Vincent Hogan: Cat on a hot tin roof?
Published 03/04/2010 | 05:00
In Kerry '82, we find the only accessible torch with which to shine a light on Kilkenny now. For the players themselves, what's looming is a mystery. There is no measuring tape for stress, no preview glimpse of how a man's hurling will hold up under the press of history.
All that is definite and identifiable is the practiced equanimity of their manager. Brian Cody seems weather-proofed to the nervy twists of a hurling season, secure in the knowledge that he has a good nose for traps. Three defeats in five for his team? Chances are he recognises the League for what it is, a factory of whispers at the gateway to real business.
So that puckish face creases into a smile and he lets the talk giddy away, like a dog let off a leash.
If anything, the sceptics' singsong probably entertains him. There are journalists Cody has time for and journalists that he doesn't. But paper and ink, he would reason, have never declined one another's company. So it isn't difficult to imagine him welcoming gloomy pronouncements now, for no other reason than that Kilkenny have never been known to spurn the offer of a cause.
Imagine doubting the greatest team most of us have ever seen on the basis of a league campaign undertaken with one arm tied behind their backs?
No, Cody's dials aren't likely to be spinning now. Kilkenny won't win the League but it will -- nonetheless -- have served a purpose. For a start, he has a better grasp of the breadth of his squad. Some men have played themselves into the picture. Others, pretty conclusively, have played themselves out.
In a sense, they have had a slightly tranquilised league campaign. Just this week, Davy Fitzgerald alluded to his worry that Waterford are fated to be their last opponents on Sunday week. Fitzgerald's team are having a fine league but, deep in the sub-conscious, resides a worry now that Kilkenny plan to sign off with pointed venom.
Noel Skehan, winner of nine All-Ireland medals, sprays a rational light on where the champions stand. "I suppose there'd be a little bit of concern, but nothing huge," explains the seven-time All Star-winning goalkeeper. "You've maybe seen only about half the Championship team out so far at different times.
"Look at last Sunday against Galway for argument's sake. You hadn't Eoin Larkin, you hadn't Henry Shefflin, you hadn't Eddie Brennan, you hadn't Richie Hogan. Now they're four great forwards that would get onto any team in Ireland."
Skehan believes too that Kilkenny are maybe a month behind the bulk of their opponents in fitness terms.
So a faint haze hangs over this league, every little shock of Kilkenny panic asterisked by a realisation that Cody has, patently, been playing a game of cards here. Players like John Mulhall, Paddy Hogan and Niall Walsh have all distinguished themselves in different games, yet who expects them to make the Championship 15?
Mulhall has been the eye-catcher yet, to get a start on June 20, he must squeeze out any three of Eddie Brennan, Martin Comerford, Eoin Larkin, TJ Reid, Richie Power, Henry Shefflin, Aidan Fogarty and Richie Hogan. Chances? Slim.
Cody's non-use of Noel Hickey has generated much debate too. The Dunnamaggin man has so little county hurling played these last two seasons that the league seemed an obvious opportunity to gently re-acquaint him with the No 3 jersey.
Hickey is, reputedly, free of injury, yet he has been an unused substitute throughout this campaign, even left sitting last Sunday when Brian Hogan came ashore. And the use of Tommy Walsh at corner-back?
The deeper you explore Kilkenny's League, the greater the temptation to disregard it as a gentle exercise in subterfuge.
Even their three defeats (Tipperary four points; Cork two points; Galway one point) have been marginal affairs (and they finished the latter two with 14 men), maybe bequeathed more significance than they're worth by dint of last year's spring slaughter of all three.
Skehan, who served as a selector with Cody between '03 and '05, is inclined towards the view that Cody now maybe has the players precisely where he needs them. Yet, he doesn't disregard the likely existence of small worries.
"One aspect I would be a little bit worried about is the amount of scores they're conceding" says Skehan. "Against Galway, there was 27 points (2-21) scored against us. Dublin got 0-23 the week before. They're big scores. When you score 20 points or over in a game, you'd expect to win.
"But we scored 26 against Galway and didn't. That would be a little bit of a worry, but not a huge one. I'm sure Brian will be looking at that.
"In one sense, maybe it's ideal for him. Not that he'll like getting beaten. But you've won four in a row, you've been winning Leagues, Championships every year. It's a bit too much to expect really for lads to just keep going.
"To be very honest, I think this will give him a lot of ammunition for the next two league games. Which is great."
The great imponderable, then, is history. The deeper Kilkenny sink into the beat of this year's Championship, the wilder the storm of hype sure to blow around them. Ger O'Keeffe remembers Kerry becoming "embroiled in a lot of fantasy" during '82.
By the time they got to that year's final against Offaly, O'Keeffe says "mentally, most of the players forgot to play, or couldn't play, because psychologically they were battered".
In his autobiography, 'Blessed and Obsessed', Mick O'Dwyer recalls little misfortunes beginning to accumulate as their bid for five-in-a-row gathered momentum. So much so, his grasp of hindsight suggests, "we probably should have seen the result coming."
Kerry won that year's league, but lost Jimmy Deenihan to a broken leg in June and, despite their best efforts, Pat Spillane (knee), Mikey Sheehy (ankle) and Ger Power (hamstring) were battling stubborn injuries.
All this in a whirring maelstrom of hysteria.
O'Dwyer writes: "Every huckster got in on the act. Songs, poems, recitations, team photos, t-shirts, caps, towels, mugs. Wherever you looked or turned, people were cashing in. Everybody except the Kerry camp were at it, which annoyed me greatly because all sorts of chancers were making money out of the players.
"There was also the fear that it could get through to the team. I arrived for training on the Thursday night before the final to find a fella selling five-in-a-row tee-shirts outside the gate, which infuriated me so much that I could barely control myself."
It would take a pretty brave (or foolish) opportunist to put himself in Brian Cody's eye-line selling five-in-a-row tee-shirts outside Nowlan Park between now and September 5. Yet, Kerry's experience highlights how there is an inevitable point of intersection between fantasy and reality on this kind of journey.
In '82, Kerry arrived at that point a little jaded and, maybe, a little complacent. O'Dwyer believes that, had they completed the five-in-a-row, they would never have won the subsequent three-in-a-row between '84 and '86. O'Keeffe agrees, suggesting "There was somebody above saying: 'These guys will go apesh**e!'"
Cody looks like a man now assembling his priorities in a careful manner. Kilkenny have left less of themselves in this league than maybe any other in the 11 years of his stewardship. They have pretty much just tossed a few ideas on a flip chart and, quite probably, disregarded most.
With Tipperary, Cork and Galway all animated by a sense of mission, the champions have simply taken stock. And, at this remove, that looks smart housekeeping.
The question no one can answer, of course, is whether losing that pocket of League games has deposited collateral damage. Is there the tiniest bubble of worry in Cody's mind now? A year ago, Kilkenny weren't so much beating teams as wrapping them in shrouds. Now their first seven games of the season have decanted just two victories. Crisis?
Skehan's intimate knowledge of Cody's management skills encourages him to believe that, come the hour, Kilkenny will be ratcheted perfectly for battle.
"I think we're afraid to talk about it (the five-in-a-row)," he says, laughing. "We're nervous. Of course it comes up. But t'was like the four-in-a-row last year. Everyone was nervous to say anything.
"The media will run away with themselves the closer it comes, that's for sure. But the players and the management won't. They'll try to keep it on the back boiler. But, of course, it would be in the back of your head. That's human nature.
"I'm pretty sure Brian won't allow it come to the forefront. And the players have gone through this a lot, they'll deal with it the same way. But I suppose the media will get a bit excited around July as things start to build up."
The final passage of Cody's best-selling autobiography, written last year with Martin Breheny, reads "Kilkenny hurling is in previously unexplored territory, so let's get used to our new surroundings. Right now, the view from the peak is absolutely spectacular."
Time alone will tell if there's a mist now closing in.