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Friday 18 April 2014

Martin Breheny: Cody’s Cats poised to surpass Micko’s men as the greatest

LONG before Sunday's emphatic reclaiming of territory that had been seized by Tipperary last September, the credentials of the Kilkenny squad as the best in history weren't under question.

Results always outweigh opinion, however informed it might be, and the facts were that, even without last Sunday's success, no hurling squad had achieved as much as the Brian Cody's Kilkenny generation.

The 2010 setback hurt Kilkenny badly, not just because it destroyed their five-in-a-row ambitions but because they felt that cruel circumstances, as much as Tipperary excellence, were decisive contributors to their defeat.

They were, after all, without Field Marshal Hogan while King Henry's wounded knee sustained him for only 13 minutes before he had to retire.

With him went the golden skills of probably the best hurler of all time, plus the organisational nous that would have made a significant difference to the Kilkenny attack. At the other end, Brian Hogan's absence left gaps through the centre of the defence which weren't there last Sunday.

Kilkenny were gracious in defeat last year while privately gritting their teeth and promising each other that there would be another day. And there was. Come last Sunday, they were ready for anything.

It's easy to be critical of Tipperary but this was 2006 all over again as Kilkenny deployed precisely the same type of game that sucked the resistance from Cork five years ago.

This was Kilkenny at their imposing best, inflicting their obsessive personality not just on any opponents but on the team that had come closest to resembling them over the last 15 months.

It cemented the Cody generation's place as the best squad in hurling history while also raising an interesting question: is it the most accomplished group of players in GAA history? Their only genuine rivals for that mantle are the Kerry footballers of the 1975-86 era.

Like Kilkenny, they won eight All- Ireland titles. They also won the four-in-a-row and, like Kilkenny, only fell at the last fence in their bid for five. Kerry managed a treble towards the end of their reign while Kilkenny accumulated their eight titles off a four-timer, a double and two singles. Of course, the latter single may yet develop into a double and maybe even more, in which case they will move ahead of Kerry.

It's difficult to compare teams from different eras, let alone match them across codes, but it's fun to try. It's an inexact science but there are similarities, especially in the area of maintaining levels of performance and ambition over such a long period.

That was a central theme of the Kerry squad under Mick O'Dwyer, just as it's very much at the heart of modern-day Kilkenny under Cody. GAA history is strewn with examples of teams who won All-Ireland titles only to lose their way quite quickly, as if distracted by the achievement itself.

Great teams come back for more and then there's the exclusive level reached by Kerry 1975-86, Kilkenny 2000-11 and their untreatable addiction to success. Is it just a coincidence or could there be more to it, in particular, the role of their respective managers O'Dwyer and Cody?

In 2007, I worked with Micko on his autobiography and fulfilled a similar role with Cody two years ago. From a journalistic standpoint it was a privileged position, working with the two most successful managers in GAA history for almost a full year. Put it like this -- if you didn't learn from the experience, you would need to ask yourself serious questions.

Personality-wise, they are different in many ways but they have an identical gene when it comes to an obsession to be the very best.

Clearly, they are very clever when it comes to putting a squad together, devising tactics and overseeing the many and varied aspects which team management demands.

However, probably their greatest achievement centres on their capacity to keep very successful players motivated to the same degree as when they first came on the team. O'Dwyer and Cody would say it was easy and that the energy to succeed always comes from players but if it was that straightforward why isn't everybody doing it?

No, the pair obviously have a talent which is as rare as it's indefinable. Kerry were the beneficiaries in the 1975-86 period before Micko went on missionary work in Kildare, Laois and Wicklow. Cody is still very much at the heart of the Kilkenny empire, one which shows no sign whatever of weakening. Of course, Kerry would never have envisaged in 1986 that their kingdom was about to collapse and that it would be 11 years before the next All-Ireland win.

Mind you, it's impossible to see anything like that befalling Kilkenny, who are probably already planning for next year's Walsh Cup.

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