By Noel Dundon
Kilkenny’s legendary Manager Brian Cody has presided over a period of unprecedented success for the Cats and has forgotten more about hurling than most people ever learn.
So, when the four times All-Ireland senior hurling medal winner ( as a player) from James Stephens insists that the Cats are facing their biggest ever challenge on Sunday when they attempt to dethrone the champions, pundits are inclined to sit up and take notice.
“This is their 3rd All-Ireland Final in a row - we saw in the Munster Final what they are capable of doing. They are an excellent team; the quality of their forward line is well chronicled; their pace and skill; goal scoring ability; midifield is seriously serious; but, their backs are just brilliant - the complete team. Why would I not say that when we are playing them? - I know I’m supposed to say these things, but they are. Brendan Cummins in goal - you need say no more than that. They have strength in depth and it is brilliant to be taking them on because that’s what we are supposed to do. They are as tough an opposition as we have ever faced,” an honest, open and frank Cody told The Tipperary Star this week.
However, the caveat?
“Our focus will be on ourselves playing as well as we possibly can - that has always been our focus and it has worked reasonably well for us. I’m not just here to talk them up. I think we also have an excellent team too. I am looking forward to it massively because at the end of the day we will win or lose, but we want to be part of it. If we win we beat an excellent team, if we lose we lose to an excellent team. But, losing is not on our horizon - it’s not the scenario we want. The strengh of our panel has been tested through the years. It is certain that Tipperary have a very strong panel - one look at the quality of their U-21 All-Ireland winning team of last year shows that. There is serious depth there and look at how many of those lads have broken into the team. I have massive confidence in the players that we have at our disposal and I would never waver in my opinion of their quality. I think we have a very good panel and would be very happy with it. Maybe some of that panel hasn’t been tested yet and would not have experienced the kind of atmosphere that Sunday will be though,” he says.
Boasting a superb championship record with Kilkenny which dates back to 1999, Brian’s sides have played 55 games and won a whopping 48 of those. They have lost just six matches under his tenure including the All-Ireland Final of last year at the hands of Tipperary. But, despite having come out second best in that game, Brian insists that Kilkenny hurled quite well on the day with Tipp only pulling away in the final ten minutes or so.
“I looked at the All-Ireland Final of last year, but not forensically or anything like that. I am the Manager of the team and it would be remiss of me if I didn’t look at it. We weren’t particularly bad in last years final. It was a very good game and it would be impossible for it to have been a very good game, had we not been good as well. They put serious daylight between us in the last five minutes alright but up to that there was only a couple of points in it. There is no doubt about it that the best team won. When you conceed four goals it is very very difficult to win the All-Ireland. The last two finals were seriously intense - as good as you would expect to sample. If we leak four goals in this years final, we won’t win either,” he says.
With Colin Fennelly being Brian’s major injury worry having suffered a serious hamstring tear in a recent club game, the preparations and media scrum surrounding the Kilkenny camps is quite similar to the 2010 campaign when the ‘Drive for Five’ took on a life of it’s own. Indeed, Kilkenny were, in many ways, set up for a big fall, by the time All-Ireland Final day arrived - that big fall came when no-hopers Tipperary stunned them with a performance full of confidence, panace and swagger. This year, things are little more realistic with Kilkenny assuming the role of mere mortals once more rather than the undefeatable Gods, the media had created twelve months ago.
“There is less hype now. Last year there was an awful lot of talk about five in a row. Then our injury situation became very high profile -locally as well as nationally, there was a huge curiousity about it. But that’s just all outside the dressingroom and it’s not an excuse for last year. The difference is that we are going in as challengers this year, for the first time in a few years, and we are very much underdogs. At the end of the day, those things go hand in hand with being in the All-Ireland. Rivalry is what makes sport so exceptional. For those stuck in the middle - the protagonists - there is a huge amount of pain for those who do not win it and for their supporters as well. There is a phenonemal feeling for the winners; and then you have the greater public who can revel in the fact that they have just seen something fantastic played out, which they have done for the last two years.
“I personally am looking forward to the final very very much.I have been involved in hurling for a long long time and lost and won All-Ireland Finals as a player and as a Manager. I live in the real world and understand the realities of sport. It can be the same in a club sitaution as well - you can win or lose. You don’t suddenly start to question your very being and you don’t go away and hide and not want to be seen again for a few days. It’s not like that - life goes on,” Brian said.
Kilkenny came back from last years All-Ireland Final defeat and beat Tipperary in the first outing of the league. They “stuttered” through the league but were still moving well enough to make it to the decider against Dublin - a game which the Dubs won in pretty impressive fashion. The result didn’t surprise Brian, but it didn’t force him to change the Kilkenny approach either. There was no major eureka moment when match analysis was being undertaken - Kilkenny simply got back down to training and worked their way back to the All-Ireland Final again. Tipp had their problems against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final and that didn’t surprise Brian either.
“Dublin are an outstanding team. It is very dififcult to play against Dublin with the sweeper game they play. It would have been a major surprise if Tipperary had been able to sweep them aside and beat them easily. It was a great battle and massive preparation for Tipperary - I’m sure they are delighted with it. We didn’t change anything after the League Final by way of preparation. We won’t be playing a sweeper, that’s all I can say. At the end of the day we will have a chance of winning the game if we play as well as we can play. Of course we are aware of Tipperary’s strengths and they are many, but at the end of the day if we just focus completely on Tipperary, we will forget the fact that we are decent ourselves if we go and play,” said Brian when asked if he would consider adopting the same approach as Dublin to preventing Tipperary forwards from running amuck in oceans of space.
Asked about the kind of pressure being heaped on inter county players in the modern era, Brian expresses a degree of perplexion over what is being said and written. He doesn’t buy into it and says that there are many hurlers and footballers throughout the land who would gladly take the place of those players, given the chance.
“I always hear about the phenomenal pressure on inter county hurlers, that they have this savage commitment and I could never buy into it because I know there are players who would love to get into the dressingroom, or any inter county dressingroom. They would be prepared to do whatever it takes and the reason fellas stay in there is because this is their enjoyment. This is their sporting lives - they are in their twenties and they can play for X number of years.
Some are fortunate to be able to play at the highest level. That is not tough - that is a pleasure. They are living their dreams so how people can feel sorry for those lads I don’t undertand. Envy them without a shadow of doubt - the same goes for a manager. Nobody came and put a gun to my head and said you have to do this job. Job? - you get paid for a job, so it’s not a job. This is of my own freewill and I don’t see it as a sacrifice or as pressure. If it was putting a strain on my health, or on my life or my family and causing problems, I would be a lunatic to being doing it. None of those things exist.
“Injuries as well. They are tough, but they are part and parcel of the game. Loads of fellas get injuries and are not as well known as Henry. But, they fight the same battles to come back and maybe play junior with their club - it is their life, they love it so much. Henry has worked so hard to get back but, he has had a wonderful sporting career so it’s hard to feel sorry for him. The whole world would love to be Henry. I hate to see him injured and I have absolute admiration for him, but a lot of fellas would gladly swop with him,” Brian says.
You sense from the All-Ireland winning captain of 1982 that there is no place he would rather be than on the sideline in Croke Park on the first Sunday in September. He is totally as ease with this management lark; is consumed by the atmosphere created by the ancient game; and is driven by the desire to be the best in the land. However, he accepts that Sunday is a challenge of Everest proportions.
“We are facing the All-Ireland champions - an outstanding team and a great place to be.They continue to develop. They have real belief in themselves, real confidence in themselves and a real understanding of each others play. They are very strong all over the field; they have match winners and are not just dependant on one or two. They have a spread of players who can score easily. It’s a phenomenal game to be looking forward to because sport is all about challenges like this,” he says as he dreams about an 8th All-Ireland title as Manager.