Cody still keeping the faith
Cats' boss looks to his most trusted warriors to deliver once more, writes Damian Lawlor
JUST over 28 minutes had passed in the 2002 Leinster hurling final when Brian Cody summoned Eddie Brennan over to the sideline.
With a finger jabbing, the Kilkenny manager gave his young forward a roasting for missing a few balls, and the insinuation was clear: there would be no second half unless things picked up.
Back then, 'Fast Eddie' hadn't a blue-chip share in the team and despite the obvious raw talent at his disposal, some supporters doubted him. He had been in and out of the side since his maiden campaign in 2000, coming into the fray in the All-Ireland final and bagging a goal, starting regularly the next season but often substituted -- a trend that continued up to 2004.
When you analyse it, though, Brennan had really come from nowhere and just needed breathing space. He hadn't even cracked the Graigue-Ballycallan seniors when Cody sounded for him and was still only learning his trade when he stepped up for his inter-county debut.
But once you get to clock in at Nowlan Park, there is no respite. Brennan was pacy, exciting and left defenders trailing in his wake. Some of his goals were unstoppable but all that wasn't quite enough to silence his critics, who felt he picked the wrong club at times and lacked the aggression needed for the top.
With every substitution there was a sense that management's faith in him was beginning to sway a little, especially in the wake of unexpected departures of big names such as Philly Larkin, Brian McEvoy and Charlie Carter, and Pat O'Neill, Stephen Grehan and Denis Byrne just before them; all experienced players who lost their positions and either moved -- or were moved -- on.
When you consider Brennan's most recent stats, though, it's hard to believe that the guy was ever under pressure. In Kilkenny's last 18 championship games, he has started 17 and finished 13. He didn't feature in the 2006 opener against Westmeath but has only missed a further 45 minutes of the team's four-in-a-row drive. Any early doubts about his pedigree have long since disappeared and he's now one of the top five forwards in the game.
Earlier in his career, he got flak for only managing one point in two All-Ireland finals but in the three latest deciders, he has smashed home 0-3 against Tipperary, 2-4 against Waterford and 1-5 against Limerick. His overall stats are even more impressive; 24-59 from play in 41 championship outings. And yet, if some Kilkenny folk had their way early in his tenure, he wouldn't have been around to achieve such feats.
"Well, I don't look back much because there's no point," he says, "but the 2004 final was one that didn't go great for me. I hit a few wides and probably missed 1-3 or 1-4 that day. But you move on."
He certainly did that; there are seven All-Ireland senior medals in his bag, four All Stars and he's not finished yet. This is not a mere critique of his career, however. There's a more pressing point to all of this. And it's one that is sometimes overlooked.
Cody is relentlessly depicted as this ruthless, no-nonsense boss who bares his teeth and discards players once they suffer even the slightest dip in form. With a herd of young colts stamping their hoofs on the sidelines, waiting for their chance, there's this theory that he can drop whoever he wants, when he wants.
Brennan's early days would suggest otherwise.
Rather than reject Eddie way back then, Cody actually acknowledged his potential and helped harness it. The Graigue-Ballycallan forward duly upped his game and delivered.
This year, we could see another dividend paid back to the manager from one Noel Hickey. As brilliant a full-back as Hickey is, he could have been left behind by Cody after the non-stop catalogue of injuries he has endured. Indeed, if Cody was half as brutal as his misleading public image suggests, the Dunnamaggin man would have been thanked for his efforts, Brian Hogan would revert to full-back and Paddy Hogan would take the No 6 shirt.
But he wasn't forgotten; instead he was coaxed along and is itching for action against the Dubs today.
"In the last few weeks, with all the troops back together, I was thinking of the likes of Noel Hickey," Brennan smiles. "He's going to be a key player for us this year because the poor 'oul divil is so hungry to make up for lost time. He had an awful going over fitness-wise in the past few seasons but he has got himself into a position where he's top notch again after a tailor-made fitness programme. He's a man you want going into trenches and Brian Cody has a lot of faith in him as well."
If Brennan and Hickey are still hungry after all these years and trophies, their attitude is merely mirrored in Jackie Tyrrell, another player who was under massive pressure when he first donned the black-and-amber shirt.
The initial perception was that Tyrrell was a chink in the defence; a half-back who lacked the clout of a wily corner-back. With JJ Delaney injured, he was drafted into the team in 2006 as captain, but as the season unfolded, he was stuck on a Kilkenny 'B' team in training and dropped for the All-Ireland quarter-final with Galway.
Once again, however, Cody stayed loyal and Tyrrell was recalled to play a fine game in the '06 final. From there he's matured into a colossus, a ferocious defender who has made the corner his own, starting and finishing all four All-Ireland finals and even registering a crucial point in last year's decider.
Through sheer work rate, determination and increased skill levels, Tyrrell retained the belief of his manager. And like Brennan, he continues to pay back. Since being dropped for that Galway encounter, he hasn't missed a moment of the four-in-a-row and has tightened considerably, developing into one of the game's finest corner-backs.
Outsiders might wonder how these guys can remain so motivated year after year, but, in Tyrrell's case, this time around it's probably as simple as trying to atone for a poor league. Brennan, who married his wife, Olivia Ryan, shortly before Christmas and missed that spring campaign, would concur with that sentiment.
"We lost three games and while everyone else might be saying that we were looking at the bigger picture, you can't just go through the motions either and hope to switch on in the championship," he says.
"So this year, more than ever, the first round against Dublin is key. If we're not tuned in for that we're in trouble. Missing a few wins during the league was a worry because, under Brian Cody, it's been a while since we lost three games in one campaign. The whole squad needs to start performing because no one is going to do it for us. We know that our places will be under pressure if we don't show up well."
Is that really the case, though?
Apart from TJ Reid's constant banging on the door for a place and the arrival of the easy-scoring John Mulhall, not too many Kilkenny youngsters have put their hands up for selection this time around.
And, after showing little mercy during the early part of his reign, indications are that Cody, nowadays, leans more towards his tried and trusted players rather than shelving them.
Martin Comerford, for example, endured a dip last year, but Cody's dependence on him was unflappable and what an impact he subsequently had in the Leinster and All-Ireland finals. The same with Eoin Larkin: had he been discarded after a few shaky opening acts, we would never have seen him prosper. Instead, Cody slowly let him flourish and showed great understanding by recognising what he brought to the table.
Before he went away on a six-month peace-keeping stint in Kosovo in 2007, Larkin spoke to his manager and the feeling was that he might struggle with his weight while away. So he ran a series of 10kms, pumped weights six nights a week and, upon his return to Ireland, went straight back into the team. Later that season, he hit 3-28 and won the Hurler of the Year award.
From being a bit-part player who failed to capture the imagination and frequently found himself benched, Larkin has started each of Kilkenny's 18 championship outings over the past four seasons. That's some turnaround, considering he was substituted in five of his first six games.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent about his early career some years ago, Larkin revealed how he pledged to improve each time he was substituted, but it didn't always work. Tellingly, he added that Cody never lost belief in him, merely encouraged him to do more.
"I definitely wasn't going to sulk because the management had faith in me and you could see that," he says. It was up to me to show them that I should play."
If a young, emerging player like Larkin was worried about his position, he could surely have drawn inspiration from the case of Mick Kavanagh, one of the most dependable defenders around. Even the best suffer a blip from time to time and Kavanagh hit his rough patch in 2006, losing his place for two games.
It happened shortly after the manager had dropped his own son Donnacha and team captain Tyrrell from the defence. People rightly feared for Kavanagh but the St Lachtain's man, a decorated warrior, held his counsel and soon reclaimed his spot. Like Tyrrell and Brennan, he has gone on to perform one of the more comprehensive roles in the four-in-a-row series, managing just over 1,000 minutes' hurling in 16 matches.
Out of the seven Kilkenny players who have featured most since 2006, four of them -- despite being top-drawer hurlers -- were under pressure at one stage or another. Had Cody really been that ruthless they might have been cast adrift. But he displayed astute management skills with each one.
And yet this tired, old perception remains that he is bullish and merciless. At the end of spring, for example, it was reported that Cody summoned his players to a crisis meeting and rammed home a few truths. Brennan says this wasn't the case.
"There was no law laid down, as far as I know," he said. "We went back with our clubs and trained with the county team too. No one was warned or anything like that. Yeah, we were all concerned alright, but that's only normal."
This afternoon, Cody's most trusted warriors march back into action against Dublin, standing just four games from history and he's understandably happy with this elite, highly skilled and ferociously committed bunch. He may have been hard-nosed and cold-blooded at times, and those traits could well reappear today, but don't forget he's also shown great subtlety and tolerance along the way too.
He always does what's best for the team. That shouldn't be forgotten.