Wednesday 13 December 2017

Dynasty built on firmest of foundations

Fr Tommy Maher's influence has made Kilkenny into hurling's superpower, writes Dermot Crowe

A COUPLE of days ago, as I neared the end of an exemplary new biography of the legendary former Kilkenny coach Fr Tommy Maher by Enda McEvoy, I heard an amusing and revealing story from the national Féile hurling competition running this weekend in Dublin. The skills winner hailed from Kilkenny; there was nothing unusual or sensational in that. It was more how he won it. A determined young buck from Conahy Shamrocks, he'd left quite an impression on witnesses. A small bit of research revealed him to be Edmond Delaney.

Edmond brought a sizeable crowd from home who cheered his every deed. He gave them plenty of incentive, winning with a perfect score after a flawless maximum-points performance. According to an insert on the club's website by none other than former county manager, player and GAA president, Nickey Brennan, Edmond missed out at Féile in Galway last year and was anxious to atone. What is it about Galway's habit of spoiling Kilkenny hurling ambitions? What is it about Kilkenny's habit of having the last word?

Those who witnessed Edmond in action marvelled at his technique, and vocal support, but also the obvious dedication he demonstrated in ensuring that this time there would be no disappointing journey home to Kilkenny. Earlier in the week, he was granted permission to practise in Parnell Park -- all the better to get accustomed to the ground and surroundings in preparation for the big event on Friday.

And you think Kilkenny aren't going to be dominating hurling for some time to come?

McEvoy's gripping story of Fr Maher, who acted as a coach and innovator from the 1950s through to the late 1970s, reveals a legacy that pertains to this day. It is as relevant to Edmond Delaney as it is to Brian Cody, today preparing Kilkenny for what looks set to be a 13th Leinster title win out of the last 14. Nickey Brennan was a protégé of Fr Maher, as was Cody. Young Edmond Delaney is a protégé, to some extent, of Brennan at Conahy Shamrocks. On it goes. On and on it goes.

Recently, Maher celebrated his 90th birthday and his last title to win as Kilkenny coach was the league in 1976. He hasn't been active for a long stretch but his incredible influence will never die. By 1979, two of his greatest players, Pat Henderson and Eddie Keher, had taken over as joint managers when Kilkenny ended a three-year Cork reign by winning another All-Ireland. All of the 13 All-Irelands won once he departed were managed by players who had been fortunate to have had his schooling: Henderson, Keher, Ollie Wash, Cody.

Brennan was one of the many players fortunate to have had the benefit of Maher's hurling brain and tuition. On the cover of McEvoy's book there is a fascinating photograph taken from Nowlan Park where the priest has the rapt attention of a number of Kilkenny hurlers, including Brennan whose generous sideburns alone suggest it must be sometime in the 1970s. Brennan would later take some of that knowledge into his time managing Kilkenny. Now he takes delight in informing his fellow Conahy people of Edmond Delaney's feat at Féile. This is how the baton is passed on and how much, as McEvoy is keen to emphasise, Maher's tentacles reach on into the future and the everyday.

From that same photograph, with the priest in his garb totally wrapped in the moment, illustrating some point, hurl in his right hand, apparently doing some count with the fingers of his left, there are several Kilkenny hurlers observing respectfully who were part of one of the greatest assemblies of talent in the county. One of those, eyes fixed on the instructor, is Brian Cody; young, lean, looking every inch a hurler. The choice of photograph is not accidental. Cody was exposed to Maher's coaching from a young age and won All-Irelands under his influence. They both shared a bad day in 1978 when Maher's career finished with a defeat to Cork in the All-Ireland and it looked like Cody's had too when a trial as a full-forward backfired and he found himself in exile for a period. But Cody's career as a player was far from finished. His career as a manager would eventually exceed those achievements.

Maher's story crosses generations and appropriately given the subject matter -- the birth and evolution of hurling coaching and Maher's major hand in that -- is stylishly conveyed by McEvoy. Maher was a good hurler in his own right but while he played in the 1945 All-Ireland final, his hurling was cut short because of his clerical duties. Instead he threw himself into coaching and was recognised as one of the insightful thinkers and architects of the modern coaching courses established in Gormanston in the 1960s, along with Tony Wall, Donie Nealon and Des Ferguson.

Those who might figure Kilkenny were always this dominant will find that when Fr Maher took over as coach in the 1950s the county was going through a lean period. When he coached the team to win the All-Ireland in 1957, a match given tremendous cataclysmic significance in the biography, Maher had helped end a spell that brought only one All-Ireland -- the storied win over Cork in 1947 -- since the 1930s. The 1962 league final win was the county's first spring title since 1933. The 1966 league final win was their first over Tipperary in a national final since 1922.

To the man over the border in Ballingarry who groaned about Kilkenny's overwhelming recent dominance by stating that he'd prefer the Black and Tans, these relatively -- we stress relatively -- lean times need to be taken into account. In '67, they defeated Tipp in the All-Ireland final, a major milestone given their poor track record against the county. The old saying of 'Kilkenny for the hurling, Tipp for the men' also began to look archaic. After '67, with the exception of the 1992/'93 team, as McEvoy asserts, Kilkenny were not wanting for brawn and hardy competitors. They are certainly not found wanting on that score today.

With Fr Maher central, they won three All-Irelands in the 1960s, for the first time since the 1930s they had won more than one All-Ireland in a decade. From there did sprout the team of the 1970s, and an even more dazzling era.

Fr Maher returned to work in his alma mater, St Kieran's College, in 1955 and began a lifetime devoted to teaching and hurling coaching. An extract from the school record in 1958 is published in his biography and illustrates why young lads like Edmond Delaney win Féile awards and older generals like Cody continue to want to win more. To quote: "It is no exaggeration to say that the main interest of the average student of St Kieran's, outside his work, is hurling: he plays it, if he can; and in any case, he thinks about it, talks about it, reads about it, dreams about it."

Even St Kieran's were going through a bad run when Fr Maher came back following a spell as a curate in Dublin. St Kieran's returned as a force under his guidance and from there on played a significant role in feeding successful Kilkenny teams. Of the four-in-a-row team, 15 of the 24 players who had some part to play in the four All-Ireland finals were former students of the college.

In trying to understand why Cody never seems to tire of winning or contesting championships and leagues, even Walsh Cups, you might consider a line from Tommy Walsh, the lavishly skilled hurler whose career was tragically cut short when he lost an eye arising from an incident in the 1967 All-Ireland final against Tipperary. Walsh says of Maher that he "never lost the thrill of hurling".

You could say the same about Cody. He is well capable of articulating the grip the game has on him and the game's importance, for its own sake, beyond the narrow cult and considerations of individuals and personalities. But he isn't, as he once said, a great man for looking back. Recounting the 1999 All-Ireland final defeat, in his first year as manager, to this newspaper the following February, he said: "You can pull yourself apart thinking about it but you must live for next year. For this year."

That day in 1999 when Cork came back to win, Fr Maher was at Croke Park but a companion noticed he didn't feel well and after coming home he suffered a stroke. He never recovered the same health. The next year Cody gained his vengeance and since then the hurling world has been in the grip of Kilkenny. McEvoy's book contains a line from Liam Griffin who overheard some disconsolate Offaly fan exiting Croke Park state: "Feck those Kilkenny lads, they want to win everything." As McEvoy observes: "Under Brian Cody, they learned to cope with winning as naturally as they'd been accustomed to coping with losing."

This book makes sense of that obsession. It explains why Edmond Delaney won the Féile and why it meant the world to him and to the proud people of Conahy who followed him every step of the way. And why Edmond and Brian Cody and all who swear allegiance to Kilkenny, in the spirit of Fr Maher, will never take what they have for granted.

Sunday Indo Sport

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport