Ahead of kerry's golden age
The Thursday evening before the 2006 All-Ireland final, Henry Shefflin rang Jack O'Shea for a chat.
Shefflin had got to know O'Shea from a charity trip to Malawi that January, but their conversation this time around was strictly business. Shefflin had already played in five All-Ireland senior finals by then, but he wanted the advice of someone who had played in eight finals.
"To me, Henry Shefflin is the greatest hurler of all time," says O'Shea now. "And yet a player that good still wanted to better himself. He wanted to hear how I felt going into All-Ireland finals. How I used to approach them. It was unique."
Shefflin is unique, but he is the emblem of a side which now stands on the threshold of becoming the greatest GAA team in history. For nearly three decades, that accolade has belonged to the great Kerry football team which won eight All-Ireland titles in 12 years.
Yet this Kilkenny side have also won eight All-Irelands in the same timespan and they're odds-on to win another one this season. The chance of them winning even more All-Irelands in the coming years also seems more of a probability than a possibility.
It could even be argued that Kilkenny have already earned the right to be considered the greatest GAA team ever. Kerry won three league titles under Mick O'Dwyer, while Kilkenny have won six under Brian Cody. It may have been harder back then for Kerry to sustain their yearly programme, but Kerry's win-loss ratio in the league between 1976 and 1987 was 62pc. Under Cody, Kilkenny's win-loss ratio is 77pc.
For Kilkenny now, though, the act of winning is greater than the titles and the glory that winning brings. All-Irelands aren't the final destination; they're just staging posts along their great journey, where every performance, every win counts for something.
"I think the two teams are very similar," says O'Shea. "When I went on to the pitch, my mentality was that you always perform to your best, and that was the mentality of our team. That was the same no matter who the opposition were, no matter how much you were winning or losing by. It's that mentality of never easing up.
"That stems from the training field. In turn, that also stems from pressure coming from the sidelines because you know you can't afford to lapse or you're out. Brian Cody can afford not to tolerate any messing -- there is so much competition there that the mentality of a group like that is unbelievably strong. Those Kilkenny lads probably feel that they can go on to a field and tackle anybody and deal with anything that is thrown at them.
"Like we were, I see a bunch of guys full of confidence. Kilkenny are just fully focused and nothing deters them. When you're on a team like that, you're just on the crest of a wave. You don't think about anything else except your next game. It doesn't matter what happens, you know that one hiccup, you'll lose your place, but the team still won't be affected."
Similar to Kerry, none of Kilkenny's success has been a secret. They do tactics and they strategically prepare for the opposition, but there are no special drills or moves. Training is open to the public and every spy who travels to unlock the Cats formula comes away with the sensation of how basic it is.
Yet, the more transparent and plain that Kilkenny's success is, the more mysterious it seems to be. But they have that core philosophy that defines all great teams: the importance of the group always comes before the ego of the individual.
"You'll always have very, very good individuals in a team," says Ronnie Whelan, who won 13 major honours with the great Liverpool team. "But if you only have very, very good individuals who just want to be individuals, you won't have a team. We had outstanding individuals like (Kenny) Dalglish, (Graeme) Souness, (Alan) Hansen, (Ian) Rush, but the team always came first with them.
"What great teams have is when you can look around the dressing-room and think, 'I can trust him'. So you go on a pitch thinking, 'If he has a bad game, we'll all help him out'. Maybe then if you have a bad game, you know that they'll all help you out. Once you know deep down that everyone is going to pull in the one direction, you know that the team is going to be very hard to beat."
In that organic system, a pervasive and continuous culture of winning grows stronger all the time. It is what Kilkenny expect and it is what their fans expect. That expectation was always there in the county, but this group have taken it to a whole new level.
"The psychology in Kilkenny is that you always have to win All-Irelands, no matter what era you're in," says Billy Fitzpatrick, who won five All-Irelands with Kilkenny in the 1970s and '80s. "You have to be capable of going up there and winning at least three All-Irelands in a decade. If you're not doing that, people get very unhappy. If you don't come up to that mark, you're seen as a failure.
"This team have set a new benchmark. This is one of the greatest teams to have played sport at any level. The biggest thing I see with their mentality is that they realise how important it is to make history. When we were playing, it was only when we were finished that we realised that we could've won three-in-a-row. This crowd want to be the best ever and that's the key difference: they know it now, rather than realising it down the road."
Kilkenny will always produce quality hurlers, but new players still grow quickly from being hot-housed from a training environment dominated by some of the best hurlers to ever play the game. Just as importantly though, young players quickly learn the standards great teams demand.
"I learned very quickly from Phil Thompson and those type of players," says Whelan. "The young players soon find out that this is all about a team. And if you want to be part of that, you've got to pull like the rest of us. When outsiders came in to our team, they were accepted. But if they didn't buy into the team ethic, they were ostracised very quickly. I'm sure the young players in Kilkenny realise that they won't be there very long if they don't buy into that team mentality."
That much is guaranteed. This Kilkenny team have achieved everything possible, but their most important legacy lies not simply in the medals won or the glory gained -- it is about the attitude that has been instilled, the standards demanded -- the example set by the Kilkenny squad as an entity.
"Young players in Kilkenny now really want to emulate their heroes," says Richie Mulrooney, the current Kilkenny U-21 manager, and who also managed the 2008 and 2010 All-Ireland winning teams. "The lads that I have dealt with from '08 to 2010, not only is the U-21 championship on their mind, they very much want to get in on the Kilkenny senior panel. They want to be noticed by Brian Cody and they will apply themselves to do whatever it takes in the way they look after themselves. Socially, they don't want anything else only to get that Kilkenny jersey."
Last Sunday's league final success seems to have confirmed that Cody's Kilkenny are already the greatest GAA team ever. Yet their greatness is still being written.