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Vincent Hogan: Cody defines Kilkenny – just as peerless Ferguson defined United

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They might have little or nothing in common, but, if you are of a particular constituency, chances are you took to thinking about Brian Cody this week as the professional football world fell into flux over news of Alex Ferguson's retirement.

We'll never know, but I suspect a particular TV set in Sheestown was tuned to Sky Sports News as the story broke on Wednesday morning. Of course, the great, unlocked secret of Cody's life is his persona beyond a hurling field. He rightly regards it as nobody's business but his own.

So, 15 years into his management of Kilkenny hurlers, we can't pretend to know him. Does he have a specific taste in music, literature, politics? Might he, perhaps, even follow the exploits of any English soccer team?

Maybe the definition of a great mind is managing to restrict the outside world to random guesses about its contents. I doubt Martin Fogarty or Michael Dempsey could say with confidence they can read Cody's innermost thoughts. I know for certain that his players can't.

On Wednesday, Paul McGrath tweeted a single word in response to news of Ferguson's departure. "Respect!" wrote Paul of a man he once despised.

Ferguson all but ran McGrath out of Old Trafford in the troubled early days of his reign at Manchester United. He even encouraged him to take the insurance pay-off that, if activated by his chronic knee trouble, would have formally ended Paul's career.

resisted

McGrath (right), mercifully, resisted the temptation, moving to Aston Villa, where he won the PFA Footballer of the Year award in '93 and was voted the supporters' Player of the Season four years running.

It would be quite a number of years before the two men made their peace, McGrath acknowledging in his autobiography that – had he been United manager at the time – he would have evicted heavy drinkers like himself and Norman Whiteside from Old Trafford "a hell of a lot quicker."

When I met Ferguson during the course of writing that book, he was uniformly warm in his observations on McGrath, insisting he had "absolutely no personal issue" with Paul.

"But," he did add, "players maybe don't understand what decision-making is. Decision-making is not done for you and it's not done for me. It's never done for me. It's done for the club, because somebody has to do it. There is always a bigger picture."

His longevity in the game was, clearly, predicated upon that understanding. Always a bigger picture. Even a club icon like Roy Keane would, ultimately, become dispensable the moment it was decided that the very rage once coveted at Old Trafford had become unhelpful to the collective.

Some individuals might like to argue the toss with Ferguson, but his record instantly renders such arguments facile. Similarly, whatever snipers existed in Kilkenny, have long since handed in their arms. The only ones picking fights with Cody now, do so from behind net curtains.

He is a significantly younger man, of course, who entered inter-county management 12 years after Ferguson first arrived at United. But, in their success, both have managed to become indistinguishable from the teams they guide.

And that was the most jarring aspect to this week's news, the sense, not so much of a familiar figure departing, as an entire era rolling to a close. Because, somewhere in our subconscious, Ferguson WAS United, just as Cody IS Kilkenny.

Chatting to McGrath this week, he said that he was as surprised as anyone when the retirement story broke. But he mentioned, too, how a few sirens had gone off in his head on hearing that a hip operation might keep Ferguson sidelined for the early weeks of next season.

Despite having a pacemaker fitted almost a decade ago, the Scot has enjoyed largely robust health in his time at United. The idea of him stepping backwards, however temporarily, just ran out of synch with the man McGrath has now learnt to admire. For delegating was never Ferguson's natural reflex. Come to think of it, that morning we chatted at Carrington, he made the tea.

Matt Busby once told George Best that United would never have won the European Cup in '68 without him. I couldn't imagine Ferguson ever doing that with a player, any player. True, he got close to it with Keane in '99. But only close.

The power of the collective usurped the importance of any individual in his mind and, longevity apart, maybe that is what he now shares with Brian Cody. Henry Shefflin might represent a single exception to that rule, but then, I suspect, even Ferguson would agree that men like Shefflin don't exactly fall from trees.

It's been odd watching Kilkenny in recent weeks without that familiar, tall form prowling the tramline. In Nowlan Park last Sunday, you had to believe he made some kind of strategic contribution to Kilkenny's win, even if articulated only down a mobile phone line.

Then again, it is entirely possible that Cody told Fogarty and Dempsey to just get on with it and pick whoever was showing up best in training.

In some ways, that's the essence of him.

Like Ferguson, he does what he does to his rhythm, his alone. And no doubt, when the day falls, those will be the terms of his departure too.

Irish Independent