SO here he is at the All Ireland press conference in Langton’s, a man utterly at ease with himself and the universe.
“Completely relaxed” (his own words), mellow, back where he wants to be. Back where he exists to be. One half-expects him to put his feet up on the table and light a cigar. Kilkenny are in the All Ireland final, Cody’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.
All the favourite terms and tropes are employed. Honesty. The strength of the collective. (“It’s the panel. Panel panel panel.”) Savage, as in an All Ireland final being “a savage place to be”. If you couldn’t enjoy it, and maybe some people didn’t... “Well, I always enjoy it. The alternative is that you are looking at someone else playing in it.”
This is Brian Cody alright. It could not be anyone else. It is what he does. It is who he is. There is even a touch of Éamon de Valera looking into his own heart when he’s asked about his annual post-championship stock taking. “Instinctively,” he declares, he’ll “know” if everything has been done that should have been done.
“Did the players perform? Were we as competitive as we should be? If we are, and we are a lot of the time, then you don’t crucify yourself. I will know instinctively if I have failed in any single way to do the job I should be doing. And if I have, I will have a serious think about it for sure.”
Eoin Larkin’s thumb? Richie Power’s fitness? These are negatives upon which he will not dilate. But every conceivable angle and issue has been addressed when, towards the very end of the session, someone bowls him a googly, a non-standard question into some thought has clearly been put. It’s one of the off-cuts of the interview, a deleted scene that doesn’t make it into the movie.
How would Brian Cody, a man who hurled in his first All Ireland senior final 42 years ago, fare in the modern game?
The question catches him slightly off guard but piques his interest. He’s visibly tempted to answer it, then decides he won’t because this All Ireland isn’t about him. Ask him another time, he adds. “I might answer it and I might not.”
Maybe in the early hours of the morning at the All Stars, he doesn’t add, the one night of the year when he publicly lets his hair down and is Cody the shaker of hands, Cody the poser with strangers in photos, all the while drinking a few pints and having the banter.
Would victory on Sunday constitute Kilkenny’s least satisfying triumph on his watch? Shades of the win against Limerick in 2007, the least heralded of the ten to date? An All Ireland whereby the same token defeat would not result in the Nore being flooded by the mass shedding of tears? Perhaps, but he won’t view it in those terms.
There’s an incentive because Cody ensures there always is. Had it been Tipperary, they’d have convinced themselves they still had something to prove. Quite what they have to prove against Galway remains unclear but it won’t sap their desire. At this stage All Ireland success has become an annual self-perpetuating objective shorn of extraneous imperatives. It is what they do. It is who they are.
Victory last year, after playing seven games and reaching into the very marrow of the panel, constituted the manager’s finest individual triumph. To win this year after losing the panellists he’s lost, JJ Delaney above all, would surpass even that. It would also say something about the standard of the 2015 championship, but that’s another story and not one that’s Cody’s to reason why.
Lazy pub talk may still have it that “any manager could have won” those All Irelands with Henry and JJ and Tommy and the rest of ‘em. No such lazy pub talk will attend a victory here.
He has overseen the transition with a brilliance that still staggers. The failure to do five-in-a-row should have signalled the end of Kilkenny for half a decade. A full stop, not a comma. A trigger to slink away panting and exhausted, thereafter to regenerate for however long the process took them, not unlike Kerry after 1986. Instead they returned to win three of the next four titles. They remain in transition and will continue thus indefinitely. As long as the spirit burns brightly Cody wouldn’t have it any other way.
Of the myriad parallels with Alex Ferguson, his sense of his place in the scheme of things is the most significant. “Make sure you’re the most important person at the club,” Ferguson said. Cody has made sure he’s the most important person in the county, in Ferguson fashion rather than Mourinho fashion. Look at Henry Shefflin. Not so much a superstar as a hyperstar, a kind of celestial body unto himself, but he was never bigger than Cody, he never imagined he was and he was never allowed to be.
Like all the great managers, Cody is an Occam’s Razor kinda guy. The direct route is usually the best, and not only when it comes to clearing the ball out of defence. In conversation his words and sentences are simple. Compound sentences are not his bag. Once the sliotar is thrown in he exudes positivity, encouraging his charges to play the ball, move early, be patient and doing the simple thing.
His knowledge of players throughout the county is profound. No player should ever feel overlooked because they have all been looked over. If they weren’t chosen it was because they didn’t have the potential or didn’t fit the culture.
Should an updated version of his autobiography eventually be published it will, if done properly, include a long chapter on the influence of Mick Dempsey, now in his 11th season with Kilkenny. It was striking that when the final whistle sounded in last year’s replay Dempsey was the man Cody celebrated with. The man behind the curtain.
Dempsey a Laois football man? His importance to Kilkenny was not despite the fact but because of it. A different eye, a different outlook. The old Cody liked to see his defenders hitting the ball as far as they humanly could. It was Dempsey who alerted him to the small caveat that putting a message on the sliotar was important too.
Dempsey has helped keep Kilkenny winning by helping keep them fresh. On every team holiday after Christmas the gossip among the players would invariably be about how Dempsey had gone off somewhere to investigate new ideas. Sydney Swans, the Argentinean rugby team, wherever
On training weekends they’ll go to Carton House or Fota Island and Dempsey will unveil a new drill he’s devised to address a weakness the management have spotted. Left to his own devices, Cody might have fallen behind in keeping the envelope pushed as regards training methods and best practice. By challenging Dempsey to challenge him Cody ensured they didn’t; inflexibility is the last accusation to be fired at the manager. Kilkenny have long been as cutting edge as any other county in hurling or football. They just make a point of not making a song and dance about it.
What next? The penny must surely have dropped at this stage that he’s going nowhere. The man will be carried out. Over dinner afterwards in Langton’s last week we counted four former press box regulars who’ve left the business this year alone or are in the process of doing so. “Cody will see plenty more of us off before he’s gone,” someone concluded dryly.
It was a prediction, not a joke.
In the meantime the renovation work will continue. Kilkenny’s two key men last September, Michael Fennelly and Richie Power, will both be 30 by year’s end and have both been plagued by injury this last couple of seasons. Jackie Tyrrell is 33, Eoin Larkin 31. Having yielded Eoin Murphy, Padraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley the 2008-10 cohort that won two All Ireland minor titles will scarcely produce much else.
But the house remains founded on rock; Dan Shanahan’s comments after the All-Ireland semi-final about the physique of the Kilkenny players pointed up the gap back to most members of the pack; the more progressive members of the victorious minor outfit of 2014 will soon be coming on stream; and now that Cody has retired from school, what the hell else would he be doing?
As ever, he won’t be looking for superstars. All he’ll want is a few youngsters to serve their time and in due course be moulded into something bigger and better.
Had he opted for a career in the cloth he would surely have made a Jesuit: give me the boy, etc.
It’s tempting to imagine, indeed, that Cody has already mentally hatched a broad idea of the look of Kilkenny’s 2018 team. Tempting and probably not entirely fanciful.
This is Cody.
It is who he is.
It is what he does.
And he ain’t stopping.
PS: I reckon he reckons he’d have coped with the modern game no problem.
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