Sunday 25 September 2016

Vincent Hogan: Hurling snobbery keeps scape-goating the wrong people as good men come under fire

Published 12/09/2016 | 02:30

Wexford’s Liam Dunne finds himself under fire from some sections of local media as he faces a major contest to retain his position. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Wexford’s Liam Dunne finds himself under fire from some sections of local media as he faces a major contest to retain his position. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

When Kilkenny lose a September game, the most natural place to cast your gaze in those first moments of disorientation is towards the tall, angular form of Brian Cody.

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Not on any prospect of contrariness, mind. Cody could have tutored Gandhi in the business of grace under duress. But the realisation that, suddenly, the hurling world no longer orbits around him, bequeaths an oddly magnetic quality to the James Stephens man. The reflex is to search for flickers of human frailty.

But there you invariably find him, purposefully neutral, at the toes of the Hogan Stand, arms folded, face florid and inscrutable. His eyes, essentially, become windows that have the curtains pulled.

Cody's record in the game has nourished such a mystique, it's inevitable to be fascinated by how he deals with disappointment. Tipperary beating his team will have been one thing. But Tipp winning so easily, they could have been dropping depth-charges on dolphins, will have been quite another.

The thing about Kilkenny-Tipp is it can feel so personal, every hurt seems dusted with extra salt. What Michael Ryan's team did eight days go will, undeniably, needle Cody through winter. Yet, both Kilkenny's league and championship campaigns ended with such unmerciful trimmings this year that processing those figures will have to be the next big project for the sharpest mind in hurling.

It's more than a decade since Cody's judgement was last questioned by his own people and, frankly, any impulse to do so now will have a faintly synthetic quality.

Yet the systems meltdown that did for Kilkenny in Thurles against Clare on April 17, conceding 4-22, was largely revisited with the leakage of 2-29 to Tipp. What seemed an aberration in spring would, thus, smack a little of carelessness five months later.

Both days, Kilkenny accumulated scores (2-19 and 2-20) that would win most games, but their full-back line was left hopelessly isolated and exposed.

"We weren't going to let it happen again," Paul Murphy said in the All-Ireland final build-up of that April collapse.

But Kilkenny did.

And this begs an obvious, yes abjectly insubordinate, wash-your-mouth-out question. Should Brian Cody have deployed a sweeper?

Face it, the idea that Kilkenny don't do tactics comes from the same pages as the Tooth Fairy. On their good days, Cody turns the compression of space into an art form but, against Tipp, their spreadeagled half-backs left great prairies of room for Seamie Callanan, 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer and John McGrath to come cantering out to.

We all love the kind of hurling that brings to mind cherubs grinning down from the Sistine ceiling, but the snobbery directed Derek McGrath's and Davy Fitzgerald's way in pundit-land last weekend was lamentable. It was as if Tipp's brilliance was being held up as a repudiation of the systems deployed by both.

Yet McGrath's restoration of Waterford from the equivalent of a coconut-shy target to authentic challengers has been one of the great managerial achievements of modern times.

Rescuing

More pertinently, he got a predominantly young team to rebound from Munster final slaughter and become a key force in rescuing the championship from what had, until August, looked a shabby carnival.

Only one county outside of Kilkenny and Tipp has won the Liam MacCarthy Cup since Cody turned the Cats into a virtual force of nature.

In May, that same county won their first National League crown in 38 years, yet Davy Fitz encounters such criticism from his own, it is a moot point if he will even continue as manager into 2017. McGrath and Fitzgerald are cursed, it seems, for having the audacity to hurl with a plan.

Yet who else has been mounting even the faintest thread of revolution against hurling's old oligarchs?

The night before Ireland played Argentina in last year's Rugby World Cup, I met Michael Ryan in Birmingham airport. Ryan is hugely likeable for many reasons, but maybe the best of them is a complete absence of exaggerated self-regard.

That quality distinguished his handling of, arguably, Tipp's most fulfilling All-Ireland win since the final of 1971.

Ryan knew a year in advance that he was succeeding Eamonn O'Shea as Tipp boss yet, that October evening in the English midlands, he had yet to finalise a backroom team. When I put it to him that, perhaps, the search had begun to stretch like a Tolstoy storyline, his response was a booming laugh and the promise "Don't you worry, I'll have one in place when I'm ready."

Ryan empowered Tipp this year by having the humility to understand that much of what they had been doing in recent seasons was based on solid principles.

He eschewed any intellectualisation of what it was he would bring to the job, even suggesting that his years spent in the Tipp dressing-room as a selector to Liam Sheedy and O'Shea might reasonably detonate impatience. With the cup won on September 4 and people summoning odes in celebration of Tipp's forward movement, Ryan was indifferent to the noise.

"There's nothing revolutionary about forwards working hard," he said flatly.

Only one team wins the MacCarthy Cup each year and, in the era of Cody's Kilkenny, the challenge to be that team has often felt Himalayan.

Both Galway and Cork came within a puck of a ball of doing so, yet that proximity brought no solace to their management teams. On the contrary, they ended up denigrated for falling short and, in Anthony Cunningham's case, eventually tossed overboard by a posse of Fletcher Christians.

And one of the starkest stories brewing in hurling today is surely that of Liam Dunne's battle to keep the job in Wexford.

From a distance, the reflex question to ask is why he would even bother putting his name forward again in an environment so palpably lacking in either structural or philosophical support. Last Easter, while on a four-day break in Spain, a story was fed to national media of 'unrest' within Wexford over Dunne's trip causing him to miss one training session.

The story, bizarrely, arrived in newspaper offices with an addendum advising any additional information required could be accessed through the county chairman.

Wexford played a National League quarter-final against Waterford the following Sunday and, despite being rated 4/1 outsiders, finished just a point adrift of the defending champions.

In the seven weeks between that game and their Leinster quarter-final against Dublin, multiple rounds of the local football and hurling championships were played. And Wexford would lose badly to the Dubs.

After a great summer charge in 2014, retirements and a glut of injuries greatly compromised Dunne's hand this year as did the absences of Jack Guiney and Kevin Foley. The intensity of the club schedule clearly compromised him further.

When that schedule lightened, Wexford's season found momentum with a victory over Offaly and the county's first championship defeat of Cork since 1956. Despite then losing to Waterford, some degree of honour looked to have - at least - been restored.

Contest

While Dunne made known his desire to continue as manager, my understanding is that he has welcomed the idea of a contest. That said, when Wexford's clubs were recently invited to put forward nominations, Dunne was the only nominee.

Yet word has since emerged of a remarkable 19-strong short-list for the job, the county chairman reputedly appointing a committee to oversee the selection process. Quite what status that committee now holds is open to interpretation given stated GAA protocol on the matter.

No matter, Dunne finds himself under fire from sections of local media as he prepares to immerse himself in a contest that - taking the reported numbers at face value - suggests the Wexford manager's position must be among the most coveted in hurling.

It's two decades since they last won the All-Ireland and, for one of the anchors of that '96 team, a man who has committed his adult life to Wexford hurling, the - at best - ambivalence and - at worst - hostility coming his way makes for pretty peculiar viewing.

After all, if five years is too long to have your voice heard in one dressing-room, how on earth did Michael Ryan get such a tune out of Tipp after seven?

Be careful what you wish for.

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