, he’s won 11 All-Ireland titles with Kilkenny, 18 Leinster titles (including this year’s latest three in a row) nine league titles and this evening leads the Cats into a 21st All-Ireland semi-final.
The cold statistics are an overwhelming inventory of consistency. But, of course, they don’t tell half the story. They don’t really explain how Cody has managed to possess two decades’ worth of Kilkenny hurlers and to send them on to championship fields in an exalted state. Even in seasons when the individual talent was all-time, the emphasis was on the collective.
In the summers when they were bettered, the resilience was unrelenting. Cody hurling teams do not get blown away. They do not crumble. It has been an article of faith. And the touchstone qualities – the fearsome appetite, the internal pride, the requirement not to act the big shot – have been studied and adopted as articles of faith among all other serious GAA teams.
One of the most mystifying of all Cody’s tricks is that despite that ceaseless appetite for more, despite all those silvered, crisp Rose-of-Mooncoin September evenings in the Kilkenny grace-land, Cody’s teams have managed to preserve something of a chip on their shoulder . . . an essential sense that it is them against the world.
The GAA is the last pillar standing of 20th century Ireland. For all the necessary bitterness of its rivalries, its members see themselves as one family. They speak the same language and broadly share the same values. It is based on a tradition of inheritance and on stories told – although that archive has lately fallen silent.
The extraordinary rich collaboration between Brian Cody and Henry Shefflin in their years with Kilkenny is one of the great GAA stories. And its one to which Cody was always slightly resistant; while he fully acknowledged that Shefflin was a special player, he was careful to emphasise that he was treated no differently to any other player on the panel. But once, they were close.
The distance between them was made obvious in that dismaying handshake in Salthill at the start of the championship. The stilled image was quickly analysed to death and the consensus was that Cody, as the senior figure, the former boss, had not responded well to the demands of the moment; that it revealed a coldness to a former protégé and a player who has acknowledged, more than, once, the magnitude of Cody’s influence on his hurling life.
Of course, the surface rarely contains the truth and a more rounded interpretation has to allow that Cody was frozen by the uniqueness of the moment; that some part of him could and cannot quite believe that Shefflin, of all his hurlers, has become part of the exterior world.
There was something saddening about the briefness of the follow-up handshake – which Shefflin initiated by seeking out his former manager – minutes after the Leinster final in Croke Park. What a perplexing sight for those in the Kilkenny heartland who associate both figures with the best of days. Who knows, maybe there will be a third greeting before this hurling summer is out.
It is almost certain Cody will never throw light on what was going through his mind at those moments – or on anything else. That drawbridge was raised a long time ago. His public profile has become more distant and reserved as the years have passed and the mutterings of the right time to step down became louder.
Through it all, he has remained Kilkenny’s constant gardener.
“I knew when he was appointed that it meant trouble for everyone else,” declared Ger Loughnane, after Kilkenny had beaten his Clare team in the 1999 All-Ireland semi-final. Brian Lohan was a player that day. This afternoon, Lohan returns to Croke Park as the manager of a soulful and broadly-liked Clare team who are surely the neutrals’ popular choice to win the All-Ireland.
If so, then they must navigate the unreasonable forcefield of spirit that has always been Cody’s Kilkenny. The age of the eternal GAA manager – who remains unchanging and indomitable and lit with conviction even as the country transforms around him – has passed. No fire can burn as long or as unforgettably as Cody’s has. Yet on it blazes.