A VISIT TO Kilkenny last weekend reminded me about how I privately like to think of their great hurling dynasty.
I was there for the Great Pink Run in aid of Breast Cancer Ireland which took place in the grounds of Kilkenny Castle, the 12th century fortress which hunches by the River Nore and looms over the city.
“Of course, it all makes sense!” I remember thinking on a previous visit. Kilkenny is a medieval city, once a stronghold of Anglo-Norman rule, where the flash of steel and chainmail once kept the natives at heel.
Ergo, Brian Cody was a brutal feudal lord and the team his crusading knights, blood-thirsty zealots trampling enemies in their wake. Strolling through the rooms of the great castle, it was possible to imagine King Cody depicted in a faded tapestry, impaling the heads of revolting peasantry on spikes.
Hey, like I said, it was a private thing; but it was as good an explanation as any. We knew little about our greatest modern sports team – save for rumours of training-match carnage and a general air of, in Cody’s favourite phrase, savage intensity.
That’s all changed now, of course, with the emergence into the media ranks of a battalion of retired legends and, particularly, the publication of Jackie Tyrell’s autobiography. By its title alone, The Warrior’s Code only confirms the image of militaristic belligerence and the contents reinforce the notion of Cody as terrifying tyrant, ruling his kingdom with iron fist and omnipresent baseball cap.
Down in Kilkenny at the weekend there was a bit of disquiet about Tyrrell’s book, as if Jackie had forgotten the first rule of Kilkenny hurling: You do not talk about Kilkenny hurling.
Plenty of Cats legends — including Cody himself — had managed to negotiate the perils of the autobiography while managing to safely avoid anything remotely controversial or, to be frank, even half-way interesting.
But the searing honesty and unavoidable whiff of sulphur from The Warrior’s Code was unsettling for Kilkenny folk and possibly for Cody himself, who launched the book for his former player without, he admitted, having read it.
He might not have thought of his regime in quite the way Tyrrell describes it — “Cody never believed that dropping big names, always keeping guys on edge, added up to ruthlessness but none of us were ever in any doubt as to how ruthless he could be” — but then knowing thyself isn’t a skill all great managers possess. One thinks of Alex Ferguson appointing David Moyes as his successor, incorrectly placing dour Scottishness ahead of pitiless bastardry as the reason for his success.
Perhaps there is a fear in Kilkenny that the spell has been broken, that the exposure of his secrets to the light coupled with dwindling playing resources will make winning the All-Ireland back beyond even Cody’s special alchemy.
And could it be that the Kilkenny manager’s message is falling on less receptive ears than Tyrrell’s fanatical generation? That a new breed of players look to the systems and fine details of rival county set-ups with jealous eyes, while Cody remains wedded to a sink or swim culture with, as Tyrrell puts it, “a lack of feedback [that] can be crippling.”
If so, at least in The Warrior’s Code we have a forensic record of that wonderful era, a sort of Bayeux Tapestry of Cody’s conquest.
And it may inadvertently tell us a lot about Sunday’s All-Ireland football final. For with this Dublin team that he has moulded in his own image, Jim Gavin is now truly in the Cody-zone — that moment when a manager’s vision is so completely incarnate in his team that they are pretty much unstoppable.
The overall feel might be very different: Cody the merciless despot, grinding the enemy into the dirt; Gavin the cool, clean aviator, his team all speed, efficiency, calm precision. But there is much that is similar.
The same sublimation of the individual to the collective goal; the self-perpetuating drive of their internal squad competition; the utter disdain for anything outside of the camp that might distract or divert, particularly the media.
On the last point Tyrrell quotes a team-mate’s line that “encapsulated everything Brian thought, and wanted us to feel, about the media. ‘Treat them like mushrooms; fill them with shit and keep them in the dark’” — an eerily accurate description of your average Jim Gavin press conference.
Both men practice the same austere distance from their players. Gavin has slow-cooked Diarmuid Connolly’s return with an air of studied indifference, as he did with Jack McCaffrey’s restoration to the team. Brilliant young players are made to bide their time, yet neither are there any sacred cows, as Tyrrell found out at the end of his career and the raft of living legends on the Dublin bench are currently learning.
Then there are like-minded lieutenants who set the tone on the field. For Cody, Henry Shefflin, gifted beyond belief, working like a dog in the Kilkenny engine room.
Gavin has Stephen Cluxton. His drive for excellence has been well documented, but one more case study: 35 years old, with four All-Irelands and five All-Stars, earlier this year he felt he needed extra technical help. Gavin sourced highly-rated soccer goalkeeping coach Josh Moran to work with Cluxton on the minutiae of the position. Last time you saw him he was saving a penalty against Tyrone.
When the camera cut to Gavin in the madness of the 2013 semi-final win over Kerry, his icy calm seemed odd. Now it is the prevailing tone of the entire team, each opponent thoughtfully probed then coolly dismembered.
The Warrior Code describes the ruthlessness of Kilkenny’s approach to the 2008 All-Ireland final against Waterford, when they set out to psychologically crush their opponents. It remains one of the most devastating, complete final performances in any sport, and the one thing missing from Dublin’s list of accomplishments is a similar defining statement on the big day. For now, anyway.
As for Cody, he’s signed up for a 20th season in charge and who would bet against him — the lion in winter, charging back into battle, mace swinging above his head, dragging another batch of fresh-faced fanatics to unlikely victory.
Whenever he does fall they will surely build him a statue, and I know just where they can put it.
Source: The42 Podcasts/SoundCloud