Eamonn Sweeney: 'Pretending that Brian Cody has the Cats on the right track is mere sentimentality'
Kilkenny are really racking up the milestones these days. Seven days ago they lost to Wexford in a Leinster final for the first time in 22 years. Three weeks previously they'd suffered a first loss in a championship match at Nowlan Park in 70 years. In the league their defeat by Limerick was a heaviest home loss in 22 years.
Last year, Limerick scored a first championship win against Kilkenny in 45 years. Two years ago, Waterford had their first championship victory against the Cats in 58. For only the third time in 60 years, Kilkenny have gone three years without a Leinster title.
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The rewriting of the record books probably hasn't stopped there. Unless Kilkenny win this year's All-Ireland they will become the first team from the county ever to lose three championship games in a single year.
They're not going to win the All-Ireland. Chances are their campaign will come to an end against Cork this day week, though given the flakiness of the Rebel defence a Kilkenny victory can't be entirely ruled out. But even if they do beat Cork, that'll be as far as it goes. It won't be enough. Kilkenny are not about semi-finals.
The accumulation of negative landmarks shows a team spiralling downwards at a rate of knots. Yet Kilkenny's reputation can make it difficult to believe the evidence of your own eyes. Against Wexford last week and Limerick last year, they started as favourites for no logical reason.
Last year, Limerick had been infinitely more impressive in Munster than Kilkenny had been in Leinster. This year it wasn't that hard to see that Wexford would get the better of their old rivals (it can't have been. I predicted it.) The continued over-estimation of Kilkenny is a kind of superstition.
Predictions that the lineaments of a future revival can be detected in the team's current performance are also ill-judged. Kilkenny are going nowhere right now as the team reels from one crisis to the next. The 2018 league final victory looks like a false dawn, the massive over-reliance on TJ Reid like a symptom of decadence.
Pretending that Brian Cody has the Cats on the right track is mere sentimentality. Some of the youngsters blooded in the last three years may become top class performers in time. But there's not as much time as there used to be. The Limerick under 21 team which defeated Kilkenny in the 2017 All-Ireland final contained Aaron Gillane, Cian Lynch, Kyle Hayes, Tom Morrissey, Peter Casey and Seán Finn.
If Kilkenny possessed prospects of the same calibre we'd have seen some sign by now. Their fallow spell looks unlikely to end any time soon.
Yet there is no clamour within the county for Brian Cody's head when a similar set of results for their fellow All-Ireland top dogs, Kerry, would have already led to the emergence of a less good humoured version of the pitchfork wielding mob which attacks the mill in Frankenstein.
Kilkenny do things differently. The quality most prized by the county's hurling fans, my late father among them, has always been an ability to keep the head and not get carried away. This coolness can be mistaken for coldness. I remember once reading an article which berated Kilkenny for not being overcome with joy after winning an All-Ireland. Why were they such boring bastards? Where was their carnival spirit? Didn't they care?
In terms of missing the point, this was up there with Meath's performance in the Leinster final. Nobody cares more than Kilkenny. They care enough not to let the emotional stuff get in the way of winning.
This sangfroid has made them the kings of the close finish and the comeback ever since they won the classic 1912 All-Ireland final against Cork by one point and followed up with wins over the same opposition by the same margin in 1939 and 1947. The greatest example of this grace under pressure may have been the denouement of the 1993 Leinster final when Kilkenny put together a move from their own end-line to set up Eamonn Morrissey's last gasp equalising point.
Such unflappability, exhibited by players, managers and fans alike, is very different from the manic depressive temperament of the Corkman, "I love being from Cork. It's the greatest place in the world . . . (70 minutes later) We're the laughing stock of the country, we're disgraced." Kilkenny also eschew the kind of internecine warfare popular when things go wrong for Tipperary.
That patented coolness in a tight spot has prevented the last few seasons from being even worse for Kilkenny. Miracle comebacks secured extra-time against Waterford in 2017 and victories over Dublin and Wexford last year. The ability to hang in there kept the losing margin to two against Limerick and one against Galway when the Cats were several points worse than the opposition.
When Kilkenny seemed to panic last week when just three points down with several minutes left, dropping scorable frees short, going for unlikely goals, it wasn't just surprising, it was as shocking as seeing Fred Astaire miss a step and fall on his arse.
Maybe Kilkenny are panicking off the field too. But it seems more likely they're taking the view that minor famines of this sort, from 1984 to 1991 and 1994 to 1999 for example, have been endured and overcome in the past.
In that case why harass, humiliate and hurt one of Kilkenny hurling's greatest servants. It's a stance which is impossible to criticise from a human point of view. And it fits in with Kilkenny's position as the great grown ups of the GAA.
Cork's County Board are so fond of talking about Corkness they even put it into the county's official masterplan. Kilkenny have too much sense for that kind of guff, but that doesn't mean there's no such thing as Kilkennyness.
They've been served well in the past by a determination to just keep playing their own best game and trusting things will eventually turn in their direction. But will it be enough to cope with the challenges of a new era?
Even a county not inclined to alarm might worry that eight All-Ireland under 21 and minor titles in the noughties have been followed by just two in the current decade, both at minor level. That's the worst underage showing by Kilkenny since the 1950s when there wasn't even an under 21 competition.
This is a problem and may explain why one contender to succeed Cody told a journalist during the week that he didn't fancy it because it would be like taking over from Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
Kilkenny are not short of excellent candidates. Eddie Brennan has confirmed the good impression created when he steered Kilkenny to their first All-Ireland under 21 final in five years (that six point 2017 defeat doesn't look bad when you look at the senior form-line) by winning the Joe McDonagh Cup with Laois. His team's performance against Dublin today may have implications for the succession race.
Then there's Henry Shefflin whose achievement in guiding Ballyhale Shamrocks to an All-Ireland club title in his first year of management has been somewhat underestimated. Ballyhale hadn't won a county title since 2014, yet few teams have won an All-Ireland with such ease, culminating with an all-time record high score in the final.
For the moment, Cody abides. He may well be smiling at claims that Limerick have moved hurling to another level and remembering the same thing being said in the run-up to Cork's 2006 All-Ireland final meeting with Kilkenny. Back then Cork were the team who'd brought preparation to a new height, so commanding it would take their rivals years to catch up.
Kilkenny won that game to begin an era of dominance previously unparalleled in hurling's history while the Rebels haven't won an All-Ireland since. Next Sunday's game isn't a final, but it does seem pivotal to the future of both counties.
Defeat for Cork could herald another managerial change in a county which has had too many of them. And a Kilkenny loss will certainly accelerate Cody's departure, even if it doesn't immediately precipitate it.
It was defeat by Cork which finished the reign in Kerry of Mick O'Dwyer, the only manager who can be compared with Cody. There would be a second act in Micko's managerial life and a third and a fourth, but you can't imagine Cody managing anyone else but Kilkenny.
Intelligent, down to earth, rational and mistrustful of grandiosity and unearned emotion, Brian Cody is the spirit of Kilkenny made flesh. How will they ever be able to let him go?
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I've had quite a lot of conversations about the GAA over the years, but I can honestly say I never heard anyone suggest that back-passing to the goalie is a burning issue in football. Yet apparently president John Horan sees it as crucially important, that this appalling practice be stamped out. Nero fiddling while Rome burned comes to mind.
Meanwhile, the club finals which have been such a success on St Patrick's Day are to be moved to the prime slot of January 5. No one thinks this is a good idea except maybe some marketing stooge in Croke Park who can't wait to replace it with a Dublin National League match under floodlights.
You could hardly get a more eloquent expression of the GAA's disdain for the club game. If it's not broke, don't fix it. And, when it comes to rule changes, if it is broke, replace the bit that's broke rather than the bit that's handy.
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