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Whisper it, but could 2021 be Brian Cody's last season in charge of Kilkenny?

The 11-time All-Ireland winner was ratified for his 23rd campaign in charge this week, but there are murmurs of discontent on Noreside.

Updated Jan 13th 2021, 9:30 PM

SPORT IS FICKLE and five years without an All-Ireland title means tongues have started to wag in Kilkenny over Brian Cody’s future as manager.

brian-cody-dejected-at-the-end-of-the-game Kilkenny’s manager Brian Cody after the All-Ireland semi-final loss to Waterford. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The short turnaround between the 2020 and 2021 campaigns meant he was always likely to remain in charge this season, but what about beyond that?

22 years into his reign, Cats supporters are wondering whether their flagship team might be better served with a new voice.  

Perhaps it’s inevitable given the retired school principal is 66 now. Despite their recent Leinster success, the manner of the All-Ireland second-half semi-final collapse to Waterford was deeply concerning to the local hurling fraternity.

It has always been accepted in Kilkenny that the legendary boss had achieved enough to chose himself when the time was right to step away. 

But the sense of discontent has been quietly building in recent weeks.

Eight-time All-Ireland winner Aidan ‘Taggy’ Fogarty opined in December that if any other manager in Kilkenny had gone five years without an All-Ireland title, they’d find their head “on the chopping block.”

A former team-mate of Cody’s, Richie Power Senior, told the Irish Examiner this week that the time was right for the great man to move on.

Writing in the same paper, PM O’Sullivan reported that “most of the current players are known to be frustrated about the lack of pre-match analysis and consequent difficulties when an alternative plan is required for stretches of a game.”

Even more concerning, he used words like “stale” and “joyless” when describing the mood in the Kilkenny camp. 

It’s hardly surprising that comparisons have been drawn with the end of Mickey Harte’s tenure in Tyrone. But even then, Harte had gone 12 years with lifting the Sam Maguire.

One criticism of Harte’s lengthy time in charge was that he created a bottleneck for elite coaching talent in the county. Homegrown managers like Peter Canavan, Ryan McMenamin, Enda McGinley and Mattie McGleenan had to search outside Tyrone for opportunities to manage teams at the top level.

henry-shefflin-watches-on-the-final-moments-of-the-game Henry Shefflin has been tipped as the most likely candidate to succeed Cody. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

The same could be said of ex-Cats Eddie Brennan, David Herity and Michael Fennelly, while Henry Shefflin has remained at club level despite interest from various counties and DJ Carey gained experience managing at college level with Carlow IT. 

Cody generally freshened things up over the years by adding new faces to his backroom team, though this time around Carey has departed the set-up and hasn’t been replaced. Carey has been strongly linked the Carlow job recently vacated by Colm Bonnar.

It was often assumed that, when Cody added former players to his backroom team over the years, he was grooming them to eventually succeed him.

Martin Comerford and James McGarry remain as selectors for 2021, but neither are thought to be potential successors.

The Sunday Times reported that Henry Shefflin was asked to get involved at the start of the 2020 season but declined. After leading Ballyhale Shamrocks to two All-Ireland titles, he took charge of Kilkenny intermediate side Thomastown for the coming season.

It’s likely Brennan was invited to join the set-up at some point over the last few years as well, given his two-year involvement as U21 boss, but he’s chosen to forage his own path outside the county. After two years of good work in Laois, he’ll work as coach with Cuala in 2021.

eddie-brennan Eddie Brennan will work with Cuala this season. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Shefflin and Brennan are the leading contenders to replace Cody whenever he does step away. 

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“These are ex-players going in underneath Brian and the feeling was that when these guys went in that they were the next in line,” Fogarty told Off The Ball last month.

“But the two guys that never went in were Henry Shefflin and Eddie Brennan. I’m just wondering do they feel that if they got the opportunity to do the job, do they just want a clean slate of not being under Brian Cody.

“Bringing in their own techniques and not being associated with Brian.”

The U20 management trio of Derek Lyng, Michael Rice and Peter Barry could also come into the reckoning. 

But it feels premature to discuss potential successors given Cody has given no indication he’s contemplating moving on any time soon.

He may well point to the lack of underage success and the fact he no longer has the weapons to call on that he did during their pomp in the noughties and early 2010s.

Kilkenny haven’t won a minor All-Ireland since 2014 and an U21/U20 crown since 2008. The pool of talent has dried up somewhat, even if promising youngsters like Adrian Mullen, John Donnelly, Martin Keoghan, Tommy Walsh and Eoin Cody have emerged in recent seasons. 

The big concern for Cats supporters is when TJ Reid eventually hangs up his hurley they may find themselves struggling to gather enough firepower to compete for All-Ireland titles.

They’re no longer the top team in the country talent-wise, yet Cody showed he still has the ability to get Kilkenny performing to the maximum during their shock 2019 All-Ireland semi-final win over holders Limerick.

brian-cody Cody on the sideline during the 2020 campaign. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It’s easy to forget the Cats are the reigning Leinster champions after a come-from-behind win over favourites Galway. Cody’s decision to spring veteran Richie Hogan off the bench in the second-half was key to that victory.

The long-serving manager has always been able to maximise the talent at his disposal. Grit, determination and, as he likes to say himself, genuineness are prerequisite qualities for any Kilkenny side under the James Stephens clubman.

He has sometimes been accused of being slow to adapt his methods to the modern game, yet Kilkenny regularly work the ball through the lines in a manner than was alien to the four-in-a-row side a decade earlier.

However, Kilkenny’s puck-out strategy against Waterford and their inability to defend the Deise’s running game added to the suggestion they’ve been left behind tactically by other powers in the game.

Their poor second-half showing against Dublin earlier in the championship, when Kilkenny fell over the line after leading by 16 points after 41 minutes, displayed a worrying psychological frailty.

Yet the fact remains Kilkenny are the reigning provincial champions, were in the All-Ireland final the season before last and have won 43 trophies under Cody.

No-one knows better than him what it takes to mould an All-Ireland winning team.

Sure, a new man would bring an element of freshness and embed a modern system, but would Kilkenny lose something greater if Cody left?

2022 might be the year when that question is finally answered.

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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