PM O'Sullivan: Kilkenny are operating with more flexibility and craft. What took them so long?

The day after Kilkenny beat Clare, I received a message from a friend who is an officer in the Laois County Board. He hopped a neon ball: “Do you need a lift over to Cody’s house to apologize?” 
PM O'Sullivan: Kilkenny are operating with more flexibility and craft. What took them so long?

That's more like it: Kilkenny manager Brian Cody celebrates with Eoin Cody after victory in the semi-final against Clare. Pic: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

A hurling match, stating the obvious, is 15 players against 15 players.

Not so obvious: the sideshows. These entertainments arrive in various guises. 

One of them ― supposed tensions between Brian Cody and Henry Shefflin ― dominated this season’s coverage.

The nadir came with RTÉ’s split screen coverage of the two managers in Leinster Final aftermath. Here was hurling as Coronation Street or Eastenders. I think this craic appeals to people who have no real interest in hurling, in the most beautiful game’s splendour. I found this craic desperate.

Anything as predictable as popular entertainment fluff? Boring. The greatest thing about sport, including tomorrow’s senior final? Its unpredictable nature.

Then again, I am not the target audience. My boredom threshold is low. To rejig the gifted Kevin Cashman, hurling’s finest writer: when I hear people say ‘Davy Fitz is box office’, I drain my glass and move on.

Often enough, focus on managerial personalities is pretend analysis for people with nothing substantial to say. 

Kilkenny’s sweeping win over Clare a fortnight ago got glossed as victory, most of all, for Brian Cody. 

He seemingly had proven all prior comment wrongheaded.

This week, Jamesie O’Connor remarked: “Cody, I would say, never wanted an All-Ireland more than this one, in terms of giving the two fingers to anybody that might have been calling for his head, either inside or outside Kilkenny.” 

O’Connor’s comment stands as a representative one. But I find this cacophony odd. Here is why.

Six weeks before Kilkenny crushed Clare, Kilkenny went down by four points to Wexford. The latter performance was shapeless and dismal. This result meant losing control of 2022. Had Dublin drawn with Galway, there would have been no three Leinster titles in a row, no wonderful performance against Clare.

Kilkenny would have been dust. Out, gone, finito.

Would Brian Cody, in this scenario, have shouldered nearly all the blame for exit? Same as he is now being apportioned nearly all the credit? Certain people need to take thought. I feel such ratios, putting the matter mildly, are simplistic.

Nearly everything has an amusing side. The day after Kilkenny beat Clare, I received a message from a friend who is an officer in the Laois County Board. He hopped a neon ball: “Do you need a lift over to Cody’s house to apologize?” 

Two smiley face emojis, for good measure.

I enjoyed the exchange, taking it in the spirit intended. But there was a serious point. The message referred to a couple of columns I wrote last autumn and a podcast appearance. My main point: that Henry Shefflin’s move to Galway highlighted serious problems in Kilkenny GAA over the previous five seasons. I also stressed that this opinion was mainstream Kilkenny opinion, despite equally widespread gratitude for Brian Cody’s historical and historic achievements.

I stand by those comments. They were accurate. Kilkenny’s showing against Clare does not mean those problems are vanquished. Galway refusing the Leinster final fence, when in an all but winning position, will never be a panacea. Not for calm sensible observers, anyhow.

Much of the hoohah about Brian Cody is long since tedious. Yet there are undeniable hooks. For manager watchers, this All-Ireland clash counts as treat. Let me sketch the ways.

John Kiely is in his sixth season as Limerick’s senior manager. Following an unprepossessing campaign in 2017, he oversaw sterling success. His panel have carried off three senior titles in four years and now hover over the fabled three in a row benchmark. If Limerick carry the day tomorrow, Kiely gains a perfect senior final scorecard: four wins out of four appearances. That gain would push him right up there in the managerial stakes, by comparison with anyone.

Brian Cody completed his sixth season as Kilkenny’s senior manager in 2004. At that point, he had overseen three All-Ireland final triumphs (2000, 2002-03) and two All-Ireland Final losses (1999, 2004). A reverse against Galway in 2001’s All-Ireland semi final had prompted a change in emphasis, prompted a Cody far more removed and distant with the players. This persona endured, intensifying over the years.

Limerick as three in a row champions would make John Kiely, in factual terms, a more successful manager than Brian Cody. Six seasons into his tenure, he would have four All-Ireland triumphs, one more than Cody. He would have no All-Ireland losses, two up on Cody. And Kiely would have collected three in a row, a distinction that eluded Cody when Cork beat Kilkenny in 2004’s senior final.

The stakes are plain and could scarcely be higher. Three in a row cannot be gainsaid as a marker when considering a team’s greatness. Kilkenny vaulted the challenge in 2008 but failed the same hurdle in 2004, 2013 and 2016. 

Cork failing that hurdle in 2006 remains a grievous hurt, as Dónal Óg Cusack’s recent remarks on The Sunday Game about “long grass” attest.

Further back, the fine Clare team of the 1990s did not accrue successive titles. Ditto for brilliant Offaly teams during the 1980s and 1990s. Kilkenny failed the three in a row hurdle in 1994 and 1984. Galway did the same in 1989. You need to go back to 1978 and a tremendous Cork team to behold the trick.

These coordinates illuminate tomorrow’s stakes from another angle. The 43 hurling seasons between 1979 and 2021 saw eight attempts at three senior titles in a row. Only one of those efforts succeeded. Limerick glory on this occasion would mean far more than an 11th senior title. There could be no doubt about the appropriateness of comparing Limerick 2022 to Kilkenny 2008, of comparing John Kiely to Brian Cody.

Tomorrow’s fate? You need an immediate distinction. Limerick are being judged on their last five seasons, on many fine performances and several outstanding ones. Kilkenny are essentially being judged on one performance, last day out against Clare. The county’s form has frequently been erratic, right up to that dismal showing against Wexford eight weeks ago.

Something nigh magical happened, from a Kilkenny perspective, during the four week interval before their All-Ireland semi final. I started hearing tale after tale of scorching training ground form. What transpired against Clare proved those snippets were not fanciful. The Kilkenny panel now possesses iron belief. I am told training has gone similarly well.

Kilkenny are now operating with much more flexibility and craft. They are mixing up their play, being far less predictable. Tactics wise, they are keeping two or three full forwards in a high line, so as to free up middle third and grant an out ball over a sitting centre back. This tactic created Martin Keoghan’s goal against Clare.

Let Brian Cody, by all means, pocket wads of credit. Absolutely he should. Same time, there is an obvious question about why Kilkenny were not hurling in this fashion much earlier in this team’s evolution. My frustration lay in knowing that potential. Or am I not allowed to ask this question, for fear of death by emoji?

Tomorrow’s fate? Cody’s 12th senior title as manager.

Something like 3-25 to 1-27.

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