The Kieran Shannon interview: How Cody built towers of strength

Seven-time All-Ireland winner Brian Hogan knows the impression people have is that Brian Cody ruled the Kilkenny dressingroom with an iron fist and that all the players lived in fear of him. But he insists Cody never inhibited his players and sometimes even joined in the laughter. Here he provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes insight into the way Cody empowered his players and continues to turn young hurlers into leaders.

Before games he’d sit on the dressing room bench, the head down, quietly lost in his own thoughts and even occasional fears and doubts, when he’d spot the shadow looming over him.

Brian Hogan would look up to see Brian Cody and “the big hands on him”.

“Brian…”

Hogan would nod.

Then Cody would look him in the eye, throw back his shoulders and shoot out those big hands and arms, his body speaking louder than the measured tone of his voice. “Take it over. Like you can.”

Hogan still gets goosebumps, thinking of how the team’s tower of strength had a way of making you feel such a tower of strength. “You’d be ready to go through a wall,” he smiles.

And the beautiful thing he now finds as a Kilkenny supporter is that Cody is still at it, weaving his indefinable magic, throwing back the shoulders so some other young fella in that black and amber jersey can throw back the shoulders and feel he can take over and own that field out there.

Hogan wasn’t in Nowlan Park last Sunday when Offaly came to town; instead he was up in Dublin, in the Newstalk studios, analysing the most hectic day championship hurling has ever known — to date — for Off The Ball.

Like Messrs — and messers — Walsh, Tyrrell, Brennan & Delaney, he’s one of those Kilkenny hurlers whose personality was such a hidden secret during their playing days but has been a joy to discover upon the helmet and its inbuilt reticence being removed. In company, he’s just as he is in the media — witty, bright and insightful, full of nuggets and yarns.

It begs the question: all that personality and intelligence and humour that team possessed but was concealed to the wider public, was it allowed expression under Cody? Did he stifle it or did he tap into it?

Hogan’s answer is definitive. Away from public view, Cody mined it for all it was worth, even sometimes joining in on the laughter as well as the winning along the way.

“People have this impression that Brian ruled with an iron fist and we were all in fear of him. Now, don’t be under any illusion — Brian very much set the tone and the agenda: ‘This is the direction we’re going and this is what the expectations is and if you’re not willing to row in with that, goodbye and good luck.’ But he was very much about empowering players.

“He would always open it up: ‘Everyone is entitled to talk.’ I remember the Friday night before we played Limerick in [the] 2007 [All Ireland final], Peter Cleere, who would have been number 33 on the panel at the time, spoke really passionately about the pride of being with the group. Even though he hadn’t played a game all summer, he was free to chip in and speak up because it wasn’t bullshit. Now, if Brian thought you were talking bullshit for the sake of it…

“The one time I distinctly remember him telling a player to shut up was down in Thurles against Limerick in [the] 2012 [All-Ireland quarter-final]. I was up in the stand, injured, and when we all came in at half-time we were all thick and frustrated. A few lads started piping up about this or that and Brian just decided: ‘I need to take control of the situation here’, so he basically said to them, ‘Sit down to f*** – this is the way it’s going to be.’”

Most of the time though, he says, the players were allowed — encouraged — to have their say.

“We had a routine. You’d come in, sit down, catch your breath, take on fluids and then players would start talking among themselves while Brian and the selectors were in the medical room. I might say to a few lads, ‘Don’t track your runner, let them come to the middle.’ Maybe Tommy [Walsh] clattered into me twice under the high ball and I’d say, ‘Look, just stay back.’ Then Brian and the boys would come in, we’d all go out to the [green room] warm-up area, they’d go in the middle and then say a few words about what else needed to be addressed.”

Before and after games their opinions were likewise sought and sounded out: above everything else, Cody valued decision-making on the training ground and in competition, so players were let work and think things out for themselves. They were all zealots for hurling which meant they studiously watched it, just not necessarily in a formal, structured way. All-Irelands were won from what lads picked out just watching The Sunday Game from the comfort of their own couch rather than the sterility of a video analysis session.

“Tommy would have been a great man to say, ‘Hey, Hogie, they tried this the last day…’ I remember one year lads had been watching Cork-Tipp in the Munster championship and before the match, the Tipp forwards all formed a cluster around the centre-back-centre forward spot and then once the ball was thrown in, they all split. We figured they might try to do something like that to try to disrupt us in terms of our positions but we decided among ourselves in advance, ‘Right, I’ll take Bonner [Maher]. Jackie, you’ve got Lar…’

“Another year we played Cork below in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and they had this puckout strategy where Niall McCarthy was coming across into space around midfield, Jerry O’Connor and Tom Kenny came in together and Seán Óg [Ó hAilpín] dropped deep, into his own 21, as in, ‘Murra-yah, I’m looking for a short puckout’, leaving a big space for Niall McCarthy to make a darting run. Donal Óg [Cusack] kept putting the ball into that pocket, it was almost bouncing into Niall McCarthy’s hand. I was reactive every time, always five or ten yards behind. But later in the year when we met them in Croke Park, we knew [Ó hAilpín was just a decoy and] they were going to try to puck the ball long into that spot…”

The real learning though came in the games among themselves. It’s part legend part folklore now how they would physically rip into one another, less so how they would verbally challenge each other.

“The game might be split into three thirds, and after each one, we’d come in together for some water and we’d be talking among ourselves. Henry [Shefflin] might have got a goal coming in around the back off the shoulder with no one picking him up. You’d be, ‘Christ, was he on me that time? How did that happen? Right, lads, well let’s make sure that doesn’t happen again.’ There was that constant evaluation.”

Such feedback was never personal in its delivery but there were times it felt personal in its reception. He remembers one Friday night up in Carton House where in a meeting a couple of the backs had a go at some of the forwards about their workrate. The following day didn’t so much witness an in-house match as a grudge match.

“Even at breakfast you could see the lads bristling, the tension building up. The teams were named and as the forwards were coming into their positions, you could tell by their body language, ‘Right, it’s on today!’ Once the ball was thrown in, [Richie] Power put Tommy on his arse. Sure, they ripped into us. And it was brilliant. It was the reaction you were looking for.”

That was — and remains — Cody’s genius, he feels: the way he’d identify, assemble and subtly stoke players who’d then drive each other and the whole thing on. Some players had been pure blue-chippers, rock stars straight out of primary school, let alone minor: TJ, the two Richies. The likes of Hogan and Derek Lyng didn’t even play minor for the county. Didn’t matter in Cody’s eyes: what mattered was their willingness to work on the same wavelength.

“You’d go into the gym on a Wednesday night in Nowlan Park and you’d see the cars there, and you’d be wondering, ‘How long has Lyngers been there for? What’s he been doing?’ Then you’d see him in there. ‘Well, how’s it goin’? You in there long?’ And he’d be there [smiling-bluffing away], ‘Ah no! No!’.

“There was that competition among ourselves the whole time.”

Everyone served an apprenticeship, no matter how dazzling you were around your Leaving Cert year. Hogan saw his namesake Richie come into the fold, thinking he had to shoot the lights out from all angles like he did with his club and college, not appreciating there were five other superstars in the forwards alongside him and at least one of them was bound to be in a better position to lay off to.

“Sure every time he [Richie Hogan] got the ball, Jackie had his number, because he knew what he was going to do.”

TJ Reid was, by Hogan’s estimation, “the best club forward in the county for three or four years” before he nailed down his position with Kilkenny. “He always had the hurling; it was a matter of his workrate off the ball.”

For Hogan himself, it was about being suitably assertive. In 2004 he made his championship debut against Wexford, the same day Michael Jacob’s last-minute goal condemned Kilkenny to what would be their only loss in Leinster over a 15-year stretch. Hogan would have to wait until 2007 to start in championship again. After a wait like that he vowed he’d never have to wait again.

“I remember saying to Kavs [Michael Kavanagh] afterwards, ‘God, the pace, it was championship pace!’ But it was championship pace because we let Wexford dictate the pace and the agenda. All day we were following them. I was wing-back, marking Paul Carley, and he and Barry Lambert were criss-crossing all the time. Sure, we should have just held our positions.

“If we had won, maybe I’d have learned nothing. But I always said after that I would never let a forward dictate to me what needs to be done. And when I finally got back in, I said ‘I’m not going to let this go.’ I always ensured that I didn’t allow myself get complacent.”

Such a reflex was only in keeping with his own conscientious nature anyway but what sealed it was Cody’s own vigilance and detestation of that C word.

“One of Brian’s skills was he’d say something to the group and you’d be wondering, ‘Was that directed at me?’ I remember one night he made a comment about complacency or arrogance seeping in with a couple of lads with their All Stars and for whatever reason I thought it was directed at me.

“I went up to him after training and had a chat with him about it. And he said something like, ‘No, I know you and you’re not arrogant’, but at the same time you weren’t sure and you were kind of thick coming away: Well, I’ll make sure he knows there’s no doubts about me.”

Weddings in-season were a total no-go — not that Cody explicitly said so. “Sure, whatever you think yourself…”

And sure by the way he said it, Hogan knew what Cody himself thought about the idea. “Sound, Brian, see you at training that Friday so…”

Their interactions would have been brief and sporadic, not lengthy or frequent. They never met for a cuppa in some local café or hotel for a chat, not even after his baptism of fire in 2004. “There wouldn’t have been any real communication after that as such. That was difficult.”

But Cody had other ways for players to get the message. Selection was one. Vibes and words of encouragement from the good-cop selectors was another. “Martin Fogarty would have had a relationship with a lot of the guys through the U21s and would always have had a wink and a word. ‘You’re going well! Keep it going!”

In a training match Cody might give his own form of approval in a more primitive, prompt way. “You’d do something good and Brian would let out a roar. In the lead-up to a game then he might come up to you while pucking about before training. How are you feeling? You’re going well. You ready, yeah?”

Whatever way they worked, it worked. When Hogan called Cody up in the late autumn of 2014 to inform him he was retiring — “The finger must have hovered over the dial button for 10 minutes before I pressed it” — he was only a month after winning his seventh All-Ireland medal. He had a sense early on that year it would be his last, and the trouble his back gave him in the lead up to the All-Ireland sealed his decision. Cody was highly respectful of his decision and highly complementary during their conversation, in keeping with their relationship. Never close, but always courteous. Hardly friends but sharing a huge fondness.

“My sense was that he was probably closer to the guys around ’00, ’01, ’02, the likes of Andy [Comerford, a O’Loughlin Gaels clubmate of Hogan’s] and Willie O’Connor. But at the same time, he loved the lads having the craic. You had a few headers on the team and you would get great banter off them.”

Martin ‘Gorta’ Comerford was probably the bravest and the brazen of them. Hogan remembers one night training down in Ballyragget back in 2009. The team were zoning in on hurling’s first four-in-a-row in over 60 years and Cody was again stalking and rooting out any possibility of complacency and smugness. Heads down! No media! At which one head popped up. “Media! Sure, you’re fairly fond of the media yourself! Don’t you have a book coming out?!”

Well, as Cody’s face grew even redder than it already was, the dressing room held its collective breath as Cody burst out the door, only for him and the dressing room to explode in laughter. Sure what choice had Cody but to only laugh at what Gorta said, because only Gorta could have got away with saying it!

Hogan has yet to hurl with the club this year. Elaine just had their second child at the end of last year while he’s been the brand lead for a new drug the pharmaceutical company he works for launched recently, while he’s shortly going into a new sphere of work, into the distillery business. He may go back yet, he may not, he’ll see. What he has been doing this year though is monitoring Kilkenny’s progress. It has surprised many, but not him.

“They’ve definitely changed their style of play somewhat but for Brian, it has always been about making the right decisions.

“In our time it was all about creating an environment where you were put under as much pressure as possible to make the right decision with the ball. Getting used to getting hit with three lads around with you — what do you do with the ball? If you’re able to survive in there, come out with the ball and getting hit by two forwards, well there needs to be a fella free somewhere, so you offload it rather than throwing it up and swinging at it. Silly things. That’s what Richie [Hogan] had to learn when Jackie would beat the shit out of him.

“It’s still the same now — play what’s in front of you. In our time we would have taken the odd puckout with Jackie as the primary outlet, he would take a few steps and then launch it. The difference now is because there’s a sweeper there, [Hogan’s clubmate] Paddy [Deegan] is taking it forward and looking to create an overlap or a one-two or popping the ball 30 yards.”

T

omorrow they’re up in Salthill, the kind of atmosphere Hogan would relish playing in. “You’d always much rather going and playing in front of 19,000 in a packed house like Wexford Park or Tullamore than in front of 35,000 in Croker where it feels like it’s empty. Kilkenny don’t really have to win, you could say, having already won their two opening games, but you think a Cody team will be thinking like that?

“With Brian there’s no excuse for going out and not being competitive. I sometimes wonder do other managers slightly overthink things and give themselves an out. Under Brian, if you lose a league game, lads are coming into training on Tuesday night pissed off.

“I remember one year [2009] we played Galway in the Walsh Cup down in Freshford. We were only back from our holidays. I started full-back, Ger Farragher hit in a free, I waited for Herro, he waited for me and it went straight into the net. Jesus! By half-time, they were seven points up.

“Now we had every reason to lose. We had only a couple of sessions under our belt. We were rusty. But to us, that was no excuse. Grand, we’re not sharp — but we will be later on. Grand, we’re not fit — we will be later on. This was about sheer belligerence. The refusal to be bate on a dirty old January Sunday afternoon down in Freshford.

“We came back and won it in extra-time. It was like we had won an All-Ireland. I’m telling you, Cody took more pleasure out of that than a lot of big wins in Croke Park. That was the way he thought.”

The song remains the same, it’s only the audience that’s new. There’s a field out there. Take it over.



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