In all my years playing under Brian Cody, there was one phrase he repeated and repeated above all others. It wouldn't matter what point we were at in the season or who we were playing in an upcoming game. He didn't keep it for special occasions or anything like that.
“I don’t give a damn for a settled team. I want a settled work rate, a settled spirit, a settled attitude. That’s all I care about.”
It was his mantra, repeated over and over to let everyone know that he set about every game with a blank teamsheet. Those were the most used words barked from Brian’s mouth and they were as common as Donald Trump wearing red ties. And by God he meant it.
There was no lip service paid and nobody dared to test him on it. This was Bible stuff. You could nearly use that phrase in the reading at Fr Whearty’s 10 o’clock Mass in Foulkstown on the Sunday morning. A Reading from the Acts of Brian Cody.
I used to hate hearing it. He’d shout it as we were heading out on to the training field and all it would be doing in my head was giving major encouragement to the lads who were gunning for my place in the team. He was more or less saying to 15 other hungry wolves: ‘Go get ‘em, boys!’
But it was more than that as well. I always had the feeling that Brian weans only dying to change around the team. Not for the sake of it, definitely not – unless you put your hand up and deserved it, you didn’t get the jersey. But you always tell that one of his driving principles of management was to keep everyone honest.
The whole environment was about everyone being on their toes. Brian has the unbelievable ability of making lads who had won multiple All-Irelands, All Stars, Hurler of the Year awards feel worried that they were going to lose their place. He has a talent for making someone who had been on the panel for 10-plus years snap into the state of mind and focus of a lad who was only in the door.
In my eyes, the greatest hurler I ever played with and against was JJ Delaney. He probably won me a few All Stars with his brick-wall attitude when he played at wing-back in front of me. But he would take the training field after hearing the Settled Spirit speech for the umpteenth time and he would be vicious to hold on to his spot. Tommy Walsh and Henry Shefflin weren’t too far behind him. That was and is the magic of Cody.
There are no sacred cows. Just because you played well in a certain position in a certain game doesn’t mean you can spend the next few weeks satisfied that’s where you’ll be playing the next day. He wants you going into every game thinking you have something to prove.
Think of it, all the way back to when Stephen Grehan was dropped for an All-Ireland final in 2000. Or when Walter Wash was brought in from the fields of Tullagher in the 2012 replay. Or Kieran Joyce coming in at centre-back for the 2014 replay when he hadn't played in three months. Or Pádraig Walsh coming in for Joey Holden in the same game.
These are key positions, yet Brian thought nothing of replacing two-thirds of the most pivotal line on the field for an All-Ireland final replay. If anyone in the outside world ever wondered about what he meant by not caring about a settled team but looking for a settled spirit, that was it in a nutshell.
That’s why I’ll be watching out in particular for the Kilkenny team that’s named tonight to play Galway on Sunday. Pádraig took over the game against Dublin in Nowlan Park when he was moved out to centre-back. Anybody who was there would have come away thinking, ‘Right, well that’s that position sorted for Kilkenny for the rest of the year.’ Everybody except the only man who will make the decision, that is.
Cillian Buckley has played a full club game in the meantime and is back now sniffing for that jersey. I'm not in the dressing room anymore but I'd make a fair bet that Pádraig and Cillian both had it swirling around their heads for the past week or so, wondering which of them will be given the spot.
Past performances and history don't come into play when the next game is in sight. Brian only looks back at the end of the year. It's a forward-moving train, gathering momentum. If it's right for the team, then the change is made. Richie Hogan played for his club and from what I hear, Eoin Murphy isn't too far away either.
Brian has his principles and he sticks by them, and you have to admire that in him. Will there be changes for Sunday? Maybe. But that will depend on who has shown that settled spirit and attitude that he demands these past few weeks.
This is a huge game for both Kilkenny and Galway on Sunday. If Kilkenny win, it sets them up for a Leinster final. But if they lose, they’ll be heading to Wexford Park looking for a result, potentially to stay in the championship. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they get beaten on Sunday, which will put Galway ahead of them on five points. Wexford will surely beat Carlow, putting them on four.
If those two results come to pass, it means four teams go into the final day separated by just two points. Galway will be playing Dublin in Parnell Park, having already qualified for the knockout stages. If Galway lose there, Kilkenny can’t lose in Wexford.
Now, the flipside of all that is that it’s a huge game on Sunday for Galway too. If they lose in Nowlan Park, they go into the last round of games on three points. Wexford will be gone past them and Dublin will be above them on scoring difference. That means that only a win in Parnell Park will keep them in the championship. Anything less and they’re done for the year.
So we’re looking at a six-day stretch here that will decide an awful lot. Kilkenny have seen off Dublin in a game where they were decimated by injuries. That’s the first hurdle jumped. Now they need a win at home against Galway – nothing pretty, just grind out the result. Easier said than done.
In all honesty, I would be very worried for Kilkenny this weekend. Galway are bound to have a nasty sting in their tail. They will absolutely respond to the lacklustre performance against Wexford, have no doubt about that. People are wondering what has happened to Galway – they have one defeat in their last 16 championship games. And that was by a single point in an All-Ireland final where they couldn’t have played worse if they’d tried.
People have short memories. These were All-Ireland champions remember, men of substance. Daithí Burke, Gearoid Mac, the Mannion brothers, David Burke, Conor Whelan – I fully expect these lads to come out fighting on Sunday because their backs are to the wall and for the first time in almost three years, people are openly doubting them. If not now, when?
The question for Galway is – what is the most direct way of attacking Kilkenny? To me, their first and most important job is TJ Reid. That might sound a bit obvious but it’s worth pointing out that this is a Kilkenny team that depends on one player to a much greater extent than was every the case under Cody before.
From the point of view of pure scoring return, TJ has become nearly too important to Kilkenny. He’s top of the scoring charts in the championship by seven points even though he has played a game less than most of the other big marksmen. He has put up 2-12 in one game and 1-12 in the other – after a long year with the club, it’s sensational to hit the ground running like that.
He has been responsible for 55 per cent of Kilkenny's scores. For comparison, Cork people might worry that Patrick Horgan does too much of the scoring for them but even he has only 46.4 per cent of their scores so far. Jason Forde is Tipperary's top-scorer so far but their spread is so much wider so he's only been responsible for 23 per cent of their total.
One player shouldering 55 per cent of the scoring total has to be a concern for Kilkenny. It means there’s an obvious starting point for Galway here. TJ is so good and so important, he’s worth sacrificing a really top-class defender to detail him for the day. I don’t mean a really good hurler, I mean an elite defender with natural defending instincts. If only they had Greg Kennedy still playing for them!
I would be thinking of someone like Adrian Touhey or even Pádraic Mannion. You need someone with a great defender's brain. Someone who is very strong in the air but who will know when to sacrifice catching the ball, someone who is fast, who has good spatial awareness and is always conscious of his body position. Above all, someone who is disciplined.
This is not new information. Every team that goes out to play Kilkenny sends someone to go and play on TJ Reid. Dublin went with Shane Barrett, who had a lot of the characteristics you need. But he fell down on the most important one – he got way too caught up in hitting TJ off the ball and his discipline was completely lacking. TJ can't score 2-12 if the opposition are disciplined.
Being disciplined doesn’t mean not fouling. It means keeping on the right side of the referee. A foul is only a foul if the referee whistles for it. But once he does, you have to take that as your baseline and work from there.
When I man-marked Lar Corbett I always had discipline at the forefront of my brain. When you're doing that job, an early yellow card is a lead weight. You can't have it because it gives you no choice but to back off the edge ever so slightly. It might only be 10 per cent but it's enough.
Whoever is marking TJ on Sunday can’t afford to be playing 10 per cent off the edge. He may as well be down the town in Langton’s drinking a pint. On the edge is the only show in town. Not over it – definitely not over it, because you’re only harming yourself where it matters on the scoreboard – but right on the edge, holding nothing back.
That’s where Galway have to be on Sunday. They can’t afford to head back up the road still only on three points. I expect a huge improvement in performance from them.