'He taught me in 4th, 5th and 6th class - even then he had an aura' - Jackie Tyrrell on 'hurling god' Brian Cody
Brian Cody eyes up his charges, trying to sense any weakness or slippage from the previous day.
Accustomed to his high standards, there isn’t a murmur around him, but he is wary of a couple of lads who are fond of chatting while he is trying to get his message across.
Cody mans the room like a roving patrol, holding in his hand, not a hurl, but a wooden metre stick, cracking it against a stool whenever he feels that attention is waning.
The explanation for the unusual apparatus is simple: this isn’t Brian Cody, the legendary hurling manager, keeping order on the training pitch – that would come later – but Brian Cody, the primary school teacher, who Kilkenny great Jackie Tyrrell shared a classroom with in 4th, 5th and 6th class.
“It was just the threat of the metre stick, it was like a hurl in his hand!,” Tyrrell says, remembering Cody’s looming disciplinary tactic.
“He commands huge respect in the dressing room, in the classroom, in the club and in hurling circles. He has been the man and he was constant throughout the club and my Kilkenny career.
“He has been there since primary school and even then he had this aura about him. You can imagine him with a 6ft 2 frame and a little kid looking up at him, and that’s kind of the way it has always been.
“Back then he was a hurling god because he had won All-Irelands already – I didn’t think that he would be managing Kilkenny and that I would be playing with him. I never thought that in my wildest dreams. You knew that there was something special with this man.”
Tyrrell shared his memories of being taught by Cody in his excellent new book ‘The Warrior’s Code’, which gives readers the most revealing insight yet into the Kilkenny’s boss’ managerial style.
He paints an illuminating picture of a ruthless, hurling-obsessed individual who drives standards while keeping players at a distance – so that when the time comes, it will be easier to cut them loose.
The four-time All Star corner back stepped away from the inter-county game after the 2016 All-Ireland hurling final defeat to Tipperary, a campaign where Tyrrell barely saw any game time, despite – as it is painstakingly chronicled in the book – his dedication to getting his body into peak physical condition for what he expected to be his final season in the black and amber.
One line from Tyrrell is telling when he describes how he shuts himself away from the outside world during the championship.
“If I have to piss people off to the point of annoyance, I don’t really care.”
Thankfully for Tyrrell’s sake, retirement has seen him leave some of those hurling compulsions aside.
“My fiancée says I used to be like a crazed lunatic running around because I was always on the clock – trying to rest, trying to get to the gym and the whole lot,” he says.
“I’ve chilled out completely and you have to because you’ll burn yourself out eventually. The club mentality is different, you would only get bitter with people if you expected with the club what you expected with Kilkenny, and I was very conscious of that.”
Despite their unmatched medal record, Irish sports fans respected, rather than adored, Tyrrell’s Kilkenny side. Part of that was down to how they steamrolled their competition for years, but another reason was undoubtedly down to how little the players gave of themselves in public.
Since leaving the Kilkenny set-up, Tyrrell has shown himself to be an opinionated TV pundit on The Sunday Game, as well as a thoughtful newspaper columnist.
He explains that he and his Kilkenny team-mates were happy to trade fame, or the public getting to know the dressing room characters, for a sackload of All-Ireland medals.
“When I was doing the book Christy [Christy O’Connor, the book’s ghostwriter] actually said to me that people thought we were faceless in Kilkenny when we were winning All-Irelands,” Tyrrell said.
“That didn’t bother us, we didn’t care if we were in the media. Then I was I telling the stories and he said, ‘you actually were some great characters’.”
But take Tommy Walsh – nine All Stars and nine All-Ireland medals but few outside of his inner circle would have known just how magnetic he is when colourfully talking up his sport, which he does with rapid-fire enthusiasm on Newstalk these days.
Is there not something sad about the fact that hurling fans had to wait almost a decade to discover that the four in-a-row team was actually filled with characters? Was anything really gained from the players shielding their personalities from the public?
“If you asked Tommy he wouldn’t change it for the world, he has his All Stars and his All-Ireland medals,” Tyrrell said.
“For the general public, maybe it is a loss that they didn’t know Tommy for those ten or 15 years, but for Tommy, that wouldn’t bother him.”
In his book, Tyrrell talks of the self-confidence he has now, but his autobiography almost reads like two stories – before Brother Damien and after.
When Tyrrell first broke onto the Kilkenny panel, and even when he captained the team to All-Ireland glory in 2006, he was plagued with self-doubt, certain that he was the fifteenth name on Brian Cody’s team-sheet, and equally sure that the opposition felt the same.
One day, a friend put him in touch with Brother Damien Brennan, the former All-Ireland-winning minor hurling manager with Kilkenny, who changed Tyrrell’s life and career through coaching, sports psychology and physiotherapy – although Brother Damien probably wouldn’t describe it as such.
“He is a really unassuming guy who works away in the background and a great friend who has never asked for any money or anything off me,” Tyrrell says.
“He is a Christian Brother and loves getting the best out of people. I was honest with him like I hadn’t been honest with anyone before, about my doubts, about my fears and the bad days I had at minor and U21. We just started talking and it allowed me to be me, and stop trying to just please the supporters. He said do it for yourself.
“We built up a level of trust and I just started to play well then. I didn’t know exactly how it was working but I knew it was working. I could feel myself getting more confident and if I had a bad day, I was able to forget about it whereas before I would be hung up on it for a week. I still meet him now.”
The new outlook honed by Brother Damien allowed Tyrrell to thrive in the Kilkenny set-up rather than merely survive. Suddenly, he started to relish the famous Nowlan Park training matches, another element of the Cody era that readers get an unprecedented insight into.
The chapter is ominously titled ‘Savagery’, and Tyrrell doesn’t hold back when describing the friendly fire that would go on – Cody would often blow frees for pushes in the back and jersey tugs; wild pulls and helmet grabs? Not so much.
“The matches used to be so quick, because there was so much action and no whistle was really blown,” Tyrrell says.
“Some of the times Brian would say that we are only doing three or four ten minute sessions but you would come off the field absolutely shattered. There was a feeling inside you – there is no way that Waterford or Cork could throw anything at us that we haven’t endured there.
“The guys who were subs knew they had a chance because Brian would spring one of them every so often, even in an All-Ireland if a guy hadn’t played all year. Brian would sometimes bring us in, and then you knew, because he would say ‘the team is going to be picked on tonight. The team is going to be picked on tonight.’ You knew that 11 or 12 names were locked in but lads would do anything to be on the team.
“As people would say, you can go to all the club games you want but go over to Nowlan Park and see the 30 best hurlers in Kilkenny go at it for 40 minutes.”
After describing Kilkenny’s hunger for the physical battle and his own on-pitch misdeeds at length throughout his book, it begs a straightforward, if somewhat awkward, closing question - was Jackie Tyrrell a dirty player?
“I wouldn’t say I was dirty – I think I played hard and fair,” he answers emphatically.
“Sometimes I stepped over the line, sometimes I didn’t. I’d like to think I gave as good as I got. I played with physicality. I played hard - and I played fair.”