If Kilkenny prevail this time it will surely be Cody’s finest hour
Faces may change but the team still bears their remarkable manager's stamp
Brian Cody: The message he has communicated to 20 years of Kilkenny hurling teams clearly travels into the deepest recesses of their brains and their souls. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Could Brian Cody have done what he has done with any other county? The answer is almost certainly no, primarily because he would not have been interested.
Three Taoisigh – and three distinct political eras – have come and gone over the two decades that Cody has taken charge of the Kilkenny hurlers. His reign has coincided with the ruinous overheating of the original economic boom, the devastating recession, the years of recovery and here he stands, reliable as an oak tree, even as the economists are beginning to talk giddily of another global downturn.
In Kilkenny under Cody, a downturn generally means the failure to make an All-Ireland final and within that context, they have been through their own austerity years since last lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2015.
Most people believed the sun was setting on the Cody story at that stage. Even if they returned to the 2016 final against Tipperary on muscle memory, a visible power shift seemed to take place that day and with so many of his accomplished warriors and stickmen departing with a trove of All-Ireland medals, the age of Kilkenny frightening other counties appeared to be over.
There were a few chastening days, not least the bleak league afternoon down in Ennis when Clare gleefully ran up 2-17 against the Cats while holding them to just 0-12. It wasn’t hard to imagine the glow of satisfaction that result caused in the Sunday evening hostelries through Munster and the other counties that had felt the wrath of Kilkenny in the previous years. Not a comeuppance, maybe, but surely a sign that the force was in decline. Yet a year later, Kilkenny were league champions for the ninth time under Cody.
“I think people might think I’m a bit stale as a coach for some reason because of the way the game has gone,” he said shortly after that latest title, half jousting and half making a point. Because in truth, the thought had crossed many minds: that his ways and the slow-burning charisma wouldn’t quite have the same influence on a group of hurlers who weren’t long out of the pram when he started with Kilkenny.
It was one thing communicating with the players of Shefflin’s generation but another to get your message across to those born into the Ireland of the turn of the millennium.
People figured that like all people, however brilliant, Cody was of his time and that sooner or later it must happen – time will darken it. And three years of All-Ireland finals without those black and amber colours gave the others a degree of comfort, a sense that the worst of the storm was past.
As recently as February, Limerick served up a 2-18 to 0-15 lesson of slickness and movement in Nowlan Park, underlining their readiness to build on their All-Ireland success. And yet when the same counties met in summer’s real thing, everything had changed.
Here was every other hurling team’s nightmare returned. The names were different. The date was different. But that unyielding collective will, the internal fury to win the contest and the unbending faith in themselves was almost laughably familiar. And on the sideline the gaunt sun-beaten figure from whom it all emanates.
Vince Lombardi was head coach of the Green Bay Packers for just over a decade: 1959-69. He became second only to college basketball’s John Wooden in his capacity for coining memorable sporting aphorisms and nuggets of general wisdom which would drift around the world and eventually find their way into the coaching manuals of all sports, including Gaelic games.
“Winners never quit and quitters never win.”
“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
These are the kind of phrases that coaches and managers in all sports have repeated, often without realising their source of origin. You’ll search long and hard through the archives before you come across Cody quoting anybody else. And you’ll search for an equally long time before you come across him dispensing a kind of authoritative quote.
Through all those All-Ireland years, there has never been a boastful word or a flashy prediction
You imagine the contrarian in him would find them twee and irritating anyhow and that he’d be itching to find a flaw in the argument. He’s careful with words, waspish when he wants to be, occasionally funny and never, ever deviating from his own sense of how things should be.
Perhaps the most compelling and enigmatic aspect of Cody is that the message he has communicated to 20 years of Kilkenny hurling teams clearly travels into the deepest recesses of their brains and their souls. He turns out teams that are, in some way, a flesh and blood reflection of his own sense of the game and of the world. But how he does that remains an utter mystery to us, watching on from the outside.
Go through all of his old press conferences on All-Ireland final day and he invariably turns to the same reference points. Savage honesty. Intensity. Perhaps the word most frequently attributable to Cody and his teams is ‘ruthless’ and it’s a word to which he has at least feigned disapproval. And it has never been adequate to describe of capture the near-religious devotion with which players have performed under his watch.
His influence has spread outwards through the team. It doesn’t do to be showy in Kilkenny anyway but through all those All-Ireland years, there has never been a boastful word or a flashy prediction. And it’s not an exaggeration to claim that it’s influenced the comportment of the county, which might be described as modest hauteur.
He was asked one year when Kilkenny’s appearance in All-Ireland hurling finals was taken for granted, what he liked to do on the weekend of the game. He said that he liked to cut the grass on the Saturday, that it was relaxing.
There’s no better image: the constant gardener, doing his own thing, the drone of the machine saving him from the annoyance of the hype.
If they win on Sunday, it has to go down as Cody’s finest hour. And if they do win, he’ll return to the same touchstones in explaining how and why. He’ll be asked then about his future plans and he’ll say what he has always said, about taking time to think about things and making a decision then. Then’ll he disappear into the autumn, leaving everyone none the wiser.