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How will Cody’s Cats be remembered?

 

WHEN it comes to gambling on sport, I’m no prophet. If I was, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this. I’d be sitting in an infinity pool filled with chocolate milk, staring at the line where the red evening sky meets the turquoise Pacific.

Any newspaper preview of any match should be read with the knowledge that the writer is generally as likely as you are to get the result right or wrong. If they always got it right then they’d be a super-rich professional punter.

Even getting it usually right would be enough for you to see out your decades in clover.

Ultimately, we all have to subscribe to the creed that the older and wiser you become, the more it becomes apparent that the only sensible answer is “I don’t know”.

I don’t know who is going to win between Galway and Kilkenny, but, for a change, I think I have a fair idea. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and my particular area of expertise/extreme good luck comes when predicting the winner of the All-Ireland hurling final.

Before you say, “that’s no great trick, Kilkenny are always in the final and they nearly always win”, consider this: Kilkenny were favourites in 2004, Cork were the bookies’ pick in 2006, Tipperary were to put titles back to back by wining in 2011. I called all of those results.

The only time I erred was in 2009 when I expected Tipp to ambush Kilkenny, but referee Diarmuid Kirwin did for that.

The reason my usually erratic punting tightens up for the hurling decider is, I reckon, because I spend more time thinking about this game than any other event on the sports calendar.

I’ve thought a lot about Kilkenny-Galway and then I’ve thought about it some more. I can’t see anything other than a decisive, if not emphatic, victory for the Cats; a grim procession carried out in the name of revenge and education.

When predicting the winner of the hurling final, I’ve found it usually doesn’t help as much as you’d think to go through all the match-ups and decide who’ll win a crucial amount.

The problem with that is, in the modern game, what match-ups transpire is anybody’s guess. Players rarely line out as advertised, switches are constant and then, into the bargain, more mad stuff happens: who foretold Lar Corbett following Tommy Walsh around like he was Patrick Bergin in Sleeping With The Enemy? It was so crazy you wouldn’t have been surprised to learn Tommy opened his front door in Tullaroan that night to be confronted with an unusually creepy-looking Lar telling him that the towels in the jacks were not hung symmetrically.

Another factor is that Kilkenny and Galway both have excellent players – and either set is capable of getting the upper hand on the other. Galway embarrassed Kilkenny in the Leinster final. Kilkenny did likewise to Galway when they met in the League.

The old saw about learning more from defeat than victory is especially relevant in calling this. When teams meet in the final for consecutive years, the losers the previous year overturn the defeat – Cork in 2004, Kilkenny ’06, Tipp ’10, Kilkenny ’11.

Served hot or cold – it makes no difference – the Irish sportsman’s signature dish is revenge. Also, on a more analytical tip, you can isolate the areas where you failed before and address them. When you’ve won last time, the temptation is to make only minor adjustments, believing that it’s not broke so won’t need a whole lot of fixing.

Galway will likely try to replicate the intensity they brought to the opening of the Leinster final. They may even succeed. But do you think Kilkenny will replicate their lack of intensity from that period? Do you think Kilkenny will score no more than a point in the opening half-hour? Of course they won’t.

They will have noted the hand Galway showed in their provincial triumph, and will come up with a plan to neutralise the Tribe’s strengths while accentuating theirs.

Kilkenny are past masters at this, and they are masters of the All-Ireland final. They’ve been here in all but two of the finals this century and won them all bar two. They’ll win again on Sunday. I think.

 

*****

 

If Kilkenny do prevail, that’ll make it nine All-Ireland titles since Brian Cody took over in late 1998. Their legacy is long-since secured, they are unquestionably the greatest team to play the game, but how will they be remembered? Will they be as loved as they are admired?

Well, in the years BC, hurling was booming. Counties outside the traditional top three topped the bill from 1994-98. The colour and vitality of Clare, Offaly, Wexford – and not to forget, Limerick – brought the game to a new prominence.

Ever since, hurling has gone back to what it was: the preserve of the Big Three.

In fact, the three has almost become the Big One. Eight All-Irelands from 13 attempts for Cody is an astonishing strike rate.

Nowadays, we hear so much now about Kilkenny’s “production line” and how they’re going to win forever. Well it wasn’t always so. Back-to-back success in 1982/83 and 92/93 were The Cat’s only Liam MacCarthys in the last two decades of the 20th century.

Clearly Cody is not the sole reason for Kilkenny’s golden age but he is certainly the chief architect.

He has been served by a brilliant backroom staff headed by the greatest football manager Carlow never had, Mick Dempsey, and Martin Fogarty. He’s also had the pick of an outstanding bunch of players.

Kilkenny, though, have always had superb hurlers to choose from yet the success under Cody is unheralded. He has provided an environment where excellence is demanded and, most crucially, has stuck around to see the environment become a culture.

There have been times when it seemed Kilkenny had been matched in recent years – Cork under Donal O’Grady/John Allen or Tipp under Liam Sheedy. However, no manager could or would give the long-term commitment that Cody has, and the Rebels were further undermined by internal wrangling and strikes after Allen stood down.

In that regard, Kilkenny are fortunate. Their greatest days have coincided with their rivals not enjoying the same harmony or continuity. But luck only has meaning if you make it count – and boy have Kilkenny capitalised on their opportunities.

They cruise at an altitude that others can only survive in for a while before the air gets thin. They have rewritten the programme of what is required for victory.

Before Cody seized control of the game, the preeminent sides of the late 90s were Clare and Offaly. To simplify, Clare, while boasting many fine hurlers, brought conditioning and physicality to unforeseen heights. Offaly were outrageously skilful.

Kilkenny took Clare’s intensity and squared it. And their skill levels are sufficient to make even a Dooley, Whelehan or Pilkington gulp. Into the brew has gone a tactical awareness more redolent of Armagh’s footballers in their pomp than any hurling side of old.

In short, they are – to appropriate the old Reservoir Dogs poster – an amazing, awesome, pumping powerhouse of a team.

If they have a weakness, and this is entirely subjective, it is in the joy they bring to the game.

I once drew the ire of some Kilkenny fans for referring to them as the Stephen Hendry of hurling: supremely effective, but a bit boring with it.

There’s a touch of the Iron Curtain about their image: No interesting quote shall escape the camp. All traces of personality are disguised; every “interview” gives away nothing greater than platitudes. Cody himself managed the outrageous achievement of co-authoring a book of well over 100,000 words that gave precisely zero insight.

Also, in the age of Twitter, it’s notable that not one Kilkenny player tweets – unless you count that dubious Henry Shefflin account that has not exactly been active either way. I know Twitter is a bit of a waste of time but, surely, out of 30 lads, somebody wouldn’t mind letting fly with their views on austerity or the price of sliotars. But, no. Nothing.

I read before that astronauts are chosen for their striking inability to grasp the greater meaning. The typical human that sees Earth from above would break down in tears, the beauty being too much for your average Joseph to take in. But your average astronaut simply looks out and logs the motherland’s coordinates, and then it’s onwards to galaxies new.

Perhaps the average Kilkenny hurler, heading further and further into uncharted territory, a pioneer of modern hurling, is similarly cold to the magnificence of the view … Perhaps they really are that dull.

I can’t believe they are. Behind great achievements are nearly always great stories. Hopefully at the some point in the future those stories will be told, with freedom, in detail.

Until that point, Kilkenny, outside their borders at least, will be held in respect if not affection. The same could be said for Cody, who clearly values the former over the latter.

The manager is obsessive in pursuit of victory but, to be fair, on the rare occasions his team has been bested he is unfailingly gracious – think Cork in 1999, Wexford and Cork in 2004, Galway in 2001 and ’05 and Tipp in ’10. Each time he has been generous in his praise for the winners and never once sought refuge in excuses.

In victory, he usually carries himself with the same dignity, the only glaring exception being his petty and aggressive reproach of Marty Morrissey after the 2009 final when asked about the key decision on the dodgy penalty.

When he can become a bit of a pain is before a big game. He has been cranking up the pressure on Sunday’s ref, letting Barry Kelly know Kilkenny are not a dirty team and if he sees something that looks like a foul – it won’t have been committed by his team.

Hopefully Kelly will see through such tissue-thin mind games but given Cody’s status in the game, you never know.

All teams cross the line nowadays and almost all go further than they did years ago. It’s what you get away with that counts. And Kilkenny get away with quite a bit – the most stunning example being last year’s final when Tommy Walsh escaped censure for cutting the ref’s face with his hurley. What was Brian Gavin thinking? He meant to smack someone else in the head, not me, so that’s okay then?

The brain boggles.

Either way, all managers seek whatever edge they can get and there’s little point in having all this clout if you’re not going to use it.

Kilkenny, and Cody, leave nothing to chance and chances are they’ll be celebrating again on Sunday evening, their place in the pantheon assured, the pantheon not necessarily a richer place for all of their excellence.

 

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Ronan Early
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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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