Friday 22 September 2017

The top Cats who ran out of lives under Brian Cody

Tyrrell and Larkin join list of great Kilkenny players whose final act was watching from stands

Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin and Eoin Larkin celebrate Kilkenny’s victory in the 2014 All-Ireland final. Picture credit: David Maher/Sportsfile
Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin and Eoin Larkin celebrate Kilkenny’s victory in the 2014 All-Ireland final. Picture credit: David Maher/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

Sporting fairytales rarely have a happy ending and if you're a Kilkenny hurler, the chances of going out at the game's pinnacle are rapidly reduced, given Brian Cody's ruthless streak.

"You may delay, but time will not" are famous words spoken by Benjamin Franklin, one of the United States' founding fathers, and it's a mantra Cody has followed religiously throughout his 18 seasons as Cats boss.

Praise is regularly heaped on the evergreen James Stephens clubman, regarded as the game's greatest manager, with 11 All-Ireland wins, for his no-nonsense approach as he continues to regenerate Kilkenny teams in a relentless drive for success.

But his greatest strength has very little to do with hurling. No matter who you are, regardless of how many medals are in the back pocket, irrespective of how many times you've gone to the well for the black and amber, when Cody thinks your time is up, your time is up.

Kilkenny's JJ Delaney celebrates after the Hurling All Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Kilkenny's JJ Delaney celebrates after the Hurling All Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

With the Cats defence in tatters during this year's comprehensive final defeat to Tipperary, the obvious call was for early reinforcements but they were slow to come and when they did arrive on the hour mark, one of Cody's most loyal lieutenants was cast aside.

Jackie Tyrrell's raw physicality underpinned a miserly back six under Cody but much like Michael Kavanagh, Brian Hogan and Noel Hickey before him, he would play out the final minutes of his glittering inter-county career outside of the white lines.

Tyrrell had weighed up every permutation before committing for another year after an injury-interrupted 2015 but like many others, including 'Village' clubmate Eoin Larkin, who was substituted in his last outing in September, the powerful corner-back's worst-case scenario was realised.

JJ Delaney aside, the retirement process in Kilkenny under Cody involves sliding seamlessly from the starting 15 to the substitute's bench before quietly hanging up the hurl that winter while the juggernaut rolls on with fresh faces aboard.

Sunset

"Ah sure JJ's the ultimate ending, ride off into the sunset with an All-Ireland, an All-Star and that hook he made on Seamus Callanan. But I went back and I said 'my God, am I comfortable with every scenario?' That being the top end and the other not making the 30," Tyrrell said recently.

"I said to myself that actually 'I am'. I could deal with not being even in the 30 so I said hopefully it won't be that, it'll be somewhere up at the other end but it wasn't, but I was comfortable with that decision.

"It was very disappointing. It's disappointing not to get out in Croke Park. You could see lads were in trouble. You could tell our team were struggling and it was disappointing but it's not about me. Brian Cody is well qualified to make a decision as he feels."

Even their prolific goal-getter Eddie Brennan had lost his place in 2011, making a late semi-final cameo against Waterford, before surprisingly winning his place back for the final defeat of Tipp, where his blistering run from centre-forward set up Richie Hogan's game-defining goal.

His is a rare case as Cody's ruthlessness knows no bounds, with friendships quickly cast aside in the pursuit of Liam MacCarthy. Reputations matter little when it comes to winning silverware and Cody (62) is clearly not a fan of the productions of Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox as he simply doesn't do Hollywood endings.

Cats legend Tommy Walsh identifies Cody's lack of sentimentality as his greatest asset, something he feels will keep the train on track for some time to come despite the perceived lack of underage talent on Noreside.

Walsh's remarkable inter-county career came to a close in the wake of a ninth All-Ireland medal in 2014 but it wasn't without heartache as the incomparable No 5 was shipped into the half-forward line that season before later moving to the sideline.

For a player who lit up hurling's greatest stage for a decade it must have been difficult to become a peripheral figure and get over the "fierce disappointment that it all ended and that you weren't making the team anymore" but he believes Cody always has a bigger picture in mind.

"We're lucky that Brian Cody like Alex Ferguson and every great manager is just looking at now. They're looking at building down the line and if you look at any of the hurlers like myself, Henry, Jackie or Larks coming to the end of our careers, he wasn't afraid to drop us or take us off or not pick us," Walsh said.

"He was thinking of Kilkenny and the future, and I think as long as he stays doing that we'll be in a great position. We would be in a much more difficult position if we had a manager there who was keeping onto the same guys all of the time."

The nine-time All-Star was in good company in the Hogan Stand for his final outing. Henry Shefflin made a fleeting appearance off the bench in their replay defeat of Tipp but Walsh had medal-laden team-mates Aidan Fogarty, David Herity and Hogan for company.

Shefflin, the greatest hurler of the modern era, struggled to accept that his days with Kilkenny were numbered as his record-breaking career ended without starting a single championship game in his closing season.

While having "no greater respect for any man alive than Brian Cody", the talismanic attacker admitted in his autobiography that "not making the first 15 became "less of a problem" with time but he felt the communication lines between the pair could have been a lot clearer as he slipped down the pecking order.

"There were certainly fewer chats between us as the dynamic of the relationship shifted," Shefflin said. "Previously, it had been relatively simple in the sense that I was always going to be selected. Now that was no longer the case, I suppose both of us were less comfortable.

Connection

"And so the mental challenge became the hardest part of 2014 for me. If anything, maybe I had become too comfortable in my relationship with management throughout my hurling career. I had had a connection with Brian that, if I'm honest, the other players didn't really have.

"Suddenly, that was gone and it left me feeling a strange disconnect that was new to me."

The 10-time All-Ireland winner kept believing that he could break back into the starting XV, however, and rang Cody in the build-up their All-Ireland semi-final with Limerick for clarification as he struggled to deal with demotion to the bench.

"Maybe I was forcing the issue now, maybe it wasn't the wisest course of action to take, but I felt I had to do something. Our chat essentially confirmed that my days of starting for Kilkenny were at an end. Still, you keep looking for the fairytale, don't you?" he said.

But the fairytale ending rarely comes and Cody's cold-blooded vein came to the surface once again after this year's harrowing league semi-final defeat to Clare when Michael Rice, another loyal soldier who accumulated eight All-Irelands in 12 seasons, was deemed surplus to requirements and released.

Cody's ability to detach from emotion and make what he deems the right decision for the group continues to set him apart.

"I realised going into the league that there was a huge possibility that Brian wasn't going to play me. I've seen it before, that's Brian's way. At first you're taken aback but the one thing with Brian is he's honest, and I respect honesty," Rice said.

While disheartening after magnificent careers, there's rarely a sulk or signs of negativity. Much like their demeanour on the pitch, where they played the game like warriors en route to securing their place as the best side to play hurling, they take disappointment in a similar light as eyes quickly fix on the next chapter of their career.

As they hang up their boots the glory days are celebrated and their immense contributions lauded but apart from Delaney, their loss is rarely lamented. You know it's the right time to call it a day when the wider public are questioning your decision, and it's something the outstanding Fenians defender was well aware of.

"Some people did ask me after winning the All-Ireland and winning the All-Star, 'was I making the right decision?' but I said it to myself, 'how I would like to finish up and this is the ideal situation'. Winning the All-Ireland is what I wanted to do and that's all that was in my head at the start of the year," Delaney said two years ago.

"That justified my decision more than anything, to go out like that. If you play a game and you get away with your marker hitting a few wides, you can bluff everyone else when making excuses, but you can't bluff yourself. That's the big thing, if you can tell yourself you played well or you didn't. I was happy with my year and happy with the way it went."

The list of Kilkenny retirees in the past decade reads like a who's who of the greatest hurlers to ever play the game including DJ Carey, Shefflin, Walsh and Larkin but Delaney, the 2003 Hurler of the Year, is likely to be one of the few, if only, players who Cody must have attempted to coax back into the fold.

His immaculate defensive display against Callanan in his last Kilkenny appearance has reached mythical proportions given the subsequent exploits of the Premier ace, including an astonishing nine points in this year's final, but he stood firm.

Delaney understood that time waits for no man, and Brian Cody certainly doesn't wait around either.

The departeds' list

Below is a snapshot of how careers tend to end under Brian Cody's watch. Kilkenny's five-in-a-row-chasing team of 2010 is widely regarded as the greatest of all time and this is how their days in black and amber came to a finish.

1 PJ Ryan: Man-of-the-match in the '09 final, dropped for '11 and retired that winter after being an unused sub.

2 John Dalton: Dropped after his sending-off in the '11 league final, retired before '12 season.

3 Noel Hickey: Sub for '12 final and retired in the immediate aftermath.

4 Jackie Tyrrell: Injured in '15, never played a championship minute in '16 and retired in November.

5 Tommy Walsh: Unused sub in latter stages of '14 before calling it a day.

6 John Tennyson: Injury-plagued defender lost place in '12, retired in '13.

7 JJ Delaney: Retired in '14 with an All-Star at the game's peak.

8 James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick: Lost place in '11 and retired that year at 26.

9 Michael Fennelly: Still playing.

10 TJ Reid: Still going strong.

11 Henry Shefflin: Sub throughout '14 and retired the following spring.

12 Eoin Larkin: Taken off in '16 final defeat and retired in recent weeks.

13 Eddie Brennan: Lost place during '11 but returned to start final win before retiring that winter.

14 Richie Power: Forced to retire earlier this year due to injury.

15 Aidan Fogarty: Lost place in '13 and '14, retired that winter.

Substitutes:

16 David Herity: Lost place in '13 and '14, hung up boots that winter.

17 Michael Kavanagh: Lost place in '10 and retired after a stellar career.

18 James Ryall: On and off the team but didn't feature in '10 and retired.

19 Michael Rice: Struggled to regain place after series of injuries, dropped from the squad pre-'16 championship.

20 Derek Lyng: Lost place in '10 and later retired. Current selector.

21 Martin Comerford: Lost place in '09 and '10, retired later that year.

Irish Independent

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