Vincent Hogan: Ryan goes in search of cody's simple but successful template
Published 14/02/2011 | 05:00
When Brian Cody looked down the line in Thurles on Saturday night, he saw a reflection of himself. Hidden under heavy woollen layers, Declan Ryan was implacable as an old oak, leaning into the slicing rain with the ease of a trawlerman in a modest squall. The game held his attention without ever putting a match to it.
Near the end, a row broke out at a corner flag and the two managers, standing maybe 30 yards apart, offered a joint study of indifference. Cody watched, hands clasped behind his back. Ryan's arms were folded.
They could have been observing sheep skitter towards a pen.
In an RTE radio interview earlier, Cody had joked that on his last visit to Semple Stadium, the Tipperary manager "nearly did away with me". And you could hear Liam Sheedy chuckling on the end of a telephone. Sheedy was a cat on a hot tin roof when running the line for Tipp.
His angry rush at Cody in the corresponding fixture last year maybe, in hindsight, offered the clearest early glimpse of Tipp's resolve to course Kilkenny down.
Yet, just as we media folk were slipping into a Witness Protection Programme in the press eyrie above, the two managers had already shaken hands and moved on.
Their next meeting would attract the biggest TV audience for any sports event in this country last year, Lar Corbett's All-Ireland final goals drawing a stark line under the five-in-a-row story. It had taken Sheedy three years to get his team to the mountain-top. Then he excused himself and left.
It's a moot point if Ryan has, thus, inherited the best or worst job in hurling. The GAA clings to little courtesies with lovely, heroic stubbornness and, on Saturday night, Kilkenny formed a guard of honour to applaud Tipp out into the rain.
Slipping out through that stripey chute must have been a queasy feeling for the Tipp boys. A bit like having a lion politely hold the cage door while you enter.
Kilkenny won the game comfortably. Having trailed by five points deep into the first half, they gathered a little momentum and eased away, winning the remainder by 1-13 to 0-4. Given the depleted nature of both teams, nobody was investing too much significance in the arithmetic.
Yet, fringe men like John Mulhall and Colin Fennelly put up strong hands as Cody recommenced that wise winnowing process of spring that has become his signature gift.
Under his care, it is Kilkenny's way to evolve without ever seeming in a state of disorder. He dismisses 'stability' as a buzz-word that appeals to journalists without signifying anything substantial. In 2006, his choice of midfielders in the National League ran almost to double figures, yet Kilkenny went through the competition unbeaten.
Cody just creates an independent energy. What others do is immaterial.
If anything, the league is where he does his most intense work.
Kilkenny never contested a final in his first three years, before he watched Tipp win everything in '01 and a penny seemed to drop.
Cody came to realise that, maybe, the league offered a better barometer of what was in the belly of a player than the annual canter through what had become a cold acquisition of stocks and bonds, otherwise called the Leinster Championship.
Kilkenny contested five of the next six league finals, winning four.
He'd have loved heading across to Thurles on Saturday. The sense of a new season opening out before him with its looming puzzles and possibilities, the salty banter with fierce rivals, the promise in the wind of epic days ahead would all have energized Cody like nothing else in life could ever come close to.
He is a hurling man to his fingertips, seemingly born to hang tough against looting neighbours.
For more than a decade, he has worked the miracle of getting Kilkenny to hurl with an underdog mentality in spite of it being a position they are desperately unaccustomed to. Defeat seems to empower the man. He takes it as a licence to reinvent.
After the loss as champions to Galway in '01, Cody vowed that -- on his watch -- no Kilkenny team would ever be bullied off a field again. And they haven't been. Through the spring of '02, he built a new side that would win the next two All-Irelands.
When Cork then usurped them as market leaders in '04 and '05, he plunged into a process of experimentation that would produce the greatest hurling team ever seen. And through all of this, we learnt next to nothing about him outside a hurling context. He would never regard himself as a celebrity and palpably recoils from the faux intellectualism he sees trying to tart the game up as some kind of calculus with sticks.
So outside the caricature -- the spitting on hands, the patrician amble along the line, the purposeful rinsing of emotion from any post-game audit -- Cody concedes little to our curiosity.
On Saturday night, as he leaned back in Semple Stadium's dressing-room tunnel -- politely feeding media tape recorders -- you couldn't but wonder how Kilkenny will ever adjust to a life beyond him. For, in so many ways, their hurling has become an expression of his personality -- steely and undemonstrative.
Down the corridor, Ryan struck a strikingly similar pose, chatting impassively about work to be done and long miles to travel.
He was a beautiful paradox as a player, brawny and tough, yet gifted with the unique floating, wristy movement that Tipp leaned on heavier than most realised for a decade and a half.
Ryan never did interviews then and it's a side of management that won't fill him with much enthusiasm now.
But no one in Tipperary has a deeper knowledge of the cards they hold.
He succeeded Sheedy as manager of the county's minors in '06 when Tipp were All-Ireland champions and, with Tommy Dunne by his side, retained the crown in '07.
Now Ryan and Dunne chase a momentous reprise, knowing that senior hurling is a whole different ball of wax, especially with Cody still stoking the black and amber fire.
Maybe the line won't be a box office show, but there'll be no ebbing of intensity.