In October 1999, the All-Stars trip took us over to Boston, with the match between the 1998 and 1999 All-Stars taking place in Canton.
Brian Cody was managing the 1998 side and I squared a deal with him beforehand. “Hi, Brian, about 30 minutes will do me here now.”
It’s all I was able for, because I’d already had a few heavy days, and I knew there could be a bigger night to come.
Cork were All-Ireland champions that season and they dominated the 1999 All-Star side.
At the time, Cork were sponsored by Esat Digifone, while the All-Stars concept was then sponsored by Eircell. Before the game, one of the head marketing guys at Eircell landed into the dressing room of the 1998 team to make an announcement: Esat Digifone were Eircell’s biggest business rivals and they wanted a result for a reason.
“If ye win,” he said, “there will be a free bar in Kitty O’Shea’s tonight.”
The eyes were jumping out of everyone’s heads. Kilkenny’s Willie O’Connor was the captain and he had the last word. “Lads,” he said, “we don’t need any more motivation than that.”
After we won, I went straight to the Eircell guy. “You better come good with that promise,” I said to him. “Free bar from 9 until closing time,” he replied.
I was rooming with Seánie McMahon and the two of us were shook the following morning. Seánie mentioned that he spotted me talking to Cody. He said that he and Jamesie O’Connor had also been chatting to Cody for a good part of the evening, and that most of the questions were coming from the Kilkenny man.
“Was he on to you about Clare training?” Seánie asked.
“He was,” I said, realising that our conversations had been of the same tone.
Cody was mad keen to know what kind of antics Ger Loughnane was up to. Were the stories true? Were our training matches like UFC cage fights? Did Loughnane ever blow for frees? Did Brian Lohan and Conor Clancy really leather the living daylights out of each other most nights in training?
I was fairly loosened-up, so I was flowing with information like a tap. And Cody just kept filling his glass, just as he had done with Seánie and Jamesie. How long did the training matches last? What kind of effort does Loughnane demand off the forwards? How early did some lads arrive at the ground to get work done before training?
“Martin Flanagan, the groundsman, can’t get there earlier than Colin Lynch,” I informed Cody.
You could see Cody’s mind ticking over. And the next time I ran into him, it was obvious that he had put some of the information to good use.
It will be 20 years ago next month that I witnessed the real Brian Cody for the first time. Two weeks before Clare played Tipperary in the Munster Championship, we travelled to Kilkenny for a challenge game. They absolutely walloped us.
Kilkenny’s physicality was off the charts. Clare had a name as the big aggressors in hurling at that time but Kilkenny bullied us off the field. And the whole tone was set by the Kilkenny manager, who was like a demented lunatic on the sideline. All you could hear all evening was his big, husky voice piercing the summer air.
It was like watching, and listening to, another version of Loughnane.
I remember going home in the car with Seánie and Jamesie afterwards and we were all taken aback by Kilkenny and Cody. The work-rate of their
forwards was animal. All over the pitch, they hit anything that moved. We had seen shades of that stuff in the 1999 All-Ireland semi-final, but this was a whole new level again. In a challenge match.
I had never seen that off a Kilkenny team in over a decade playing against them. The first time I lined out against Kilkenny was in a league game in 1990 when I was only a young fella. The late John Moroney, who was in the full-back line alongside me, came to me beforehand with some advice.
“Anthony, go out first to the ball here every time. This crowd are grand; none of these lads will hit you a mean slap.”
When we played Kilkenny in the Oireachtas final in late 1995, when 10,000 turned up in Cusack Park, all the cards were in Kilkenny’s favour. We’d been partying for months after winning the All-Ireland. I was already beginning to resemble Peter Clohessy — in appearance, not style, mind you — and yet, I cleared ball after ball that afternoon.
It was a walk in the park because the Kilkenny forwards didn’t tackle.
When we played Kilkenny in the 1997 All-Ireland semi-final, we dominated them. Kilkenny knew they couldn’t live with us. There’s a story told that Eddie O’Connor privately admitted to a few of the Kilkenny lads in the bus beforehand that we’d beat them by seven or eight points. The margin wasn’t that big, but it could have been, only for DJ Carey.
Cody was still over 12 months away from getting the Kilkenny job, but I’m sure that stuff drove him crazy. He almost got it right in 1999, when Kilkenny lost the All-Ireland final by one point, but Cody didn’t waste too much time in preparing for the 2000 season. And he started on that trip to Boston.
I’m not foolish enough to claim that copying Loughnane, and his methods in Clare, formed the template for Kilkenny’s future success. It could be argued that Cody’s real eureka moment arrived after the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway, when all softness and complacency was emphatically wiped from Kilkenny’s hard-drive by Cody’s new form of computer anti-virus.
But there’s still no doubt that Cody — similar to how Loughnane had learned from studying Kevin Heffernan and Mick O’Dwyer — realised that there had to be one single, strong, ruthless leader at the head of affairs if the regime was to take over the system.
They might be totally different personalities, especially in how outspoken Loughnane always was in public, compared to Cody, but both men are still so much the same in how they’re hard-wired.
Every day was always a learning day for Loughnane. And it’s the same with Cody.
Loughnane was driven on by the hurt of losing Munster finals but analysing Cody’s playing career too is instructive in how he is built as a manager, as a leader.
It was a peculiar career; a young, star corner-back in the early days, to a full-forward in the 1978 All-Ireland final (who was allegedly booed at the homecoming), to a towering full-back in the autumn of his career, captaining Kilkenny to the 1982 All-Ireland title.
In the middle of it all, Cody was on the great Kilkenny team that Wexford annihilated by 17 points in the 1976 Leinster final. Cody might have had the All-Ireland medals that Loughnane didn’t but do you think for a second that such a defeat didn’t hurt Cody as deeply as the 1978 Munster final defeat wounded Loughnane?
There might not have been as many bad days but they still shaped Cody just like they moulded Loughnane. I remember reading David Herity describe the half-time dressing-room in the 2012 Leinster final. Kilkenny were being hammered but Cody said that if anyone in the room didn’t believe they were going to win the second half, that they’d better head for the showers. Herity said he was nearly about to start rummaging in his bag for his shampoo until he realised the effect Cody’s words had just had on the players. They were never more pumped-up. Kilkenny didn’t win that game, but they won the second half. And that’s where the road to winning that 2012 All-Ireland began.
I saw how powerful Cody could be in a dressing room. After Dublin beat Kilkenny in 2013, the Dubs were gone wild with euphoria. Despite the delirium, I still said to Richie Stakelum that it was a near disaster, that we were in danger of losing the run of ourselves with Galway coming down the tracks in eight days’ time.
And then the big man walked in the door and effectively gave our pre-match speech before the Leinster final.
It was epic stuff but the beauty was its simplicity and sincerity. Cody spoke about how this day had been coming, and how our performance had confirmed what he’d felt for a long time about Dublin.
Then he spoke about Kilkenny’s hurt at letting the Bob O’Keeffe Cup out of Leinster the previous year, and across the provincial boundary to Galway, and how it was our duty now to bring that cup back to Leinster, where Cody felt it always belonged.
It also showed to me just how deeply Cody felt about the game, and its heritage and history.
I kinda felt too that day, that Cody was genuine towards me, because he’d always seen me as a genuine foe. I’d had plenty of run-ins with the great man. I had hit him a dunt in the chest during the 2004 drawn All-Ireland quarter-final, when I had told Cody he might have bullied Galway in their previous game but that he wasn’t going to bully Clare and me. Cody was probably taken aback by my brazenness that day but when we had another set-to, during a league game in Croke Park in 2011, he didn’t take it lying down. We nearly came to blows.
“You’re a long time trying to bate me now, Antnee,” said Cody.
“Sure, my mother would train that team, Brian,” I shot back. “They train themselves; anyone would win with them. G’way, will ya. How did you lose one or two of those All-Irelands with those players?”
Cody wasn’t impressed: “We’re bating ye anyway and you better believe that we’ll keep bating ye,” he snarled back.
“And we’d have beaten yere (Clare) team as well.”
I wasn’t going to take that jab to the ribs without landing a counter-punch. “Wrong there Brian. I’d love to have seen it but ye wouldn’t have been beating us.”
When the match ended in a draw, the two of us were laughing about the incident on our way across the pitch. At the time, anyone that might have been listening would surely have been thinking that what I said, especially when Kilkenny were so dominant, was total folly but we all know it’s not that simple, either, and that Kilkenny wouldn’t have won all they did without Cody. I always had incredible respect for the man. I felt he showed me the same respect. We might not have beaten Kilkenny too often but we rattled them enough for Cody to think: ‘This hoor is dangerous’.
You only see one side to Cody but I’ve often had great craic with him.
We had a couple of great nights together at the All-Stars, when a few glasses of wine loosened Cody’s tongue, and he spun some great yarns. When I stepped down from Dublin in 2014, Brian asked me if I’d have an interest in taking over the James Stephens senior team.
I felt there was a good empathy between us. We were at a PR event in Dublin one day when we spoke about some personal stuff. Brian’s brother had died young with a heart attack. I had lost my father and my brother Pascal to the same disease. We chatted about having check-ups, and the importance of looking after ourselves. It showed another side to Cody that nobody ever sees.
He has no reason to drop his guard because his formula has worked. Nothing ever changes, especially not the same core values he has instilled in his teams — an unbreakable spirit, togetherness, and a savage work-rate.
When Kilkenny lost Adrian Mullen, last year’s young hurler of the year, to a cruciate ligament injury during the league, there was a collective sigh of regret around the county, and around the hurling community. But was there a single word about it from Cody? Zero.
He just has this incredible belief in himself, and in the players at his disposal. Mullen is a huge loss, but Cody’s attitude has always been that there are enough good hurlers in Kilkenny for someone else to step up and do a job.
I saw that in 2013 when I entered the Kilkenny dressing room after the Leinster semi-final replay and it resembled an A&E ward. Kilkenny had Tipperary seven days later, but were there excuses? Not a chance. It was a case of go beat Tipp, which they did.
Kilkenny might no longer be the immortals they once were but getting them to last year’s All-Ireland final was one of Cody’s greatest achievements.
He keeps evolving and so do Kilkenny. Cody has shaken up his management team again this year. He might not let on to do gameplans and tactics but there have been visible tweaks in Kilkenny’s style because Cody will always try and find a way. He’s still searching for more, as all great leaders do. Last week, I read a book written by Dermot Kavanagh, about Kilkenny’s full-backs, entitled Kilkenny No 3, 1 Jersey, 14 Men, 34 All-Ireland Titles.
In one passage, when Kavanagh was writing about Cody, he quoted Paudie Butler, who described Cody as “the Master of all time”.
Two decades on from when Cody won his first All-Ireland as a manager, he’s now chasing his 12th. There have been some great managers, from Heffernan to Micko to Boylan to Loughnane to Harte to Gavin. Jim Gavin may have some claim to being called the greatest after leading Dublin to the five-in-a-row.
But, in my mind, there is no debate. There is only one Cody. There is only one Master.