Disciples of Brian Cody spreading the word

Michael Fennelly's appointment as Offaly manager a bold move

If Michael Fennelly is to bring Offaly back into contention as a senior hurling county, it will be by emphasising core traits of togetherness. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

If Michael Fennelly is to bring Offaly back into contention as a senior hurling county, it will be by emphasising core traits of togetherness. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Michael Fennelly once said that one of the hardest championship hours he ever spent was against Offaly. It was in 2008 and it left its mark on him. Kilkenny won, by 2-24 to 0-12, but Fennelly had two teeth knocked out and carried the memory of the physical confrontation with him. A conversation with Michael Rice confirmed his suspicion that the game had been uncommonly tough. By then, it could be said that the Faithful County’s slide from the top table had begun.

Eight years had slipped by since they featured in an All-Ireland final and 13 since they won a Leinster championship, and their famous back-door charge to their most recent All-Ireland title had happened 10 years previous. There’s a sideways link between Offaly’s audacious run through that antic summer of 1998 and the hurling decades afterwards which have been largely shaped by the influence of Brian Cody.

Kevin Fennelly stepped down in the wake of that disappointment in the ’98 final against Offaly and while Cody had been a prodigious-playing talent and long-serving full back, he came into the management game with limited experience. Ger Loughnane would say in retrospect that he knew, when he heard Cody got the job, that everyone was in trouble. Perhaps. But at the time it seemed fair to assume Kilkenny would amble along at the usual rate of easy-going excellence and peak to claim the usual two or, in an exceptional decade, three All-Irelands.

Instead, they went on a rampage that included 15 Leinster titles and a staggering 11 All-Ireland titles between 2000 and 2015. Their omnipotence was such that the rapidity of Offaly’s disappearance as legitimate rivals had happened before anyone realised it. Offaly have not won a Leinster title since 1995 and last lined out in a final in 2004 and for this unique winter competition, are out of the All-Ireland competition entirely.

Playing on the fringes

Michael Duignan, the former All-Ireland winner, has admitted he was prompted to put himself forward as chairman of the Offaly county board after listening to Offaly’s rivals – teams from Derry and Sligo – in the Christy Ring Cup. He wasn’t disparaging those counties but it was understandably shocking for him to think about his county team, who could inspire nationwide envy not that long ago, now playing on the fringes of the elite level. The appointment of Fennelly as manager last September was bold and arguably a risk, given the Ballyhale man’s lack of experience at senior level. But what better way to stay connected than to entrust your senior team with a player who spent 12 years in the furnace of the Cody dressing room?

“There are plenty of challenges there but if you want to play for Offaly hurling it is an easy decision, to be honest,” he told Shane Stapleton in an interview shortly after his appointment.

“And forget about politics or club hurling or whatever it is; at the end of the day if you enjoy playing hurling and want to play for your county, I am here as the manager. I’ll have a good backroom team behind me and we are going to be putting anything and everything into each of those players and we are going to build a strong culture and build back Offaly’s identity again with this new group of players. And looking forward! Again, there is always talk about the past and they were great players but you have to look forward and create a bit of history with this group as well. At the end of the day it is hurling.”

It was an appealing manifesto that echoed something that his former Kilkenny team-mate Eddie Brennan said shortly after he took over as manager of Laois in 2018. Brennan was also coming into a county in what was, on the surface, an unpromising situation: in the Joe McDonagh Cup and capable of playing on the same field as the elite teams but never really troubling. His view of the McDonagh Cup was pragmatic: winning it “is your ticket to the Leinster championship, which is absolutely huge”.

It struck a note to hear a player decorated with eight All-Ireland medals describing the provincial championship like that. It sharpened the focus.

Last year’s hurling championship was a humdinger, finishing with Tipperary’s triumphant return to the top. Needless to say, Kilkenny were the last men standing and Cody’s ability to reshape a young team capable of challenging was arguably his finest hour. But what Brennan accomplished with Laois over the same summer was hugely significant and impressive. In June, they duly won the McDonagh Cup, defeating Westmeath by a whopping 3-26 to 1-21. But it was their 1-22 to 0-23 win a month later in the preliminary quarter final against Dublin, a team of whom big things were expected, that was the result of the summer. It was no smash-and-grab raid, either: a riveting score-for-score encounter which was in the balance until Dublin’s Seán Moran fired a late, desperate free over the bar to transport Laois’s small but fervent hurling fraternity into dreamland. Brennan’s after-match comments, when he stood surrounded by Laois fans and spoke with Marty Morrissey, did much to explain the reason for the transformation.

“It is definitely a big story for the front of the papers tomorrow. It is just a credit to the players. I wasn’t sure all week but I left here Friday evening very pleased with where the boys were at and how tuned in they were. They could have been forgiven for going through the motions but they really are a great bunch. In days like this it is all about the spirit of the group and the bit of hunger. They stuck together. From minute one, we set the tone, we flew into a few tackles. And for me that showed that Dublin were just a little bit off it. And we just tackled our hearts out. And every single one of the players did a job when their legs were probably screaming at them that they were gone. They just dug in.”

Work rate and application

All of this sounds familiar. The words carry echoes of the traits that Cody and the players he has masterminded for two decades have emphasised summer in and summer out. Work rate, application and honesty have been Cody’s reference points from the beginning. Kilkenny training sessions are never overcomplicated. Fennelly has referenced, for example, the sight of Eoin Larkin and Tommy Walsh facing one another and standing about 20 yards apart. They’d hit the ball as hard as they could and the other had to control it. They kept doing that over and over.

When Henry Shefflin took over as manager of Ballyhale in 2017, he made light of his relative inexperience by guiding his club to back-to-back club and All-Ireland titles. The achievement was phenomenal. What struck Fennelly was how simple he kept it: it was a conscious move away from the illusions of professionalism. Fennelly appreciated the value of that. And you sense that if he is to bring Offaly back into contention as a senior hurling county, it will be by emphasising those core traits of togetherness.

Hurling is missing something without the presence of Offaly’s huge, unpredictable spirit. The county didn’t disappear simply because of the standard of excellence set by Cody’s Kilkenny teams. But several generations of Offaly hurlers saw what was happening over the border and it was daunting and oppressive. That one of the big players of that era is now trying to kick-start a revival feels appropriate.

Not long after he took over, Eddie Brennan was asked in an Off the Ball interview about the thought of giving back to the game by helping out Laois, another county which has subsisted in Kilkenny’s long shadow.

“You would be somewhat aware of that at the back of your mind, saying yeah look it, is there something I can do because . . . sometimes you go to places to present medals or to do a training session with them, and I wouldn’t have done a huge amount of it, but people are often very curious to know what is the magical recipe you have in Kilkenny. And I always say it is a focus on the very basics. You wouldn’t believe the simplicity of what we did as players to be as successful as we were. Obviously it takes a certain amount of character as well. It is a valid point and it is something maybe we as an organisation have danced around a little as a whole. There are counties that historically have a good tradition in hurling and I think Laois is one of those. But I’m not saying that is the sole motivation.”

His main motivation was to see what he could do with what he believed to be a fundamentally decent group of hurlers. Within a year, he had them playing in an All-Ireland quarter final against the Tipperary team who would go on and win it all. It finished 2-25 to 1-18 and gave them plenty to build on.

“Who knows where he’ll end up as manager?” his former team-mate Jackie Tyrell speculated in his column at that time. “He has learned from the best and he’ll keep learning because that’s the way he has always been.” And Cody’s former pupils out there on the plains spreading the gospel can only be good for the game.

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