The year that Brian Cody became Kilkenny manager, Bessborough Mother and Baby Home closed. Cher was at the top of the charts at her vocoder best; Monica and Chandler got together; I started secondary school.
Cody’s managerial career has spanned three presidential impeachments — two Trump and one Clinton — and predates both Google and Wikipedia. Any newly-minted college graduates that he calls up to the panel this year will not even have been born when he took over the Kilkenny squad.
He’s been there a while, is what I’m getting at. The great Henry Shefflin might be affectionately known as King Henry, but to me, it’s Cody who has the touch of royalty about him. Like a certain long-serving monarch who has seen numerous prime ministers come and go, Cody presides over Kilkenny hurling; he bloods young players and he lives to see them retire as well. Like that certain monarch, he is stoic to a fault; even his 2009 autobiography gave away very little. Only Sean Boylan has served as long, and if Cody leads Kilkenny into 2022 — and who would doubt it? — he will outlast the Meath man as well.
It’s been interesting to reflect on Cody’s longevity and constancy amidst the flurry of player retirements recently. In the last couple of weeks, there have been five Mayo footballers, three Kerry footballers, two Kilkenny hurlers, one Dublin footballer, one Cork hurler, and one Kilkenny camogie player — the peerless Anne Dalton — who have hung up their boots for 2021.
Maybe it’s not surprising, given the season gone by. It was the year of ‘sure we’ll give it one more lash’. At the start of 2020, players in their 30s may have baulked at coming back for another year of inter-county service — the long hard months of training five or six nights a week, trying to juggle club and county, not to mention career and family. But then everything screeched to a halt, and the prospect of a compressed championship was put on the table. There were clear boundaries, and this gave players more agency.
Another season of inter-county would be all-consuming, yes; but only for a specific period of time, compared to the usual unwieldy sprawl. If you were a player on the brink of retirement, it was an ideal opportunity to come back for one last hurrah.
On the flipside, though, if you made it to business end of championship, you didn’t have the traditional winter hibernation to look forward to. The winter break is not just a physical recovery, but a mental and emotional recovery too. You need enough time to miss the game. From this perspective, the slew of Mayo retirements makes sense to me.
Another heartbreaking final the weekend before Christmas, and looking straight down the barrel of another championship in a matter of months. If you were thinking about going, it wouldn’t be a bad time.
They came thick and fast, then — those poignant career summaries that tally up All-Stars rather than All-Irelands. Notably, all five — Chris Barrett, David Clarke, Seamus O’Shea, Tom Parsons and Donal Vaughan — were born in the 80s, and all five have put in more than a decade in the Mayo jersey.
A huge 2020 positive for Mayo is the younger players they’ve brought through — Oisín Mullin, Eoghan McLaughlin, Ryan O’Donoghue, and Tommy Conroy chief among them.
The older guard can leave, safe in the knowledge that young talent is coming through in droves.
Not every inter-county team has that reassurance. The Tipp hurlers, too, have five stalwarts with a decade-plus played — Callanan, McGrath, and Mahers Pádraic, Brendan, and Bonner.
Though Bonner has been in and out due to injury troubles, it’s difficult to imagine a Tipp starting lineout without the other four. And maybe it was the shortened season, but aside from the promising Paddy Cadell, it’s hard to think of another Tipp debutant who got much action this year.
Jake Morris is nominated for Young Hurler of the Year and was a bright spot for Tipp, showing a reassuring ability to slot away chances in a campaign when Tipp were patchy upfront. But with a lack of any other breakthrough performances, and exciting young talent like Conor Bowe opting to join the football panel instead, Tipp might not have any new cards to play in the 2021 Championship.
Sometimes, though, retirement can be a rebirth. Retirement from the GAA can give players the time and headspace to make big life decisions, like changing careers or having kids, that they might not have had the time or bandwidth for while pursuing their inter-county ambitions.
It can also lead to a pivot into coaching, punditry, or even — in some exceptional cases — a whole new sporting career.
So it was for Cora Staunton, who kept up the dual player status for a year before committing solely to Aussie Rules in 2019. She’s now in her fourth season with the GWS Giants in Sydney and, at 39, in the form of her life. Maybe that’s one of the great benefits of pro sport after a long amateur career — there’s no limit to the time you can put into preparation and recovery, allowing you to get the most out of yourself, even past the average retirement age.
It’s been very positive in recent days to hear that Bríd Stack, who suffered a serious neck injury in her first game for the Giants, will make a full recovery.
Like Staunton, Stack finished up her ladies football career in 2018, but was tempted back to professional ball in Oz late last year. Perhaps this was at the instigation of Staunton, with whom Stack has had an intense rivalry down the years in Cork-Mayo clashes, while always maintaining a mutual respect.
Fingers crossed for Stack’s continued recovery, and for her eventual renaissance as yet another brilliant Irish AFLW star.