IN his autobiography, Jackie Tyrrell graphically describes his final moments as a Kilkenny senior hurler.
Disappointed with how his season had worked out in 2016, Tyrrell was debating about returning for one final year in 2017.
He arranged to meet Brian Cody for a chat that November in the Springhill Hotel in Kilkenny City.
Cody arrived at 5.01pm. They sat down in the coffee dock in the lobby.
There was some small talk before Tyrrell inhaled deeply. He said he was considering his future and he wanted to know what Cody thought about him returning.
Cody was firm in his reply. He told Tyrrell that the team was taking a different shape, and there would be a lot of changes in 2017. The message was loud and clear.
“And that was it,” wrote Tyrrell. “Like a click of the great man’s fingers, the show appeared to finally all be over.”
It was. When Tyrrell sat back into his car, the clock on the dashboard was flashing at 5.08pm.
“Everything I had agonised about over the previous two months had been distilled down into seven minutes,” wrote Tyrrell.
“In reality, it was probably closer to seven seconds.” Shortly afterwards, Tyrrell rang Cody to tell him he was retiring. “Very little was said,” wrote Tyrrell.
Cody and Tyrrell are club-mates. Cody had taught Tyrrell in primary school. Cody had been a key figure throughout his life, but Tyrrell wasn’t surprised that his career had ended so clinically and coldly.
That’s just Cody. He has always cultivated a distance, which has added to his mystique. Affection has never been a dynamic in his relationship with the players, but Cody has never played up to the common perception of him as ruthless. Big names were dropped and left off the team, but Cody never believed that added up to ruthlessness.
That mystique about Cody and his personality means that his own players never know how to take him. In a recent Irish Examiner Podcast, former Kilkenny goalkeeper David Herity gave a fascinating insight into Cody’s mindset, and how he operated.
Herity had been dropped in 2013 and he saw the writing on the wall about his future early in the 2014 season.
“We were having a one-on-one meeting and Mick (Dempsey) and Martin (Fogarty) were asking me questions,” said Herity. “Brian was eating a scone, but just kept going: ‘you’re too old’.”
Herity also mentioned Cody asking him about an upcoming GPA discussion with the group. Herity said it was an information night on courses and grants to prepare players for retirement. “I’d say you’re interested in that now,” Cody pointedly said to Herity.
“It was an awful kick in the teeth,” said Herity. “But that’s it. It’s the Jekyll and Hyde. A lot of lads did crumble. Brian is brilliant in what he achieved and the way he’s achieved it, you can’t argue with it. But the smallest bit more man-management would have kept a few more younger lads going.”
Man-management has become one of the most important aspects of modern management, but Cody has always worked off the same template. Sentiment or loyalty has never clouded his thinking. It was his way or the highway. Like Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, no player ever took him on and won.
TJ Reid was on the verge of walking away after being dropped for the 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final until Henry Shefflin talked him around. If Shefflin hadn’t, one of the greatest players of all time might never have assumed such a status. Another player could have crumbled, but was Cody’s tough love the making of Reid?
Of course, there is another side to Cody too. In his autobiography, Eoin Larkin wrote of how Cody knew something wasn’t right with Larkin after a James Stephens training session. Larkin was suffering from depression. When Cody rang the following morning, Larkin broke down. From that moment his recovery started.
“Most lads would have sensed something the way I was the previous night,” said Larkin. “But he was the only one who rang. I was in denial for a long time and I might still be in denial only for Brian ringing me.”
The word ‘ruthless’ is still always used to describe Cody, but Declan Coyle, one of Ireland’s most experienced leadership training and development consultants, once made an interesting observation about why Cody’s approach is so successful, and so difficult to replicate.
“Whatever about this projection of his ruthless personality, that only works because he has a phenomenal chemistry within the team,” said Coyle. “Somebody else could try and ape that approach and it would backfire.”
Herity saw that himself first-hand. When he first joined the Dublin senior camogie management, Herity was distant and aloof with the players. His only contact was to “bark” at them. Former Dublin hurling manager Michael O’Grady knew that wasn’t Herity’s way. “You’re not Brian Cody,” he told Herity. He wasn’t.
Cody has always been able to get every player to play with a level of humility, which is also an extension of Kilkenny’s manic work-rate and insatiable desire.
That culture has allowed Cody to continue to do it his way. His ritual for naming teams, including All-Ireland finals, has long been established. He flicks back the page of a flipchart to reveal the starting 15. You’re either on it or you’re not. If you’re not, especially if you’ve been dropped, you’re not told — before or after — why.
Most modern players would be horrified by that form of feedback, but it has worked for the most successful GAA manager in history.
And Cody is unlikely to change his approach now.