Sunday 15 September 2019

Colm Keys: 'The regeneration game - Inside the four ages of Brian Cody's Kilkenny dynasty'

Cody’s class of 2019 is backboned by experience – but a lot may rest on how six of his young guns perform on their All-Ireland final debuts tomorrow

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

There were players on his panel who hadn't been seen yet, and they would become top players quite quickly, Brian Cody said, adding that those listening could be assured of that fact.

The bounty of underage success for Kilkenny hadn't been as plentiful as in the previous decade, but still, there isn't much around Kilkenny hurling that Cody hasn't known about and he had to be taken at his word.

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Three years on, he returns Kilkenny to an All-Ireland final against virtually the same Tipperary that elicited that projection from Cody in the first place.

There are still many remnants of that last sequence of All-Ireland successes for Kilkenny, naturally, but with six players potentially starting their first All-Ireland final, that's as many as they've had on hurling's blue riband day in the Cody era and thus, can be classified as his latest creation.

The fundamentals that he has espoused for every one of the previous 20 championship campaigns remain the same - spirit, honesty, genuineness. These are words Cody repeats over and over again because they are, in essence, what he seeks first and foremost in a player.

His words after the Limerick semi-final win were telling. "It's either in a fella or it's not," he suggested. From that we can take it that he doesn't waste much time trying to instil "it" in a fella. If they haven't got it, they haven't got it.

Kilkenny's Huw Lawlor. Photo: Sportsfile
Kilkenny's Huw Lawlor. Photo: Sportsfile

But since winning last year's league final against Tipperary against the head, triggering a post-match pitch invasion in Nowlan Park the scale of which previous league wins have not merited, Kilkenny have been gaining altitude.

Almost 21 years on, Cody's capacity to propagate continues to confound.

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Inheritance

Taking over as manager in late 1998 from Kevin Fennelly, who had stepped down after just one year in charge, Cody set about restoring John Power, who had fallen out of favour with Fennelly, and integrating a young Henry Shefflin.

James McGarry was brought in as goalkeeper while Peter Barry and Philly Larkin, midfield pairing in the 1998 All-Ireland final defeat to Offaly, were recommissioned to defensive positions as a new midfield that Andy Comerford would pillar for the next four years was put in place.

Eamonn Kennedy became the team's centre-back, though Pat O'Neill, the regular occupant of the position for most of the 1990s, was restored for the All-Ireland semi-final and final in 1999.

The core of the team would remain much the same over the following two years. Willie O'Connor stepped away after captaining them to the first All-Ireland success, replaced by JJ Delaney in 2001, while Noel Hickey was introduced at full-back for the 2000 championship.

For a couple of years, Brian McEvoy traded places with Denis Byrne to become Comerford's pillion passenger at midfield. But a five-point defeat by Galway in the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final that Cody would openly accept the blame for, put him on a different path towards a first sequence of major changes.

The 2001 All-Ireland semi-final was Kennedy's last championship game for Kilkenny. Peter Barry became the team's centre-back for the next four years. It was also Power's last start.

Throughout a four-match campaign that summer, McEvoy and Charlie Carter began to lose their grip on permanent places - both quit the panel in the days after the 2003 Leinster Championship win as Eddie Brennan's stock rose.

Shefflin's influence grew significantly across 2002 and 2003. It was also noticeable how ball-winners with a more physical presence, like John Hoyne and Martin Comerford, were introduced to attack while Derek Lyng anchored himself at midfield. By 2003, a 20-year-old Tommy Walsh had been thrown in at the deep end, finding his way to shore with consummate ease.

Reconstruction

Another All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway in 2005 triggered another series of changes. Peter Barry never hurled again for Kilkenny, while DJ Carey's departure, prior to the 2006 championship, definitely had an end-of-an-era feel to it.

Three of the four substitutes used in that 2005 Galway game were Richie Power, Brian Hogan and Jackie Tyrrell. Power and Tyrrell had decent game-time throughout 2005, while Eoin Larkin also put down firm roots for the future.

It would take Hogan another couple of years to bed down but Power, Larkin, Tyrrell and Aidan Fogarty became more mainstream in 2006, while Brennan delivered a more forceful presence.

The reaction to Cork's back-to-back All-Ireland wins in 2004 and 2005 and the notion that Kilkenny had fallen behind the times irked Cody and provided motivational fuel.

There were tactical adjustments, too, that set the tone for the next few years. Half-forwards like Larkin took up deeper positions to help the defensive effort and the Kilkenny swarm, so evident, against Limerick the last day, introduced new levels of work-rate.

For the next few years, the team had a very settled feel. Shefflin, Brennan, Power, Larkin, Martin Comerford and Aidan Fogarty became set in stone as the front six; Derek Lyng and James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick played three of the four All-Ireland finals on that run together while the Michael Kavanagh - Hickey - Tyrrell - Walsh -Hogan - Delaney defensive alignment was only interrupted by injury.

The only significant change was PJ Ryan coming in for James McGarry as goalkeeper midway through the run. With no reason to change, Cody rarely did and the results flowed.

Restructuring

In some respects, this could be categorised as a continuation of the glory years with four out of five All-Ireland titles between 2011 and 2015.

But the cabinet portfolios changed in the middle of the run. By the end of 2014, Walsh, Shefflin, Hogan and Fogarty had all retired, no longer able to claim a place. Delaney joined them despite finishing with that memorable hook on Séamus Callanan.

Between 2010 and 2011 Michael Fennelly, Paul Murphy and Richie Hogan, who had started the 2009 final, grew in influence. TJ Reid had been a replacement in the 2008 final and had started the 2010 final as captain, but it was still 2012 before he could be secure in the knowledge that he was a permanent fixture. By 2014, Reid and Hogan were the protagonists.

Colin Fennelly and Cillian Buckley also rose through the ranks while Walsh could at least be content that, as he was being ushered out, his brother Pádraig was heading in the other direction.

The raft of retirements after 2014 looked like the passing of another era, but, in truth, Cody had already overseen much of the change before that.

Regeneration

In 2017, Kilkenny made their earliest exit under Cody, crashing out in a qualifier to Waterford on the second weekend in July.

By then the sub-floor to a new construction had already been laid. In the three years since the 2016 defeat to Tipperary, 21 players have been given championship debuts. When you consider that up to 2016 Cody had used 92 players in championship games, that's quite an acceleration as the net was cast wider than ever.

Among the 22 is Huw Lawlor, just the eighth player to be entrusted with gatekeeper duties at full-back, following on from Canice Brennan, Seán Meally, Noel Hickey, JJ Delaney, Joe Holden, Kieran Joyce and Pádraig Walsh.

The biggest changes came last year. Against Dublin in the first-ever provincial round-robin game, Conor Delaney, Enda Morrissey, James Maher, Martin Keogan, John Donnelly, Bill Sheehan and Luke Scanlon made their debuts and by the end of last season, Conor Browne, Bill Ryan and Pat Lyng had all graduated, bringing to 10 the number of new recruits.

Tomorrow, Lawlor, Deegan, Browne, possibly Leahy, Adrian Mullen and John Donnelly will all be featuring in an All-Ireland final for the first time.

And a new cycle begins again.

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