“Do you reckon this will be Cody’s last year, Enda?”
“What??? Are you nuts???!!! The man will be feckin’ carried out…”
(Conversation had annually with randomers since around 2012)
So here he is, this Mount Rushmore figure of a man, sitting in the incongruous setting of Langton’s tearooms, a place so delicately decorated and genteel as to be straight out of Jane Austen. He is faced for the umpteenth time by the supplicants of the media, and for the umpteenth time he touches on his favourite themes and tropes.
Settled spirit, character (“it is either in a fellow or it is not”), hard work. He has elevated simplicity into a philosophy. Had Brian Cody run the country, there would never have been a crash. Everyone would have been too busy doing an honest, uncomplicated job.
A striking number of non-Codyologists have commented during the past fortnight on how relaxed he’s looked. It has been that obvious, apparently. Sure enough, he cracks a gag about Love Island (he’s still down with the kids!), claims he’s “not in the slightest” bit bit obsessed with hurling (yeah, right) and, pressed about what he does in his spare time, deadpans that he’s “one of the top golfers in Kilkenny — if I could get around to playing it”.
Little wonder he’s relaxed. The aftermath of the 2016 All- Ireland final left him with a minimum of a three-year rebuilding job. The new structure has been delivered on time and to budget. It isn’t the sprawling mansion of old, there’s no heated swimming pool or three-car garage, but it has foundations and walls and a roof. That’s enough to be going on with for the moment.
Little wonder he’s relaxed. He doesn’t do the personal pronoun, we know that, yet if Cody allowed himself the luxury of a self-indulgent grin after the Limerick game, he was well entitled to.
He remains the last manager to win successive All-Irelands. At different stages the following season the last three MacCarthy Cup winners have all been sure things to retain the title: Tipperary in 2017 up to the league final, Galway in 2018 after the Leinster final replay, Limerick a few weeks ago after the Munster final.
Each came up short.
These things are not as easy as they may look. The last man who achieved two-in-a-row? And achieved it with a bunch whose best days were in most cases not in front of them but long behind them? Exactly.
Little wonder he’s relaxed. Sunday’s showdown is as near a free hit as makes no difference.
Much as Cody’s proud spirit would bridle at the notion of consolation in defeat, a Tipperary win will not tarnish his reputation unless Kilkenny get it badly wrong on the sideline and allow Seamus Callanan go to town on them again or whatever.
But better to win than to lose, naturally, not least because this may be his best chance of winning an All-Ireland for a while. Kilkenny will not necessarily be a better team in two or three years’ time, and in three years’ time they probably won’t have TJ Reid any more. Look at Cork and the missed boat of 2013. They’ve had several more chances in the meantime. They still have not had a better one.
Little wonder he’s relaxed. It might not have turned out this way. It wouldn’t have taken much for him not to be sitting here with the supplicants.
Let’s play a little round of What If, shall we? We know what happened in Wexford Park two months ago. Matthew O’Hanlon departed on a second yellow card in the closing moments of the round robin encounter, the hosts were happy to hang on to what they had and both teams advanced to the Leinster final. Suppose for a moment, however, that O’Hanlon had stayed on and Wexford, howled on by the crowd to go for the jugular, pushed upfield and hit a winning point in the fourth and final minute of lost time.
Wexford and Dublin go through. Kilkenny and Galway go out. It was that close.
Cody’s autumnal routine has been the same since the early noughties. The championship over, he takes time to decide whether or not he’ll opt for another whirl on the carousel — or rather he takes no time at all, given his oft repeated admission that if he has to consciously ask himself whether he wants to return, then he’ll know the celestial fire has finally died.
So Kilkenny depart the championship in mid-June. In due course Cody does his annual de Valera routine, looks into his own heart and decides he’s returning, more determined than ever. In that instance, do the county board executive summon up the nerve to sit him down for a little chat? Ask him what went wrong and why? Press him as to how he proposes to improve matters? Quiz him as to why Kilkenny’s attacking moves have become so unimaginative?
Enquire if he feels he needs more help or should freshen up his backroom team?
It didn’t come to that. A couple of years down the road it might. Not just yet, though.
Even then he wasn’t out of the woods. A fortnight after Wexford Park the men in stripes were beaten in the provincial decider and for the first time in his 20 years there were mutterings locally. Not rumblings, no. More like mutterings, whispers, low-level background noise.
Nothing more substantial than complaints by experts on high stools or lads stopping in the street to grumble. But still.
The predictable, straight-line attacking. The misuse of Richie Hogan.
The late panic when a draw was obtainable. It wasn’t that Cody hadn’t lost close matches before; it was more that an acceptable result had been thrown away and — perhaps the real talking point — this at a juncture when for the first time ever, there were viable looking candidates for the job post-Cody. Henry Shefflin. Eddie Brennan. DJ Carey.
And then against Cork he sliced through the knots, and in one bounding victory over the All-Ireland champions a fortnight later he was free again. (In passing, one cannot imagine that Shefflin is anything other than relieved. He will of course manage Kilkenny, but for his sake the longer the day is deferred, the better. If you want a dark-horse potential future manager, by the by, here are two name: Michael Rice and Brian Hogan.)
Cody returns to Croke Park with a team that has had seven outings this summer, the outcome of four of which came down to the puck of a ball. Two of them were defeats. That tells its own tale.
The current black and amber iteration will always die hard but will rarely win easily. They are what they are; he is working with what he is working with. The county’s All-Ireland media brochure featured no fewer than 44 panellists. The implication is a dearth of realistic contenders rather than a surfeit of them.
Sunday’s XV will feature five or six changes from the 2016 outfit demolished by Tipperary. Is it enough? Is it too few? At least Huw Lawlor, Adrian Mullen, and Conor Browne have given the team wings since the end of the National League. That wasn’t an inevitability.
What do the next few years hold? Well, Carey’s under-20s proved a bitter disappointment in the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork. It doesn’t mean that Kilkenny won’t still source a few players from the group in the coming seasons, but to be waiting for a title in the grade since 2008 has obvious implications, none of them auspicious. Then again, the rate at which the county were producing shimmering prospects in the noughties was unsustainable. Cody is obliged to operate within the parameters of a reduced household budget, and he’s doing so.
In the 40 years before he was appointed in late 1998, an unknown quantity with a well-known name, Kilkenny averaged three All-Irelands a decade. The rhythm of the cycle suggests they’ll return to two — a la the 1980s and ‘90s — or three All-Irelands in the 2020s.
Nothing wrong with that. What’s more, they’ll be grateful for them.
And so he beats on, not borne on the flood tide of old but against the current. The Hilaire Belloc rhyming couplet so beloved of political journalists — “And always keep a hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse” — has never seemed apter.
He is on his third Pope, fourth Taoiseach, and fourth US president. His themes and tropes are not clichés but enduring truths.
He’ll manage Kilkenny next year and now there are no mutterings. He is relaxed. He remains Cody.
Dalo's All-Ireland Preview Podcast: Tale of the unexpected but familiar final