Bill Belichick and Brian Cody have a lot in common. Not just in terms of timescale, although it is kind of mad that Cody is finishing his 21st season in charge of Kilkenny a few weeks before Belichick starts his 20th with the New England Patriots. But all the other stuff too – the success, the consistency, the constant team-building, the ability to adapt to the way their sports have evolved over time.
Belichick is setting out on a season where he will be looking for a seventh Super Bowl ring. Cody walks out in Croke Park on Sunday on the cusp of a 12th All-Ireland. These are numbers that won’t be matched in either sport for generations. When somebody sits down in 2099 to draw up each sport’s list of iconic figures from the 21st century, both men are a dead cert to be on it. It’s amazing to be able to say that with 80 years still to go.
On a more basic level, I find the most fascinating parallel between them is in terms of how they go about their business. Both are deep thinkers on the game. They live and breathe their sport all year round. They have tunnel vision for their team and they’re both absolutely ruthless in their approach.
The thing that strikes me when you look at both of them is how they manage their teams to the optimum. I don’t mean managing in terms of being a figurehead or a front of house figure. I mean the nitty-gritty of getting the very best from the talent at their disposal.
They keep it very simple. Everyone has a job and you do that job to the maximum. You do it every time you train and play. It’s not a decision, it’s not an aspiration. It’s a standard that is demanded from you and you are held accountable to that standard.
For years Belichick has delivered the same consistent message. Do Your Job. If everyone does their job to a high level consistently, then they will be successful. How many times have we heard Cody talk about nothing other than the game in front of his team? Not last year, or a game they just played, or two games ahead. He focuses on the here and now.
They don’t like to waste time talking about missing players or retired players or referees. They don’t expend time or energy on their media duties. They do what they have to and not much more. Everything extra is filtered out. Team, team, team. Everything else is noise.
All-Ireland week is very different to the rest of the year but Brian will keep his team's habits pretty consistent. If he so much as smells a ticket for the final around the dressingroom this week, God help the culprit. It's laser focus, no distractions, no outside noise. Players crave normality and structure so training will be Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Brian will say a few words on Monday to start the week, nothing at all on Wednesday and tonight it will be the Three Ts – team, tactics, Tipperary.
Two years ago, I sat in front of Liam Sheedy in the RTÉ press box as Tipperary played Galway in an epic All-Ireland semi-final. He was on duty on the live Sunday Game and I was on the night-time highlights show. I couldn't but be struck by his total immersion in the game.
We are all deeply interested of course, especially when our own county is playing, but he was hitting every ball and encouraging every player and calling them by their first name as if he was still the manager. Underneath all our suits we have our county jerseys on and want to see our county be successful, but that day he was more involved that a normal pundit would be.
While we all took notes of scores and changes in the game and tried to graph how the game was unfolding, Liam was completely wrapped up in how Tipp were doing. It was all: “We need to do this, we need to do that . . .” At the time I felt like saying: “They need you back on the line, Liam.”
Be careful what you wish for! It was obvious, though. You couldn’t be near him watching a massive Tipperary game without seeing that he’d love to be back at it again. I remember thinking to myself that he’d be a manager again within a short few years. He bleeds his county and has done a super job to date.
What's interesting is how Liam has changed his team this year. Noel McGrath to midfield, Brendan Maher as a designated man-marker. Here's two lads who Liam has known since they were teenagers and suddenly he's finding new ways to use them later on in their careers. Jason Forde as a deep-dropping half forward, Barry Heffernan and James Barry switching and swapping depending on the gameplan needed for a particular opposition.
That flexibility, that thinking outside the box, that’s a real sign of a guy who has a very good handle on his panel and his players. In the Munster final, Tipperary had no bench. Four weeks later, they bring five lads in with the game in the melting pot and four of them score a point each to seal the game. Do Your Job.
I could sum Liam Sheedy up in what he has done with Cathal Barrett, Bubbles O'Dwyer and Bonner Maher. He breathed new life into three lads who were stuck in a rut in their careers. They were either not performing to their ability or had discipline issues or nagging injuries that they weren't getting over. That all changed when Liam came back into manage the team. That's the Sheedy effect.
I know it’s a cliché but this game is so tight, it really is 50-50. I normally don’t sit on the fence when it comes to predictions, but this has me changing my mind every passing day. There is a reason why the bookies find it hard to separate them.
I look at it this way. If Limerick were in this final against either Tipp or Kilkenny, the bookies would have Limerick down as favourites. If Wexford were in the final against either Tipp or Kilkenny, the bookies would have Wexford down as underdogs. But with these two, it’s so hard to find a killer argument one way or another.
Their profiles are so similar. Both teams had to scrap their way through an epic semi-final. Both teams could just as easily be sitting at home on Sunday watching Limerick and Wexford go at it. Both of them have went into the summer a bit down the list of potential winners and both had to pick themselves up after losing a provincial final.
Go through the two teams and the only injury loss is Bonner Maher. He would have been a key figure in the game, no doubt about that. But still, one major injury across two 30-man panels over the course of a season where both teams have had to play seven games to make a final is the absolute least that would have been expected. This is as close to a full-strength final as you could wish for.
This is their seventh meeting in an All-Ireland final since 2009, including the 2014 replay. Take those previous six games and you have three wins for Kilkenny, two for Tipp and one draw. The aggregate scoreline over the six games is Kilkenny 12-116 Tipperary 10-127. Break it down and that’s Kilkenny 152, Tipperary 157. Five points between them over six games. My point is, there’s nothing really between them. So don’t think too badly of a pundit who can’t call it with any confidence.
When I look at the game, here's what I see. They will mirror each other in structure and shape, with Adrian Mullen going out from corner forward to make a fourth half forward for Kilkenny and Forde doing the same for Tipp. That leaves a bunched middle third with two v two in both inside lines.
Winning possession in that middle third gets you into the game. Winning good possession, ie, getting the right players in space to deliver it inside – that's where the game will be won and lost. Séamus Callanan and Colin Fennelly are close to impossible to mark if they are regularly fed good, low diagonal ball. Work backwards from that and you find that the team who has the upper hand the longer the game goes on will be the team who is best at preventing those balls being played.
Both sides will try to cut it off. I can see Kilkenny posting Pádraig Walsh a bit deeper and Tipp doing the same with Paudie Maher. But even with them there, if there's time and space out the field for good quality ball to be played in, the two lads may as well be in the players' lounge nursing a cold one.
That's why for me, the game-changing match-up could be Conor Browne picking up Noel McGrath. Go back through the semi-final and quarter-final and watch who he picked up – Darragh Fitzgibbon against Cork and Cian Lynch against Limerick. That smacks of management identifying the killer threat at the heart of the opposition's gameplan and neutralising it.
Conor will be delighted to be given that job. If he goes out there and plays the role of spoiler and keeps Noel out of the game, that’s going to force Tipperary to find another way. He just hits anything that moves with his abrasive, athletic and physical style of play and won’t be worrying about getting forward or getting his name on the scoreboard or anything like that. We all know how Noel can unlock defences with his passing ability, so a lot rides on this match-up.
Tipperary have some big calls to make in their defence. Who plays full back – James Barry, Barry Heffernan or the awesome Ronan Maher? I wouldn't be surprised to see Sheedy bringing James Barry back in for a duel in the square with Colin Fennelly. We all presume Brendan Maher will detail TJ Reid but will they push Paudie Maher onto Wally Walsh like they did in 2016? Big calls all around.
It's Sheedy versus Cody Part III. They always have sparks on the line when the meet, that won't change the weekend. It is very hard to call but I think there might be Black and Amber confetti streaming from the top of the Hogan stand come 5.15pm.
It will come down to that simple message. Do Your Job!