This is Kilkenny: Hold off on the plucky scrapper talk

This is Kilkenny: Hold off on the plucky scrapper talk

Brian Cody and Winston Churchill might not seem to have that much in common, apart from a shared disdain for appeasement.

But Cody is the living embodiment of one of Churchill’s great maxims: KBO — Keep Buggering On. This was old Winnie’s response to allies and underlings when confronted with the great existential crises of his age, usually uttered just prior to lapsing into a whiskey-induced coma. By his reckoning any threat, however grave, could be faced down by an indefatigable resolve to trudge on regardless.

As with the great theatre of statecraft, so too in hurling’s battle for supremacy. Cody could very easily have run up the white flag in the years since his grip on the mace of power was loosened. It’s only four seasons since Kilkenny’s last All-Ireland title, but it feels like the game’s showrunners have been trying to usher him stage left for some time.

The 2014 and 2015 All-Irelands and the run to the 2016 final were seen as great feats of alchemy, fashioning jewels from pans of gritty silt, raging against the dying of the light. But the talk, even if it was only a cautious whisper, was that Cody was a man out of time. The game had moved on, had become a school of science that made the Cody principles, etched in stone tablet since time immemorial, seem yellowing and dusty.

Add the fact there were no longer quite so many stone cold legends of the game running around Nowlan Park, and it seemed like it might be safe to consider the Cody years in the past tense, to start putting them in their correct historical context; like the Jurassic Era, similarly ruled by terrifying, flesh-eating beasts.

But here he is, in another All-Ireland final, still persuading young men in black and amber to lay waste to all before them.

Still buggering on.

One unlikely side-effect of Cody’s longevity is to make him seem almost loveable. He has always been respected, and feared, but never loved. Whether it was crushing poor Marty Morrissey like an unfortunate woodlouse in one memorable post-match interview or regular purple-faced tirades at match officials, the realm of Cody was never a land of milk and honey.

In the popular imagination his team was cold, austere, and ruthless, all clanking broadswords and thousand-yard stares, brutally efficient like a Roman legion cutting down tribal resistance and raising aqueducts in the pools of blood.

The retirement of most of those great players has softened the picture a little.

Punditry and media work has allowed some of them to reveal personalities and emotions, and while not recasting the four-in-a-row team as some sort of wisecracking Rat Pack outfit, they at least now seem to verge on human.

Also — and this is something that might only happen to the current Dublin footballers in their own dotage — the fact that their dominance has ended has allowed them to be truly appreciated, as if we can only savour how good they were now that we know it didn’t last forever.

Cody similarly enjoys the benefits of sepia, though he has not yet joined his old players in the afterlife, largely down to the fact that he is, well, still buggering on.

His platitudes about savage intensity and each game of hurling taking on a life of its own and there being nothing complicated about at all, at all — these now bring affectionate smiles rather than eye-rolls. The trademark rubbing of the hands and tweaking of the baseball cap are comfortingly familiar gestures in a fast-changing world. And knowing he no longer marshals the supreme unit of hurlers in the land lends nobility and a sense of selflessness to his efforts.

His triumphs in 2014 and 2015 can be compared to Premier League title wins of late-period Alex Ferguson, when he dragged the likes of Phil Jones and Nani to the top of the table in the face of Manchester City’s emerging power. Cody is often compared to Ferguson, and when talk turns to his eventual succession, the pitfalls of Manchester United’s demise are usually mentioned. Who wants to be David Moyes to Cody’s ever-looming Fergie?

The thing is, in remaining in charge throughout the years when Kilkenny have struggled to compete with hurling’s rising powers, it could be argued that Cody is serving as his own Moyes. He is managing the transition period so that someone else doesn’t have to, as if he has vowed to himself that he will only hand over to a new man when he is happy with what he is handing over.

The bigger picture means that Cody and Kilkenny are now cast in the unlikely role of underdogs. Everyone loves an underdog, right? Steady on, this is still Kilkenny we’re talking about here, hold back on the plucky scrapper talk will ya?

But there is something deeper than just his Churchillian resolve that would explain why this might be Cody’s most popular All-Ireland win yet, were they to beat Tipperary on Sunday.

There appears to some sort of battle for the soul of the game going on in the public sphere at the moment. Witness the impassioned defence of that scurrilous new peril, Tactics ‘N’ Systems, by Dónal Óg Cusack and Derek McGrath on The Sunday Game a few weeks back; the stuff of ‘pathetic egos’ thundered Ger Loughnane from his newspaper pulpit.

This is incendiary talk for a 2,000-year-old game to be caught up in, but to quote Michael Moynihan of these pages, hurling is “as multi-faceted as a diamond”. Whatever side you choose to look upon, finding Cody’s enduring principles writ large across another All-Ireland Sunday is reassuring in a time of such rapid evolution. You could almost see Limerick players face-palming themselves after the first 20 minutes of the semi-final, realising they’d forgotten the things that never change: honesty, work, aggression, character.

The Cody commandments.

If they carry Kilkenny to another All-Ireland, it might well be to paraphrase Cody’s old mate Winston, his finest hour.

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