As the man who appointed Brian Cody, Kilkenny fans can be very grateful to former chairman John Healy
What if Kilkenny won the All-Ireland in 1998? What if Young Ireland’s retained their county title the previous year?
What if a couple of other candidates wouldn’t have considered themselves above interview or would have been willing to do the Kilkenny manager’s job for nothing more than normal expenses?
How different would the hurling landscape be now? It is all speculation of course and even John Healy, the man who appointed Brian Cody at the end of 1998 points out that the players that have emerged in the past 15 years have probably had the most substantial role in the Cats’ success since then.
Still though. You’d have to wonder if they would be pursuing their 13th Leinster title in those 16 seasons tomorrow, and be one of the leading contenders for an All-Ireland that would be their 10th under the weather eye of the man from ‘The Village’.
It sounds tough on Kevin Fennelly, as he was in charge of both teams referred to above. Having overseen Young Ireland’s county championship success in 1996, he was in charge when they were stunned by unheralded Dunnamaggin the following season.
The Ballyhale man took over from future GAA president, Nickey Brennan for 1998. He was tasked with returning Kilkenny to the big time after an uncertain period. Losing the All-Ireland final to Offaly was a shock and before long, Fennelly was gone.
John Healy is 69 now, but hurling remains as central to his life now as it was when he was county chairman.
You wouldn’t know it as he umpires at games involving his club, Tullogher Rosbercon (home to Walter Walsh) but he has a prominent place in the annals of Kilkenny GAA.
He doesn’t consider himself any great visionary though and is definitely not claiming any huge credit. Really, he says, it was all just a matter of circumstances with its roots in the 1997 county final rather than the 1998 All-Ireland.
“Kevin was appointed for two years and he had only one done but himself and DJ (Carey) had fallen out as a result of Gowran losing the county final.
“So I had a discussion with Kevin and he decided to step down. It would probably have been in the best interests of Kilkenny hurling what he did, because there was going to be no peace in the camp while he was there, as a result of the Gowran problem.
“It had nothing to do with Kilkenny losing the All-Ireland. It had nothing to do with training Kilkenny either. But unfortunately, himself and DJ fell out and he agreed it was probably the best thing for Kilkenny for him to step aside.”
Healy admits that had Kilkenny beaten Offaly, it might have been more difficult to have that conversation but emphasises that Fennelly understood the prevailing mood and was willing to take a broader view, even to his own personal detriment.
Once he was gone, it was time to find a replacement. Healy headed a sub-committee to interview interested parties and there were around “a half-dozen” candidates.
Ironically, it was Fennelly’s cousin who got the nod. “The fact is not everyone was prepared to be interviewed and not everyone was prepared to do it for nothing. Kilkenny never pay anyone. It’s only expenses.
“We felt that Brian was the best man for the job at the particular time, of what was prepared to go for interview. Not everybody was prepared to be interviewed but that was the system Kilkenny had at the time.”
That’s as much as you’ll get when trying to find out what made Cody the preferred candidate. If it doesn’t sound as glowing as you’d expect, bear in mind that Healy is old school and no matter how spectacularly successful the decision of his sub-committee was, he thinks too much is made of the manager’s role.
For a start, he says, Cody has always been one to consult and his selectors play a role in any decisions made.
The most important ingredient of the Cody era though, is the players.
“The point is, no matter how good the man at the top is, he won’t be playing.
“He was lucky to have got a great run of good players. That would be a lot of it.
“If you haven’t the players, what can a manager do?
“He might have been an exceptional motivator to get the best out of them, but he had great players to work with.”
In fairness, he might be reading out of the Cody handbook. Interestingly, he has bought Cody’s autobiography but hasn’t read it, because he doesn’t expect the James Stephens man to say what he really thinks about anything while he’s still in the thick of the action.
We do know Cody always says there is no magic formula.
Just the players and hard work. Healy concurs.
“Back a number of years ago, Paudie Butler got two men from Antrim to come down and video Kilkenny training for an All-Ireland. They were to report back to a Central Council meeting and the day they were to report back, the problem was, there was nothing to report. There was nothing unusual about what Kilkenny did.”
Because of his willingness to consult selectors, the reputation for ruthlessness is overplayed, says Healy. If a player is cut from the panel, there is a good reason.
“I reckon that part of Kilkenny’s success is down to total unity and there is never any difference between them. They all pull together and no matter what the decision is, it’s accepted and they carry on.
“It’s the same throughout the county. All the club pulls together. I think that’s part of the problem in some counties. They’re not all pulling the one way.
“An awful lot of other counties have had as much underage success as Kilkenny, and better, but they can’t get the same results (at senior).”
It might sound like he is downplaying Cody’s role but Healy considers it a fairassessment. It’s not that he is loath to credit the manager. He is a massive fan and thankful for what he has done but is only repeating what you might expect the man himself to say.
The fact is, Healy loves the way Cody continually freshens the squad up and keeps an eye on the next generation by bringing in batches of them to train at various stages of a season, with a view to the longer term. His longevity is no surprise either.
“He’s a total GAA man and it’s his total interest to be involved in the GAA at the top level. He’s always at games. He’s a great ambassador for the county as well as the team. Kilkenny are lucky to have him and hopefully they will have him for a long, long time.”
No more than you’ll ever get Cody to shine the limelight on himself, Healy cannot see any big deal in his historic role.
“Not really. ‘Twas the last job I had to do in my final year as chairman, to ring Brian Cody one night and tell him he had the job.”
Downplay it all you want. But that is a legacy indeed.
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