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Brian Cody’s achievements will be the benchmark, probably for all our lifetimes – The Irish Times


Earlier this week, the by then unavoidable conclusion that Brian Cody had decided to step down prompted one Kilkenny man to say, “it’s the most un-Cody like thing he’s done in his management.

The mysterious silence that then settled on the matter was quickly attributed by some to a reluctance to release the news while Limerick were still celebrating their All-Ireland.

The uncharacteristic nature of the decision was partly the ambivalence about when to tell the public but also that his previous decisions on whether to stay on had always been annually taken when the season had had a few weeks to calm down.

In itself, that suggested something different. He’d never before announced that he was retiring. Although Cody gave no inkling that this was on his mind in the homecoming after last Sunday’s final, speculation picked up in the days that followed.

Appointed in November of 1998, Cody succeeded Kevin Fennelly and took charge of a team that had just lost the All-Ireland final. Both Fennelly and his predecessor Nickey Brennan had experienced such rancour during their appointments that the position had something of the poisoned chalice about it.

DJ Carey had also “retired” abruptly in early 1998 before reconsidering. His remarks before the first All-Ireland final of the Cody era were interesting. “He’s come in with a wealth of knowledge of what it’s like to be run down and blown up. He’s come in with a certain manner, cool and collected.”

In other words, the new manager had imposed order and a degree of serenity on the situation. That would turn out to be an irony given the later love of uncertainty and nothing being taken for granted among players. The dressing-room had become though, as he termed it at the 2007 annual GAA coaching conference, “a sacred place”.

As time passed, he had to process watershed defeats: being outmuscled by Galway in 2001, overshadowed by Cork in the mid-2000s, defeated by Tipperary when going for a five-in-a-row in 2010.

In response he devised a power game that would never be bullied, a swarming collective tactic, based on the Tyrone footballers’ template, to shut down Cork’s possession play and an iron-willed bounce back to win four of the five All-Irelands after the 2010 setback.

The first season ended in disappointment with defeat by Cork in the 1999 All-Ireland when they were hotly favoured to win but, starting the next year, he would go on to win 11 Liam MacCarthy Cups.

There were outstanding players and it was to the manager’s advantage that some of the best of them were such solid citizens and correspondingly given the depth of talent, there wasn’t the same risk in dispensing with those that weren’t.

Like Mick O’Dwyer in Kerry with his eight All-Irelands, the feat of management wasn’t simply in turning such players into champions but turning them into serial achievers.

Some stand out even in the glittering cavalcade of success. Most obviously, Henry Shefflin whose involvement with winning All-Irelands was conterminous with Cody’s for 15 of the 16 years.

His list of galvanic scores — from under the Cusack when the 2003 final against Cork was in the balance — and displays — the 2012 final recovery to catch Galway was testament to his central importance.

There were others, like Carey at the end of his career, the manager’s favourite defender JJ Delaney, the extrovert genius of Tommy Walsh — asked at a coaching conference in 2018 had he been “afraid of Cody”, he replied, “I was afraid of no one!” — Richie Hogan and TJ Reid, both Hurlers of the Year in the later wins.

Shaping and leading 11 teams to All-Ireland success in 16 years is about more than team building. It is, to reference one of the buzz clichés of modern sport, the “creation of a culture”.

Cody’s restlessness with settled teams and the way he changed selections for All-Irelands, especially replays, typified his approach but also his extraordinary judgment of players. Walter Walsh and Kieran Joyce were brought in for the 2012 and ‘14 All-Ireland replays and both won the Man of the Match award.

It also signalled his view that a draw is not a good result or at least is evidence of a less than optimal performance. Whereas his opponents sent out unchanged teams in both of the above years, he made a number of changes.

Kilkenny and “flow” were synonymous at so many different times during the Cody era. The day most people would remember is the 2008 All-Ireland final, against Waterford, when the team by the final whistle had long lost interest in what was going on around them and just looked to be playing against the highest standards of their own self-perception.

Equally impressive was how they functioned on days when they were being overshadowed by the opposition. Tipperary in the 2014 All-Ireland were an example: they dazzled for much of the 70 minutes but they didn’t win.

In a way last Sunday was another. Despite how closely they pushed in Sunday’s final, Kilkenny’s emergence as challengers to Limerick had been unexpected after an underwhelming Leinster campaign, during which they were beaten twice.

In the event there was widespread praise for how competitive the team proved at the weekend.

Having turned 68 earlier this month, Cody can also reflect on a range of other titles won, 18 Leinster championships and 10 national leagues. The Kilkenny announcement that an era had ended encapsulated it well.

“On behalf of Kilkenny people everywhere, Kilkenny county board extends sincere gratitude to Brian for his lifetime of contribution to the county and the commitment and passion he brought as a player and as manager, working tirelessly with a single aim, to do what was best for Kilkenny hurling.

“The board would also like to acknowledge the bond Brian helped create between team management, players, county board, clubs and supporters clubs as all worked seamlessly together in preparing our teams while organising and promoting our games.

“We are aware of the huge debt we owe Brian for the wonderful successes and occasions we have enjoyed as we watched the teams he created play and succeed. Wherever and whenever our games are discussed in the future, Brian Cody’s achievements will be the benchmark managers will be measured by.”

Probably for all our lifetimes.

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