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Longevity and success capture Cody's Kilkenny hurling greatness over 24 remarkable seasons

An incomparable hurling managerial era drew to a close yesterday.

Brian Cody celebrates All-Ireland glory with Tommy Walsh.
Brian Cody celebrates All-Ireland glory with Tommy Walsh.
Image: Cathal Noonan

THE NUMBERS TELL the story, not in its entirety, but a substantial amount in capturing the Kilkenny hurling managerial life and times of Brian Cody.

Take your pick.

11 Liam MacCarthy Cup triumphs. 18 Leinster senior hurling titles. 10 National League crowns.

Those were the headline stats but there were others, yesterday’s Kilkenny county board statement pointing out that there were also seven Walsh Cups and a forgotten Oireachtas Cup won during his watch.

Away from the collective, there were the individual honours in the Cody era. Eight Hurler of the Year winners, the names reading like a roll call of greatness – DJ Carey, Henry Shefflin (three times), JJ Delaney, Eoin Larkin, Tommy Walsh, Michael Fennelly, Richie Hogan and TJ Reid.

102 Allstar awards handed out, starting with Peter Barry at left half-back in 1999 up to Eoin Murphy as goalkeeper last year. That number will be swelled further in a few months to signify Cody’s last season in charge.

Look further. In 17 of those years he guided Kilkenny to an All-Ireland final, two replays lobbed in for good measure. In the seven seasons Kilkenny did not feature in the final, they contested the semi-final stage four times, lost two quarter-finals and the solitary early exit occurred in 2017, a Round 2 defeat to Waterford. Only three times did Cody not manage to steer Kilkenny to the Leinster final – 2004, 2013 and 2017.

All achieved over the course of a staggering 24 seasons at the helm.

And then at 1.54pm yesterday afternoon, the confirmation came that there was substance to this week’s feverish speculation. Brian Cody had informed the Kilkenny county board that he was stepping down as senior hurling team boss.

The end game had been reached.

brian-cody-celebrates-the-final-whistle Brian Cody celebrates an All-Ireland final win over Galway. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The numbers game captures the relentless success Kilkenny enjoyed during Cody’s reign, but also the extraordinary consistency of his teams and the remarkable longevity to remain in such a high-pressure managerial role.

In 1999 when Kilkenny suffered defeat to Cork, DJ Carey was in action and last Sunday his son Michael was part of the Kilkenny defence, a neat link between Cody’s first All-Ireland final in charge and his last.

No one could have foreseen what was to come when Cody slipped into the hotseat in November 1998. His own playing days had generated success, All-Ireland wins at the three main levels with Kilkenny, before he eclipsed all of that with the multitude of glories secured as a manager.

But away from the numbers, there was the intangibles that defined the Cody era. The culture he created around Kilkenny hurling, the commitment to excellence, the standards he demanded and the unbreakable spirit he cultivated. The ferocity of the training sessions in the Nowlan Park arena achieved near mythical status, yet that was the breeding ground for the power displays that Cody’s teams unleashed on match days.

Kilkenny responded to setbacks. That first All-Ireland final to Cork was a desperately disappointing day in the rain in 1999. Galway sowed seeds of doubt in semi-finals in 2001 and 2005, the latter prompting question marks as the Kilkenny camp departed Dublin as to whether Cody might move on. He stayed and rebounded and steered Kilkenny to four-in-a-row. Even when their five-in-a-row dreams were smashed to pieces in 2010, Cody gathered the camp again to collect the next two championships.

brian-cody-celebrates Brian Cody toasts an All-Ireland final win. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The dynamic changed, the aura of Cody’s Kilkenny teams began to diminish. Seven different counties (Offaly, Clare, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Tipperary and Galway) were defeated in All-Ireland finals up until 2015, but since then Kilkenny have lost in championship to Tipperary, Wexford, Waterford, Galway, Limerick and Cork.

The conveyor belt of underage talent was not working in the same way, the All-Ireland wins at those levels were not churned out in the same manner and Kilkenny have had to deal with challengers, Tipperary lifting two titles in 2016 and 2019, Limerick emerging as a real superpower to win four of the last five crowns.

His last day out ended on a low note. There was to be no glorious sign-off, Limerick were too strong a force to dislodge last Sunday.

Yet Cody oversaw a team that contributed richly to an epic All-Ireland final, their resilience to recover from the early setback when Gearoid Hegarty netted, the composure in how different players worked their way into the match, the durability in seeing long-serving pillars like Walter Walsh and Richie Hogan impact off the bench, and the excellence in one of the manager’s all-time greats directing operations in the manner that TJ Reid did.

It was a Kilkenny performance that epitomised the boxes Cody sought his teams to tick, even if it did not ultimately produce the desired result.

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When he walked into the press room underneath the Hogan Stand afterwards, a few lines stood out as he delivered his final post-match summation.

“I think our players just deserve fantastic admiration for the way they fought it out.

“I think every Kilkenny person should be very, very proud of the Kilkenny team (that) performed.

“Obviously hugely disappointed all the players are but again I just have huge pride for the way they performed.”

Admiration. Perform. Pride.

Core values of the Cody era all referenced.

He left the room after a six minute question and answer session, then formally relinquished his post six days later.

An incomparable GAA managerial era had drawn to a close.

– First published 09.18, 24 July

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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