Sunday 19 November 2017

The real Brian Cody

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

So what's Brian Cody really like? It's a question I have been asked many times this year by people who are curious about the personality of a man who, irrespective of whether or not Kilkenny win the five-in-a-row tomorrow, will go down in history as one of the most influential characters hurling has ever known.

I'm asked because I worked closely with him for nine months on the production of his autobiography, which was published last September. Two years earlier, I had a similar involvement with Mick O'Dwyer and, I've got to say, both were high among the most uplifting experiences of my 35 years in sports journalism.

Outwardly, O'Dwyer and Cody appear totally different characters but beneath the surface there's quite a similarity between them. They are, quite simply, hopeless addicts.

It would be utterly futile to attempt a reconstruction of either because if hurling and football were removed from their lives, it's unlikely they would survive the detox programme.

That's altogether different from portraying them as one-dimensional characters. Indeed, that's far from the case, as I found both hugely engaging in chats about matters not remotely involved with either hurling or football.

O'Dwyer would be regarded as having more of a common touch than Cody but then perceptions are what people make of them. There's a depiction of Cody in media land as a serious, austere figure, best left to what he does so well rather than trying to engage him on issues of the day, whether they relate to Kilkenny or elsewhere.


The reality is completely different. Cody's mobile phone number is readily available; he answers it to all comers (provided he's available at the time) and will give a straight answer to whatever question he's asked. Granted, he has no time for spoofers or pseudo-intellectuals whose opinion of themselves may be ridiculously over-inflated but then he shouldn't be criticised for that.

Cody deals in the real world and is happy to remain there. When we sat down to plan the book, the core values he wanted to permeate through every chapter were spirit, respect and honesty.

His one fear about the project was that it might come across as if he were taking so much credit for Kilkenny's success. It was a genuine concern, which is why so many chapters acknowledge the input of the large number of people who help make Kilkenny hurling what it is.

Most of all, Kilkenny hurling is about its players and, in that regard, Cody's respect levels are unquantifiable. He sees himself more as a facilitator than a manager, a reference point around which things revolve in an orderly fashion. It's no accident that the relationship between clubs and the county scene is so consistently healthy in Kilkenny, whereas it tends to strained in many other counties.

Team managers often set the agenda in that complex area and, quite often, put the county first, much to the detriment of clubs. Cody's devotion to the club scene, as evidenced by his admission that, despite all the success he has enjoyed with Kilkenny, his most treasured memories are of James Stephens winning the county title in 2004 and the All-Ireland title on St Patrick's Day, 2005.

"Club is different. At least to me it is. The Village (James Stephens), the parish, the people, the hurling -- they mean everything to me. They made me what I am as a hurling person and in many other ways too," he said.

Unlike some others who view the club scene as a nuisance that has to be tolerated, Cody regards it as something so intrinsically important to everything Kilkenny do that it remains a priority all the time. What's more, the county players know that their responsibility extends back to the club too. When they're not on county duty, Cody expects them to be real leaders with their clubs and will judge them on how seriously they take their responsibilities.


That, in turn, manifests itself on how they conduct themselves in the Kilkenny jersey. It's fashionable to ascribe great motivational powers to managers and to portray them as tactical geniuses who patrol the sideline with a computer-like capacity to sort out whatever problems arise.

Cody distances himself from that perception, pointing out that once the game is on, it's up to the players to take responsibility. Otherwise, the partnership breaks down.

"They're on the pitch and are playing the game as they see it. I like to see them making decisions individually and collectively because it shows they're thinking like leaders," he said.

To that end, it was fascinating to watch Henry Shefflin's reaction when Tipperary were on top in the second half of last year's All-Ireland final. The game seemed to be drifting away from Kilkenny so the last thing they needed was to lose control of the fundamentals which underpinned everything they had done for so long.

On several occasions, Shefflin could be seen quietly tapping his helmet as he gestured to his colleagues. It wasn't a fake "let's get stuck in" signal but rather a calm, measured "think lads, trust ourselves to work through this" approach. It was leadership at its most refined.

It's what Cody would have expected because that's his style of management. Contrary to the portrayal of him in some quarters as a dominating presence who runs the dressing-room like a dictatorship, he sees it as a cooperative.

The standards are set by the players themselves and he acts as a monitoring agent to make sure all the strands are tied neatly together. If boundaries are crossed, the group ethic has a self-correcting mechanism. It's only if that malfunctions that Cody intervenes.

He finds it amusing that he should be portrayed as a stern, dominating boss but then perceptions can be mischievous little devils that take on a life of their own. One of the more curious reactions to his book came in reviews that criticised him for not dealing at length with the Charlie Carter 'controversy'.

Carter left the panel in the summer of 2003 and later vented his anger and disappointment in a book. Clearly, it was a major controversy in his mind but Cody saw it completely differently. His job was to select the best Kilkenny team and, in his opinion, Carter did not merit a starting place around the time of his departure.

Nothing personal, just business. Yet, in the eyes of some reviewers, Cody's failure to give a lengthy explanation of the Carter affair amounted to a cop-out. It wasn't, of course. He wasn't going to become embroiled in a contrived controversy over an issue which he regarded as a routine matter of judgment on who should be on the team. That he was criticised for an honest response shows how little of him is understood by some of those who write about the man.


I'm not privy to what goes on in the Kilkenny dressing-room so I won't pretend to know the dynamic that exists there. However, from my dealings with Cody during the writing of his book, I suspect it's a lot more relaxed than many might think.

I have been repeatedly asked if he was difficult to work with, the implication being that he would have been. Again, a false depiction. He was extremely easy to get on with and operated on the basis that we both had roles in the project and that neither side interfered with how the other went about his business.

The one abiding certainty I took from working with Cody was that he is very much his own man. He's not influenced by trends or gimmicks, preferring to trust his own instincts that have proven so consistently solid over the years.

His views on the use of sports psychologists are extremely interesting at a time when so many managers think there's a void in the dressing-room unless it includes a mind-influencing guru.

Cody believes that the best parts of sports psychology are based on logic and common sense, attributes which are readily available and don't involve costly sessions with outside 'experts'.

"In my opinion, a manager must always apply his own psychology to a situation because he knows his players and their mindset and the circumstances which made them what they are," he said.

Cody's brand of psychology had worked splendidly for Kilkenny since he first walked into Nowlan Park in late autumn 1998 at a time when confidence in the county was low after losing the All-Ireland final to Offaly.

He had no inter-county management experience at any level, nor had he enjoyed any significant success during his terms in charge of James Stephens but he came to the Kilkenny job with a vision which he believed could work.

Twelve years on, the yield from the Cody years is at a record high and, quite possibly, about to get even higher. He has done it his way with an unswerving loyalty to club, county and the genuine ethos which anchors Kilkenny so securely to solid values and attainable goals.

Most of all, he as remained his own man on a journey which has taken Kilkenny to the very edge of history.

Irish Independent

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