Brian Cody: 'Inter-county players now are being slaughtered, club players are being isolated'
Brian Cody has an itch that needs scratching. On the face of it, all is well in the world of the man who will next year take charge of Kilkenny for a 21st season. The most successful manager in the history of hurling acan face into the winter knowing that despite the disappointment of a Leinster final defeat and an All-Ireland quarter-final exit this year, there are grounds for optimism in Kilkenny.
Once the hurling gets serious next summer, their presence will loom as large as ever; nervous glances will always be cast in their direction so long as Cody patrols the sideline. Their only championship defeats this year were to the All-Ireland finalists, Limerick and Galway. Kilkenny will fear no-one.
As the evenings draw in, thoughts will naturally drift to another assault on hurling dominance — especially now that the changed calendar means the new season is only just around the corner. For now though, Cody has been surveying the scene, as in the GAA landscape, and he doesn’t like what he sees. What he sees is the GAA going in a direction that he cannot understand. “I am worried,” he admits.
Club football and hurling is in the spotlight at the moment because of the number of finals being played up and down the country. This weekend alone, there are 18 senior county finals. There are provincial club matches too. And plenty more to come. You might think everything is rosy in the garden, so. But it’s not. Cody is clear in his mind about that point. “I think there’s going to be a crisis,” he says.
The GAA, he says, is isolating clubs and club players. “Everybody talks about the club, the club, the club, and rightly so, but it’s the club players who are being isolated. They are being denied the opportunity to enjoy playing the game when they need to play the game.”
If things were bad enough before, the changes to the football and hurling championships this year have made things a whole lot worse. He is slow at first to criticise the new championship structures because as an inter-county manager with one of the top teams he leaves himself open to the charge that he is merely putting forward his own — and his county’s — interests. There is plenty of time for him in the months ahead to put on his Kilkenny hat and speak as the manager of that team, for now he says he’s speaking as a GAA man, and a club man. Where do we all come from, he asks, we come from our clubs.
The round-robin series introduced in hurling is, he insists, “a knee-jerk reaction to the Super 8 in football”, and was rushed in without being thought through. “My sense about the whole thing comes down to this: What’s best for everybody? I’m not trying to pretend that it wasn’t an exciting inter-county championship, of course it was; for the people watching it was, but . . . it only works for a very tiny percentage of GAA people so it couldn’t be the right thing.
“Inter-county players now are being slaughtered as well. We had this whole player welfare and player burnout which was being championed for years and now they are playing Walsh Cup before the end of December, league before the end of January — and it’s a hugely competitive league, championship-style, that goes on and on — and then supposedly April is the club month, which means clubs have to prepare in the muck of February and March to play one or two matches in April and then they’re supposed to pack up, and are told, ‘You won’t play again until your county is out of the championship, which could be July, could be August’. It’s a long time with nothing going on.
“And then the county players keep playing Sunday after Sunday in this round-robin thing, trying to avoid injury, trying to play through injury, which they will do, with the best will in the world, because they want to keep their place, and that just goes on and on. There’s no real time to develop players; there’s no real time for players to recover. There’s no meaningful get-togethers for proper training for the next game.
“Plus, why do you become a county player? How do you become a county player? For me, you became a county player because you showed the kind of form with your club that merited you being given the opportunity. You were a real genuine leader with your club, you were consistent, you were always performing. That doesn’t happen anymore because they [players] don’t play [with their clubs].”
Cody’s comments about the new hurling championship may fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that the changes brought about the best hurling year in living memory. But you can’t really judge an entire GAA season purely on a handful of exciting matches, which most people only saw on television.
As the dust settles on Limerick’s fairytale All-Ireland win, doubts over the championship’s sustainability linger. For our inter-county players, can we really say that it is fair to demand them to perform in four high-intensity games over five weeks? For our club players, is it fair that we are telling them that they have to sacrifice the summer months for the greater good? Indeed, are we really saying that the greater good is the small percentage of inter-county players, and not the far greater percentage of club players? What do we mean when we talk about ‘the greater good’?
“To me, it goes against everything that we’re supposed to be about and I just think if it continues to go like this we’re going to have a real divide, a real disconnect, a real sense of, ‘We don’t really matter, we’re just second-class citizens’,” says Cody. “You won’t reverse the trend.
“I’ve been involved in the inter-county scene for a long time and it’s hugely important. It is the showpiece. But the club scene has to be catered for in a more meaningful way than it is right now.”
Cody has seen the anger at first hand, in Kilkenny, and he fears that anger is only going to grow. The county has always made a point of keeping players with their clubs, playing championship games right through the spring and summer. Indeed, players used the club championship as a shop window for the watching Kilkenny management team — the way it always used to be in the GAA. The condensed calendar, which also paradoxically saw an increase in the number of games, put paid to that noble tradition.
In Kilkenny, and elsewhere, club players have no certainty. They can’t plan their lives because they don’t know when they’ll be playing. Club players are entitled to not only enjoy football and hurling, but they are also entitled to have the ambition to be the best that they can be, and for their club to be the best that it can be.
Cody dismisses suggestions that one possible solution could be organising additional league games or tournaments for club teams during the summer months. “Every club has ambition at the start of the year — senior club, junior club — to win their championship, to be competitive right through the whole year and get to the final stages and maybe win it. It’s not to win a tournament, or win a few matches where they are suddenly pretending that they matter. They don’t matter, they just don’t matter. You can’t hoodwink the players by pretending that they’re ok because they’re getting those matches.”
The bottom line, he says, is that club pitches are empty during the summer months. “That,” he adds, “is dangerous territory for the GAA.” He continues: “There’s two elements to it — inter-county and club. There has to be a meeting of minds. There has to be a coming together. The majority of members are in the clubs, so they can’t be just told, ‘Ye stay where ye are and we’ll get these other lads sorted first’, and have the whole calendar right up to the end of summer with the county matches and then say, ‘Right lads, come on, we’ll shove ye in there for a couple of weeks and then we’ll put you off for another while and bring you back in at the end again’. That’s not going to work.
“There has to be a solution, from people coming together, sitting down with a blank canvas and getting a proper, meaningful timetable where it’s inclusive for all GAA members. Everything is hard until you sit down and do it. It’s challenging, of course it’s challenging for everybody.
“I saw where Tommy Walsh said something a while back, that in 10 years’ time you won’t have hurling, you’ll have elite hurling. All the former players, the fellas who played for Kilkenny and gave great service, you talk to them now and they’re just sick. They say it’s so wrong what’s going on. They can see it.”
He’s asked if he’s worried. He hesitates for a moment before answering. “I am worried. I would say absolutely I’m worried, yes.”