Wednesday 18 September 2019

Roy Curtis: 'If they were cities, Brian Cody and Alex Ferguson would long ago have been twinned'

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody is congratulated by Barry Hickey, the Kilkenny County Board Treasurer
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody is congratulated by Barry Hickey, the Kilkenny County Board Treasurer

Roy Curtis

BENEATH the baseball cap, perched like a peaked crown on his warrior dome, lurks the apple-cheeked colossus; the eternal, unbending, ferocious king of the longest days.

Brian Cody is the Irish summer: A microclimate of insatiable yearning, the weather of his lined, all-seeing face as powerful and intimidating as any tropical storm.

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We could call him hurling's Methuselah, except Cody might think the Book of Genesis' biblical ancient something of a quitter for leaving the stage at the age of just 969.

If they were cities, Cody and Alex Ferguson, duplicates of competitive will, would long ago have been twinned.

Two men born for the coliseum, ravenous sideline gladiators, one-eyed, incapable of suffering fools, most vitally alive in those moments when another epic sporting symphony unspools toward a conclusion, winning as essential as oxygen to their existence.

Kilkenny's black and amber sultan and the old Glaswegian laird share more than just listed building longevity and a veteran prizefighter's enslavement to life inside the ropes.

There is, too, their unrivalled dominion, the capacity to construct a succession of athletic dynasties, to build teams in their likeness: Ravenous, merciless, manly crews genetically incapable of taking a backward step.

Cody has accumulated 35 pieces of gold in his two decade sovereignty without ever providing even a microscopic trace of evidence that he or his players are remotely satisfied, that the foot could ever ease even slightly off the gas.

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And here he comes again, pacing the sideline with atavistic magnificence, the alpha male of another rousing, life-affirming and visceral All-Ireland semi-final Mardi Gras.

What a weekend it was.

Tipp, resurgent, heroic, a fusion of Ronan Maher belligerence and Noel McGrath elegance, declining to bow to the most unpromising odds and gloriously reconnecting with their people.

Limerick, downed champions, even Shane Dowling's goal of a lifetime insufficient to prevent the untouchable Achilles of 2018, taking a Kilkenny arrow to the heel.

Wexford, their beautiful infatuation unrequited for a 23rd year, but heading to autumn with a storehouse of upbeat remembrances and the dearly held hope that Davy Fitz will not switch off the light of his passion just yet.

Yet, of all the vivid snapshots from the primal and enervating two game festival, Cody's rapturous face must be the screensaver from 24 hours for the ages.

How does he do it?

What combination of wisdom, wit, intuition, oratorical skills and force of personality, enables him to reach down and locate the dials at the competitive core of an athlete?

How is it that time and time again he can transform a group of young men into an unstoppable tsunami of craving, a band of brothers who reach a pitch of intensity rarely witnessed beyond the battlefields of armed conflict?

It is an astonishing gift.  Were the Oxford English Dictionary ever to bring out a specific Kilkenny edition, they would have to leave a blank space where the words "surrender", "quit" and "underachieve" normally reside.

Even with the inestimable TJ Reid or Eoin Murphy's unnatural, fast-twitch reactions, any sensible springtime preview of this summer could hardly make a logical case for the Cats being among the last two teams standing.

Yet, here they are, heading to another All-Ireland final, Cork and Limerick's tattered standards at their feet.

Cody has known Liam McCarthy Cup glory 11 times as a manger. Yet a compelling argument can be made for last Saturday's astonishingly constructed ambush of Limerick representing the crowning glory of a lifetime of accomplishment so vast that his likeness could legitimately cover the entire limestone acreage of an Irish Mount Rushmore.

The manic intensity of Kilkenny's display as much as the tactical masterclass (breaking news, Cody not only does tactics, he has a PhD in the scientific subtleties of his chosen code) broke the All-Ireland champions.

One consequence of their two decade hegemony is that neutrals tend to align themselves to Cody's opponents – even when, in this case, Limerick, as All-Ireland, Munster and league champions, could hardly be described as underdogs.

But Kilkenny's refusal to bow was so awe-inspiring, their feral pursuit of every ball at such an eyeball-popping pitch that it could not but win over any connoisseur of superior sport.

They were less a team than a force-field of hunger, sparking, flaming with enough energy to power the national grid.

Their was an abundance of higher grade skill and touch from Reid's absurd capacity to fetch ball from the air to Adrian Mullen's moving into the next dimension of wonder.

But it was the almost demented desire with which they went about their task that was most impressive.

On the sideline was the author of all this magnificent madness, the timeless, insatiable manic street preacher.

Cody, with that leftover tic from his playing days, spat into his palms as if preparing for the arrival of the next high ball around the square.  He patrolled the rectangle of space in front of the Kilkenny bench with the menace of a jungle cat making out his territory.  

With the electricity almost visibly surging through his body, he looked, in that moment, more alive than any creature on the planet.

Unbending, coursing with adrenalin, ferociously protective of the title deeds to summer.

After all these years, Croke Park was still his house and he remained king of the longest days.

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