Thursday 22 February 2018

The man who changed everything

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

If your car wasn't pointing towards Kilkenny, the slow crawl out of Portlaoise last Saturday night was taken with a pallbearer's cheerlessness. Maybe autumn and its secrets will lighten things, but what we'd witnessed felt like a championship being summarily reduced to pathos.

Only June admittedly, but, with rain slicing down from a sky of dirty flannels, the rest of hurling appeared to have slipped indoors, bunking down behind drawn curtains.

We'd built Dublin up as a boxer with a punch, you see, then watched them flinch at the sound of the bell, never mind the whine of descending leather. Now us press-box Magoos, dribble splashing from our chins, joined the evening rosaries in a plea for absolution.

Brian Cody, as ever, was kind (or indifferent) enough to leave all media foolishness unmentioned.

But the black and white picture of him on the cover of a book launched in Langtons five days later, maybe, explains the current cut of the hurling landscape better than any kaleidoscope of modern colour.

Cody stands in a group of players, listening intently to the word of a man in clerical garb. The priest is Father Tommy Maher.

If the name means nothing to you, this book should be compulsory reading. If you already know the (now) Monsignor's story, then buy it as a life gift to yourself. Because Enda McEvoy's 'The Godfather of Modern Hurling' isn't just the most beautifully evocative hurling book ever written, it is also, almost certainly, the most important.

Cody can spread long shadows in an innocent mind and, within the Kilkenny camp, one of many happy distractions is to peddle a contention that they are managed by a man who "doesn't do tactics." What they really mean is he doesn't obsess with them.

Technique

For Maher, as McEvoy writes, "the only tactic was technique." And just about everything that a lifetime of hurling has deposited in Brian Cody's brain was filtered, at some point, through Fr Tommy's voice.

In cold, statistical terms, the Gowran cleric coached Kilkenny to seven senior All-Irelands between 1957 and '78. Statistics, though, barely get ankle-deep into the Tommy Maher story. For he didn't change Kilkenny hurling so much as seed the game itself with renegade thinking.

From an era in which managers were, essentially, just chairmen of selectors, Maher coached. If that sounds unremarkable today, back then it was borderline subversive.

McEvoy might be accused of mildly over-egging the pudding with his description of the '57 Leinster hurling final as "the most significant hurling match of the second half of the 20th century," but it was a game that sent ripples into the world of future generations, not least that of the three-year-old son of Bill Cody.

For Kilkenny's defeat of Wexford, one of hurling's most charismatic teams, propelled them out through a gap that, at the time, was invisible to the naked eye. They were coached by Maher, who, that same year, guided his alma mater, St Kieran's, to All-Ireland colleges glory with the likes of Eddie Keher and Ted Carroll under his direction.

Fr Tommy believed in many things that, at the time, drew scorn from traditional minds. He believed a back should have a target for every clearance more specific than that flock of startled crows scattering overhead.

He encouraged handpassing. He insisted no ball be hit without a recipient in mind and, above all, demanded his players' stickwork be oiled by endless practice.

People were dismissive of his fussiness. Indeed, Paddy Buggy recalls a scene in Nowlan Park of the Kilkenny selectors barely bothering to suppress their giggles as Fr Tommy led the players through handpassing exercises.

If Kilkenny had a complex at the time, it was to do with a sense that, whatever the difficulties presented to them by Cork's ground hurling or Wexford's strength in the air, the county's most pressing need was to locate sufficient flint to allow them go hip-to-hip with Tipp.

That nettle was finally grasped in '67, the All-Ireland final day Tom Walsh lost his left eye, but Kilkenny finally floored the blue and gold. Thereafter Tommy Maher never really had to explain himself again.

Four years later, Cody would be centre-back on a St Kieran's team that struck eight goals in the All-Ireland colleges final against St Finbarr's of Farranferris. That Kieran's team was coached by Dermot Healy, a devout disciple of the seminal Gormanston coaching courses pioneered by Tipperary's Donie Nealon, Dublin's Des Ferguson and Fr Tommy.

Other graduates of that school would be Cyril Farrell, Ned Power and Clarecastle's John Hanley, who Anthony Daly credits as the biggest influence on his career.

In that sense, we needn't doubt Daly's angst this week as the world and their mothers speculated if maybe Dublin overdosed on psychology and sports science in their build-up for Kilkenny, whilst leaving the sliotars wrapped in cellophane.

Daly has made it his life's work as a coach to formulate match-specific plans that are referenced by those tiny, eternal wisdoms preached in Gormanston to previous generations. Seeing his team hurl like men digging a trench will have been an assault on his senses.

Trouble is, Kilkenny are equipped to visit that misery on any opponent today and, face it, habitually do. There isn't a skill in the game they haven't now lacquered to the point of seeing their faces in the reflection. Kilkenny no longer have to choose between a knife and a revolver. They just take what comes to hand.

To understand the genesis of that mastery, you need to know the story of Fr Tommy Maher. McEvoy tells it beautifully.

'The Godfather of Modern Hurling -- The Father Tommy Maher Story' is published by Ballpoint Press.

Irish Independent

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