Even to his greatest players, the men with whom he built a history unrivalled in the stockpiling of silver, Brian Cody had a stark, unknowable quality.
The most celebrated manager in the history of the GAA kept an invisible barrier up, setting fires in their ribcages without ever allowing them, emotionally, beyond the garden gate. That was his unyielding stamp as the man who led Kilkenny hurlers to a scarcely credible 11 senior All-Ireland titles between 2000 and 2015.
Some of the finest players the old game has known would empty themselves at his bidding without ever mistaking the relationship for a friendship.
It’s certainly doubtful that a single Kilkenny hero from the near quarter of a century of his stewardship would have been forewarned of Cody’s decision to retire just days after losing an epochal All-Ireland final to Limerick.
True, the word on the wind bore a certain malevolence last winter as Kilkenny’s All-Ireland ‘famine’ on his watch stretched to half a dozen summers, a small eternity in a county where gossip commands the rapt attention of people so conditioned to glory.
But Kilkenny’s Leinster title win this summer was their third in a row and Sunday’s Limerick defeat carried none of the systems failure implications left over by heavy final losses to Tipperary in ’16 and ’19.
Last weekend’s Kilkenny was quintessentially Cody’s Kilkenny – punkish and steel-boned and unintimidated by the soaring modern pedigree of opponents chasing a fourth crown in five seasons.
They were edged out by greatness in the end, nothing more divisive or potentially recriminatory.
And there was little in Cody’s demeanour afterwards to suggest that his 24th season at the helm would be his last, albeit his post-match press-conference didn’t extend beyond a mere handful of clipped, undramatic answers before the great man got to his feet with the words “Sound, lads!” and slipped away into the evening.
He is a thief of time now, his reign not quite stretching back to an age when journalists filed their stories via telegraph wire, but certainly to a world that seems all but unrecognisable today. After all, he became Kilkenny manager eight years before Twitter was created and three before euro banknotes and coins even came into use in Ireland.
But that longevity tended to be questioned on the bad days too, Cody often depicted as obstinately ‘old school’ whenever Kilkenny’s hurling seemed welded to orthodoxies of the past like long, direct deliveries at a time most modern teams transition from defence to attack with short passing through the lines.
This was the case as recently as May 21, when Kilkenny lost a championship game to Wexford in Nowlan Park for the first time in their history. Yet, they looked far more attuned to the modern game six weeks later when destroying a widely trumpeted Clare team by 12 points in the All-Ireland semi-final.
After Sunday’s performance, there would have been little credibility in any move to remove the 68-year-old from his position and, accordingly, his decision appears to have caught most within the county off guard.
For all that, he is notoriously indifferent to melodramatic farewells, too, as some of Kilkenny’s biggest names will aver. Jackie Tyrrell – a James Stephens clubmate of Cody’s and nine-time All-Ireland winner – famously revealed in his autobiography that their meeting to confirm his retirement in 2016 lasted precisely seven minutes.
“In reality, it was probably closer to seven seconds,” Tyrrell suggests in The Warrior’s Code.
Henry Shefflin, the greatest Kilkenny player of the Cody era, writes in his autobiography of a dispiriting lack of communication from management forthcoming as his own inter-county career tapered to a close in 2014.
That, though, was the Cody way. He could use silence as a weapon or, conversely, turn the most cursory of compliments into something that sent mice dancing across a player’s spine.
There was, though, palpable discomfort within Kilkenny over his apparent reluctance twice this summer to shake Shefflin’s hand in the Ballyhale man’s role as Galway manager. Cody seemed openly hostile when sought out by Shefflin for the routine post-game courtesy in Salthill on May 1 and made no effort to honour the tradition one month later in Croke Park, the 11-time All-Star eventually having to follow him out the field for a handshake after the Leinster final.
For all the glories of the Cody age, that image seems a little regrettable and diminishing now – an apparent lack of grace towards his greatest player.
No matter, his records are cut in stone. The most successful GAA manager we have seen or, realistically, are ever likely to see again. A hurling fanatic with the genius to recreate Kilkenny a small multiple of times whenever (as happened often) his ways were deemed out of date.
Typically, Cody chose to depart on his own terms and not under the coercion of committee. To go any other way would have been a betrayal of everything he holds dear.
And don’t expect to see him in The Sunday Game studio anytime soon. His view of modern punditry suggests he would be more comfortable under a dentist’s drill.