A few years ago, I found myself in the company of Mick O'Dwyer and we were watching a game on television. Pat Spillane was on the screen and he was being Pat Spillane. He tore strips off some poor shower who couldn't shoot straight, I can't remember who. And I looked over to see Micko chuckling away to himself.
“He’s lawless, isn’t he?” Mick said.
He didn’t mean it in a bad way at all. He meant the opposite. There was admiration in his voice, as if he was looking at Spillane and deciding that the thing that made him so watchable on TV was the same thing that made him such a great player and what made Micko’s team the best the game has ever seen.
Lawless. I thought it was a great word.
I thought of Micko on Saturday night watching Brian Cody. I thought of my uncle Páidí as well. There was a grand lump of lawlessness in all of them. When the game took them over, when everything was out there and on the line, it was as if they lost all interest in their bearings. They didn't care about politeness or manners or anyone's feelings in that moment. They cared about winning.
Cody was in pure Cody mode the other night. As normal time came to an end and Kilkenny were rampant, you could see he had moved into a place in his head where he did not give two hoots about the outside world. He was like a bear on the sideline, striding up and down it looking for war. And he didn’t care who gave it to him – Derek McGrath, the linesman, the fourth official, even his own players. He was in lawless form.
I loved it. I was watching him nearly punching the air myself. I was imagining what it must have been like for any of the Kilkenny players to see him like that and thinking what you wouldn’t give to be one of them. Imagine it, a full house and a championship game coming to a head and you have this man going through brick walls for you over on the sideline.
Not caring about God nor man. Not minding where he went or what line he crossed or who he annoyed. Just there, insisting on more. More, more, more. Ruthless, reckless, lawless. Totally one-eyed. Totally consumed by it. What wouldn’t you do for a man like that?
Micko was like that. All the old Kerry players would tell you the same. They love to tell the story about Tim Kennelly, the year after he retired. He was above in Listowel one night about to sit down for a pint. But before he did, he went over and pulled the curtain on the window of the pub. When someone asked why he was doing that, Tim said: "You wouldn't know who'd look in as they were passing – they might tell Dwyer."
People think of Micko as this lovely, mannerly gentleman – and he is. But he had a lawlessness to him too and that was what his players responded to. Páidí was still intimidated by Micko a good 10 years after he retired. I asked him about it once and he said that it was very simple. Micko owned every room he went into and he owned every player who played under him. That was the long and the short of it.
And you’d know it when you’re around him. I would run into him from time to time and he’d look at me with a half a smile on him and he’d say, “Darragh, you’re looking well”.
And I’d go away later thinking I better go to the gym tomorrow because that half-smile obviously meant that Micko didn’t think I looked one bit well. If my wife said I needed to lose weight, I’d probably say fair enough but at the same time I probably wouldn’t give it another thought. But Micko, that’s different. And I didn’t even play for him!
Cody obviously has that same aura. You look at someone like Michael Fennelly. Every winter and spring, all you hear is Kilkenny are hoping to get Michael Fennelly back for the championship. He's on the go well over 10 years, he has no end of medals won and he must be sick, sore and tired of all the injuries.
But if you want to know why he’s still going, look at Cody the other night. Fennelly must look at him and see a man who would give anything to have the chance to still play for Kilkenny.
Cody was in on the field, across the sideline loads of times the other night. At one point, the play passed in front of him and he was still a yard across the line without even noticing. He spent nearly as much time on the pitch as Fennelly.
And he didn’t give a rattling damn about whether he was supposed to be there, whether he was breaking any rule or whether the Kilkenny County Board were going to get a fine in the post. All of that stuff is someone else’s concern, not Brian Cody’s. If you want to know what keeps someone like Michael Fennelly working through the winter and spring to get himself on the pitch during the summer, all you need to do is look at his manager.
We talk a lot in the GAA about modern methods and sports science and everything else. My buddy Dara Ó Cinnéide’s TV show over the past few weeks has been brilliant about all that side of it. I still don’t necessarily get the point of Cian O’Neill’s goggles but look, whatever floats your boat. I wouldn’t dismiss anything that teams think is improving them.
But you still need a leader. You still need someone at the top of the shop who you will follow to the ends of the earth. They have to have a magnetism about them, something that makes players buy in to all the science and methods in the first place. Never forget that you’re mostly dealing with young men in their 20s here. A bit of recklessness is no bad thing.
Even someone like Jim Gavin knows that. No, we never see him in feral mood like Cody on the sideline the other night. But in his own particular way, Jim let loose with the Diarmuid Connolly thing a couple of weeks ago. That was his equivalent of Cody bulling up and down Semple Stadium, showing his players he didn't care what the outside world thought of him.
That's what I mean by lawless. It's getting into that state of genuinely not caring what anyone outside your dressing room thinks of you. Davy Fitz has it. Anthony Daly has it. Páidí O Sé surely had it.
I was talking to Maurice Fitzgerald recently and I asked him did he enjoy playing for Páidí. He smiled and said he did because Páidí pushed a side of him that no coach had ever done before.
“All my life, I had fellas telling me that they saw me as a kind of a skilful player and just to play my own game. But Páidí said to me one time, ‘I think there’s a bit of a scamp in you. Let it come out.’”
Maurice Fitz could mix it with the best of them. I found that out in club football and I carried the bruises accordingly. But because he was such a beautiful footballer, nobody thought to appeal to his reckless side until Páidí did.
That would be typical of P Sé. Now, there was a man who knew the value of a bit of a lawless attitude. He used to tell stories in the car on the way home from training, mad old yarns from back when he was a Garda in Limerick. And they would be hilarious and exaggerated and the language would be filthy in them. But you’d be sitting there just feeling so lucky that he’d be trusting you with them.
There was one time we were on a team holiday to South Africa. It was around the time of the famous ‘animals’ interview. By pure coincidence, the Dubs and Kilkenny were there at the same time and in the same place. We were out by the pool one of the days and Páidí was writing postcards. When he saw Cody and Tommy Lyons over at the far side of the pool, he got a glint in his eye.
“Are they looking over?” he asked.
“Sort of,” we said. “They’re not really looking anywhere in particular.”
And he got up from his seat and jumped in the pool. Still wearing his shorts, t-shirt, socks and runners. He swam a length and got out the far end, saluted the two boys and came back to his seat, the shirt, the shorts, the socks and the runners all dripping wet.
“Now,” he said. “That’ll give them food for thought.”
Lawless. And we all loved it. You’d do anything for a man like that.
And Cody on Saturday night was a man like that. Utterly possessed by the game that was being played out in front of him. Not one bit embarrassed by anything he did. This carry-on with the fourth official, I’d say he barely even remembers it happened only people keep bringing it up. The game is all that matters. Do what you have to do.
People like Cody just have a hold over people. I presume he’ll stay on with Kilkenny. He didn’t look like a man who could leave it behind him the other night anyway.
And won’t we miss him when he’s gone?