Building from the back most likely priority for Cats as Brian Cody looks ahead to 19th season
Published 16/11/2016 | 02:30
It's not often, if ever, that you could describe Brian Cody as bullish in his projections about the future.
But there was something very striking about one of the comments he made on the Monday morning after this year's All-Ireland final defeat to Tipperary.
A consensus appears to have formed that the conveyor belt is slowing down, that the golden age of real star quality production is coming to an end.
After the decade that threw up first Henry Shefflin, Noel Hickey, JJ Delaney, Tommy Walsh, Richie Power, Eddie Brennan and Eoin Larkin and then Michael Fennelly, TJ Reid, Richie Hogan and Paul Murphy, questions have been raised as to whether that same level of individual quality can be reached again.
On the first Monday of September this year however that consensus was firmly shattered by Cody, who on Monday night was approved for a 19th consecutive season in charge.
"There are players on our panel who haven't been seen yet who will be top players, and quickly. You can rest assured of that," he guaranteed before preparing to head home from a final without a Liam MacCarthy Cup for only the fourth time in 15 attempts.
There was no ambiguity in what he said, no appeal for time, no mention of transition. Cody never speaks of transition. Instead there was confidence that if changes have to be made the personnel will be there to facilitate that.
Former All-Ireland-winning goalkeeper Michael Walsh, a regular KCLR analyst and currently involved with Westmeath agrees with Cody's contention that players can come fast. "There are definitely players there to make Kilkenny really, really strong again and hugely competitive. No doubt," he said. Kilkenny's U-21 record has been poor by their standards in recent years with three consecutive losses to Wexford before this year's upheaval against Westmeath.
Sometimes, however, U-21 results can be misleading. Ten of the starting Kerry football U-21 team which lost to Cork by 21 points in 2011 went to win All-Ireland senior medals three years later, All-Stars James O'Donoghue, Peter Crowley and Paul Geaney among them.
St Kieran's College have reeled off three successive All-Ireland colleges titles for the first time since 1990 while next year's U-21s are the corresponding team that won the All-Ireland minor title in 2014. "You can't hide behind the fact that there have been those (U-21) defeats," said Walsh. "On any given year you only need two or three to come through anyway. That still applies. But the Kilkenny team is not that old. A lot of them are in the 27 or 28 mark apart from Michael Fennelly, Eoin Larkin, Shane Prendergast. Obviously Jackie Tyrrell has retired after a great career.
"The age profile is going to come back down again. I was involved with Kilkenny U-21s from 2008 to 2011 and I would feel a lot of them now are coming to an age where they really need to step up and I think they will. The likes of Padraig Walsh is just getting better and better all the time. It's exciting for supporters to see what they come up with," said Walsh.
Cody should have a trio of players who missed some or all of last year's championship available to him. James Maher broke his kneecap in a work-related accident and had been going well in the league but his return gives options at half-back, midfield and half-forward.
Ger Aylward will also be back after sustaining a cruciate ligament tear while Michael Fennelly has pledged to do everything to get back to full fitness after rupturing his Achilles tendon.
After the All-Ireland final remedial work to their defence looks a priority. Naturally, Cody didn't concede ground on that front but up to three positions may need strengthening. Current full-back Joey Holden offers an option at half-back but from the most recent club championship his Ballyhale colleague Darren Mullen has done himself no harm while Anthony Forristal from O'Loughlin Gaels delivered an eye-catching defensive performance in the final.
Rob Lennon can expect more exposure when the league resumes, while Jason Cleere from Bennettsbridge could also be a candidate.
The challenge for Cody and his management team is as great now as it was after 2013 when they successfully expanded their squad and picked off the next two All-Ireland titles.