Kilkenny’s trip to Galway a crossing point between the past and the future

Shefflin will pit his hurling wits against Cody, the man who had been his mentor

When Henry Shefflin announced his retirement at a press conference in March of 2015, one of the questions asked was whether Brian Cody had been emotional when he told him the news. Shefflin offered that quick, amused grin of his and an equally quick response. "What do you think?"

It was a terrific reply because the idea of either man ever going full Oprah about anything was and remains ridiculous. Cody and Shefflin are private people. Kilkenny is a county whose people possess an inherent suspicion of gushing emotion. And in Cody that quality is particularly sharp. He has a very low tolerance for hype or for questions or statements that are ill-considered or vague – and he has fielded many over the decades.

Watch any Cody interview and you see that language matters to him. Words are carefully chosen, and anyone who has sat in on his post-game press conferences over the years will have heard the same words and phrases repeated not because they are convenient but because he believes them apt.

The retirement of Shefflin that week was cause for a week of gratitude tinged with sadness within Kilkenny and a more general national admiration for a figure who had bestrode Gaelic games with a rare, singular flame of consistent excellence. Winning seasons defined them. “Harvest” is the only reasonable title for any summation of their era.


But the idea that Cody had remained unreadable as an Easter Island statue in the moment wasn’t accurate either. In fact, the pair met twice as Shefflin prepared to let Kilkenny go. Cody was the first person he told. That Friday Cody didn’t attempt to dissuade the younger man but he counselled him to take the weekend to think about it. By Monday nothing had changed.

“He was very complimentary to me and one of the nicest things he said was, ‘Henry, you’ve got the very best out of yourself’, Shefflin told the gathering that day. “I was happy with that.”

Simple words

Alex Ferguson believed that the most meaningful praise he could offer a player was "well done". Nothing fancy or embellished: just simple words conveying honest praise. So it went in Nowlan Park. The idea of having got the best out of himself was music to Shefflin's ears, given that all he had endured to extend his career. It wasn't about the 10 All-Ireland medals or the awards or the tributes that would flood the columns and airwaves the next week. It was an acknowledgement from his guiding figure that he could have given this cause they shared no more. It was their moment.

In a curious way their reunion on Sunday as opposing managers will be something similar. It will be a personal milestone played out in front of an intensely engaged national audience.

For Shefflin it is the moment when he pits his hurling wits against the man who has been his mentor and hurling patriarch for most of his adult life. Shefflin becomes just the third Kilkenny man to manage a team playing against his county, after Dermot Healy and Georgie Leahy.

Cody will understand the fascination with the moment. And he’ll just about tolerate the inevitable hoopla. The hype. The questions. Apart from anything else, it will be a distraction from what has always been the main point. The winning of the game. And in Kilkenny, the feeling is much the same.

"The biggest thing will be that Kilkenny go to Galway and win because they got a bit of a hiding last time," says former player and manager Nickey Brennan.

“I don’t think the two guys themselves will be the biggest point in Kilkenny as we head towards the game. I can understand that interest nationally all right. In a way, look, when Henry was asked to go to Galway and when he went, there was talk here for a while and talk of disappointment and all the rest.

“And after winning two club titles and two club All-Irelands he felt he was ready for the bigger stage and Galway came calling. I won’t say people were unhappy but they were surprised for a while and they got on with it. The fact that Henry is in the other dug-out is almost irrelevant from a Kilkenny perspective.”

Solitary role

Galway hold a curious role in the Kilkenny era. The setback of the defeat in the 2001 semi-final against Galway convinced Cody that the manager’s role was, in essence, a solitary one. He still enjoyed the mischief in the dressingroom but there was a reserve there.

“A little barrier went up that year which essentially told people he wasn’t in the job to be their friend,” Shefflin wrote in his autobiography. “And that barrier never came back down. There was a job to be done, and keeping that sense of distance would help him do it.”

When Galway sacked Kilkenny again in a wild and entertaining semi-final in 2005, the verdict was that the light was dimming. Cody and Kilkenny responded by falling short of five All-Ireland titles in a row by just one game, a period during which Shefflin was the lodestar. And of course, Galway were the team against whom Kilkenny won its most recent All-Ireland title in 2015, the 11th achieved under Cody.

During his time as GAA president it fell to Brennan to give an oration at the funeral of Con Murphy. He noted that the Cork man held the distinction of having presented the MacCarthy Cup to his county men on three occasions and wistfully hoped he would like to emulate that.

Little did he know that’s exactly what would happen. His three-year term, 2006-2009, coincided with years when Kilkenny existed on a different plane and cut through hurling championships with displays of austere hauteur. It couldn’t last forever and didn’t. But consecutive Leinster titles; league champions last year; an All-Ireland final appearance in 2019; the last team to defeat Limerick – the new overlords – in the championship; Cody’s Kilkenny remain a hugely competitive proposition.

“That’s true, Brennan says. “And while we haven’t been winning All-Irelands, we have been close and he has brought through a number of players. He has been able to bring players in consistently and if you are doing well you will get your chance.

“Equally, when a player comes into the Kilkenny set-up there is a very clear set of expectations of how you behave. There is never the slightest hint of what goes on in there. Players who might be chatty enough before they go in there absolutely conform, because they know the ground rules and that is part of the inherent discipline. It might not endear him to everyone – those in the media – but you come to accept it.”

Unique day

In retirement, Brennan gives some time to Kilkenny Community Radio, a volunteer service, and he will be in the booths in Pearse Stadium on Sunday. He advocated strongly for Galway’s presence in the Leinster championship and can point now to an improved competition. This is one of its unique days. It is too early in the season to see how Shefflin will shape his Galway team but already their relentless work rate has become a feature recognisable from the Kilkenny teams on which he played.

It’s a strange summer already because Limerick have re-established themselves as a force capable of eclipsing all suns once again. They stand now where Cody and Shefflin did at their zenith.

“Are they as good?” wonders Brennan.

“They are likely going to be but they still have to win those titles. Right now they seem to be of the same calibre in how they handle the opposition. They are ruthless; they are able to take knocks and recover. But I would still say that the last team to beat Limerick was Kilkenny.

“And I would love to see them meet again because I think you would absolutely see Kilkenny go man on man. It is not that Cody hasn’t gone for the shorter game and hitting though the lines but he knows that Kilkenny are very strong at that game. I am not saying for one minute that Kilkenny would beat Limerick. But Brian Cody would love that challenge.”

That’s for future days. Sunday’s reunion in Galway is a crossing point between past and future. The game is the thing. But the meeting of former manager and player will become a famous GAA moment. It’s a big day for the photographers.

“Absolutely. And, look, there will be that personal thing where he will not want Henry Shefflin coming up and shaking his hand and saying ‘hard luck Brian’. He absolutely will not want that.”

You could power the national grid on the general voltage that their handshake will generate.

“I’m not sure I have greater respect for another man alive than I have for Brian Cody, and there is no doubting his utterly pivotal role in my hurling career,” Shefflin noted towards the end of his book.

“Do I consider him a friend? Yes. But will we ever be buddy-buddy types, on the phone every second evening, chatting away for hours? No. that’s not him and it’s certainly not me.”

The words they share will be scarce enough on Sunday as well. But whatever is exchanged between them will carry the weight of shared memory and respect.