Monday 19 August 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'All-Ireland final sideline subplot adds new twist to old rivalry'


Best of enemies: Brian Cody and Liam Sheedy after Kilkenny’s 2009 victory which the Tipp boss would ultimately avenge a year later – something Cody will be reminded of on Sunday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Best of enemies: Brian Cody and Liam Sheedy after Kilkenny’s 2009 victory which the Tipp boss would ultimately avenge a year later – something Cody will be reminded of on Sunday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Ten years on then, he'll see that same old, peak-capped silhouette down the line, still islanded and austere; timeless.

They will stand maybe 30 yards apart, deep in their own worlds but achingly aware of one another.

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Nearly two decades separate them in age as well as, Liam Sheedy will aver, a vast infinity of achievement. As hurling's new ecosystem throws up the oldest storyline, it feels as if the game still orbits around Brian Cody, new plots, new people all trying in vain to break him.

But the last time these two shook hands on All-Ireland final day, Sheedy triumphed.

He stepped away immediately after, Tipp falling straight back into an old habit against Kilkenny, losing championship meetings through the next four summers.

If they then won the 2016 final under Michael Ryan's baton, the arithmetic in Cody's time billows with bad memories for Tipp.

In microcosm: Ten championship games - seven Kilkenny wins, two for Tipp, one draw. Five National League finals - all Kilkenny wins.

So Sheedy returns, so much cargo to box up and seal, so much sediment from the past to rinse away. His strength? The ability to do precisely what Andy Comerford once said of Cody. To "make men of lads".

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Ryan soldiered with the Portroe man for those three epochal years between 2008 and '10, returned alongside Eamon O'Shea between '13 and '15, then hit the jackpot himself in '16, Seamie Callanan bagging that near unfathomable 0-9 from play in the All-Ireland final.

He knows comparisons between a man chasing his 12th crown as manager and one chasing just his second might seem a hopeless Tipp conceit. Yet the fascination is unavoidable.

"The thing to remember is that Liam Sheedy is not a new manager," Ryan reflected this week.

"He's not wet behind the ears. He stepped out of management, but he wasn't away from the game. He's been an observer and, I'd imagine, an admirer of what Cody has done.

"Listen, I doubt either of them gives a s**t about who is standing down the line from them on Sunday.

"But it is a nice little sideshow. We have the master who has endured for 21 years coming up against what we in Tipp would see as the single, best appointment we could have made to get the ship back on an even keel."

For both, the cranking of an old catapult then. Cody's endurance is an astonishing story in itself, testimony to an obstinacy still refusing to bend to new fads and fashions. But maybe to the gift of seeing behind a hurler's eyes too.

Some of the greatest men we've watched will tell you a kind word from the florid-faced general could make them all but levitate.

He rations such kindnesses wickedly, of course. Former Kilkenny goalkeeper David Herity tells a story about retiring and meeting the great man for a farewell.

"We sat there for two hours reminiscing," Herity recalled in January 2017. "But he never thanked me for anything, never gave me one compliment. The closest he got to it is when he said, 'You had a good run of things!' I was thinking, 'Yeah, but say something, give me a hug or something!'"

It has long been a curious genius of Cody's that the more affection is withheld, the more fiercely his players chase it. Pleasing the master has long been the most powerful compulsion in a Kilkenny dressing-room.

Even Henry Shefflin, the greatest of all Cody's lieutenants down the years, spoke of feeling "a strange disconnect" from the manager as his county days petered out in 2014.

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Henry Shefflin (right) with Brian Cody (left).

Tommy Walsh, Shefflin admits, endured precisely the same scenario that summer.

Friendship is a strictly abstract concept between Cody and his players then. But not so loyalty. From the day in '98 that he succeeded his first cousin Kevin Fennelly as Kilkenny manager, no jersey has been defended more fiercely than that black and amber stripe.

How exactly?

By Cody demanding terms of engagement in training that some would blanch at even in the white heat of championship.

Tommy Walsh still says one of his favourite wins came in that summer of '14, the light fading palpably on his days as a county man. On a weekend away in Carton House before the drawn final with Tipp, the 'B's beat the 'A's in a riotously contested training game.

The 'B's half-forward line that afternoon? Walsh, Shefflin and Richie Power.

Sheedy's management style is warmer, maybe more holistic. Yet, for all that, it is franked too by a recognition that this is a pitiless environment, demanding standards that cannot be negotiable. Brendan Cummins recalls a wretched winter's night in late '08 and the new Tipp manager arriving unannounced to check on players doing a gym session in Clonmel's Hotel Minella.

That same night, Noel McGrath revealed he'd also pitched up in Limerick where others were committed to train.

Sheedy is resolutely demanding of players then, but his communication is warmer than Cody's. Socially, he has always been comfortable in their company too and, even after departing the scene in '10, he kept lines of communication open with many.

Lar Corbett admits that he cried that October day nine years back when the text came through confirming the departure of Tipp's management team.

Ryan suggests that people who know Sheedy in his career with Bank of Ireland will know precisely why he makes a good hurling manager.

"There's just this positivity that Liam brings," he reflects. "Stretching people, taking them outside their comfort zones, always looking to improve. Always. Never settling for mediocrity or acceptance that you've reached your capacity. If that's your mindset, change it or you'll be left behind.

"Just to understand the man, you'd want to understand what he's like in his own career. Because it's entirely consistent with how he would be running Tipperary. Total belief and an absolute competitor. He'd be very clued into where's the glass ceiling for a fella.

"How far can he push and drive to get more out of him."

Sheedy has also put in place a management team without any apparent oversights.

Having secured the coveted return of O'Shea as coach alongside Tommy Dunne and Darragh Egan in February, the recent additions of Eoin Kelly and Darren Gleeson hint at a determination to leave no stone unturned.

For Cody, the wisdom of former Laois footballer Michael Dempsey has been a fundamental of Kilkenny's preparation through the last 15 years.

Head of the Sports Academy and Sport and Exercise Programme at Carlow IT, Dempsey's endless thirst for information ensures that Kilkenny's physical conditioning continues to be based on cutting-edge standards.

There has been a growing recognition too, even from Cody himself recently, that the tactical side of the game has become increasingly refined.

Deep down, however, Cody still believes that the most precious quality available to any group is an embrace of personal responsibility.

In his book, 'The Warrior's Code', Jackie Tyrrell offers maybe the starkest insight to the Kilkenny manager's credo ever seen.

"You could be coming out with a ball but once you'd go past a player, you'd have no problem just belting him with the hurley and just carrying on," wrote Tyrrell of Kilkenny training.

"It was vicious stuff. Physical assault with a weapon. High balls were often seen as open season.

"Brian always loved being in the middle of the anarchy during training matches, roaring and shouting at lads for even more anarchy, more war. 'There are some unbelievable scores,' he'd often roar. 'But this place needs to be a war-zone. There is no war here. WELL, BRING IT!'

"If someone went down with a really bad injury and couldn't play on, the battle never stopped. Brian would hardly even look over."

Ferocity

Marrying that ferocity to the sublime skills of some of the greatest hurlers ever seen, like Shefflin, Walsh, JJ Delaney, Eoin Larkin and, today, TJ Reid, has set a forbidding template now drawing Cody towards his 16th All-Ireland final as manager.

Sheedy knows those figures dwarf his own after a decade out of the maelstrom.

Yet, it was his Tipp side that chased down the greatest of all Cody's teams and Ryan doesn't doubt his determination to now go and do so again.

"We have this fantastic rivalry with Kilkenny, timeless as far as I'm concerned," he says.

"When you can talk to your father, your grandfather if they're alive, any of the older people, they love this rivalry. There have been times when it was really knife-edge stuff. The 2013 All-Ireland qualifier down in Nowlan Park was as edgy as I've ever seen it in terms of atmosphere. We just have that ability to spark each other and irk each other.

"Maybe people got sick of looking at Kilkenny-Tipp, but we were never sick of looking at each other. These are games you have to go to the depths of your soul in.

"And, trust me, nobody understands that better than Liam."

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