Thursday 12 December 2019

Kilkenny's unprecedented odyssey couldn't last forever

Time caught up on Brian Cody's Cats last year but for how long, asks Damian Lawlor

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody

Damian Lawlor

THEY were the greatest hurling team we have ever seen. Kilkenny of the noughties; a side defined by unprecedented excellence, habitual success and rare consistency. They amassed unparalleled riches and drew us into their magnificent obsession throughout a decade and beyond. It's probable we will never see their likes again.

Eddie Brennan has told a story that encapsulates much of what they were about. Shortly before they played Galway in the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final, Brennan decided to make a good impression on his manager Brian Cody by turning up early for training. In their opening two games, they had walloped Offaly and Wexford by a combined 29 points, but Brennan had managed only three points of that total and was anxious about his position coming into the All-Ireland series.

He left work and headed for Nowlan Park, where training was to start at 7.30pm. He arrived shortly after six, let the car seat back and closed his eyes for 20 minutes before grabbing a bottle of Lucozade Sport and munching a few Jaffa Cakes. He walked in, togged out, got a rub and made his way onto the field at around 6.50pm smiling contentedly as he passed Cody at the gate. The manager, after all, would often tell him to 'go in and hit a few balls'.

When Brennan reached the field, however, the self-satisfied grin was wiped from his face. "I looked down and saw four to five lads driving balls at each other and putting them over the bar on the turn.

"Worse still, they were all subs, and, worst of all, they were all forwards looking for my place. It wasn't even seven o'clock. I bit my teeth and said, 'Feck it, they're trying to steal a march on me here".'

As the sun set, those subs were still going at it hammer and tongs. Nowlan Park was a bear pit that bred and cultivated a ruthless, winning culture. You could never forget that. Brennan duly took note: "Let's just say I was even earlier the next day."

He had four All-Ireland medals in the cabinet by then but had never felt able to assume ownership of the jersey. His team-mates – especially those after his place in the team – were too unrelenting, their unwavering quest for perfection too great.

The heroes of that team embarked on an odyssey few others in the history of Gaelic games could dream of. The road they negotiated between 2000 and 2013 was dotted with glorious milestones, and though in 2013 they seemed submerged by a new wave, perhaps the odyssey did not end there. Even if it did, they can always claim they had achieved mighty deeds and crashed all manner of records.

"Before the 1999 All-Ireland final, I made the statement that I expected us to win seven out of the next ten All-Irelands," DJ Carey said.

"People must have thought I was off my rocker, but we had big guys coming in abundance and the teams that were coming at the same time didn't look in any way capable of matching us."

Carey was right; over the next decade the Leinster championship hit its lowest ebb in 25 years. Offaly were in decline, as were Wexford, and Dublin would struggle for several years. With little out there to trouble them, Kilkenny made hay.

"You basically looked at winning two matches to get out of Leinster and another two to win the All-Ireland," Carey said. "It sounded simple – it wasn't always, but several things were in our favour."

By the start of the 2014 championship, they will be hunting for the thirteenth Leinster title of Brian Cody's reign, even though the outlook is not as bright as it has been; nor are the production lines flowing with anything like the quality of the previous ten years.

A succession of injuries and general wear and tear has clearly diminished a great team. Not that they plan on going anywhere.

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