The Christy O'Connor column: Cody’s trust in young players has paid off

The Christy O'Connor column: Cody’s trust in young players has paid off
Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

THE morning after the 2016 All-Ireland final, Brian Cody spoke to a number of journalists at the Citywest hotel in Saggart. 

Kilkenny's nine-point defeat to Tipperary looked like a landmark point in the life-cycle of that team. 

Transition was inevitable but Cody was bullish that Kilkenny were ready for it.

"There are players on our panel who haven't been seen yet, but who will quickly become top players," he said. "You can rest assured of that."

The comment sounded defensive but Cody still felt the need to say it. He may have been looking more long-term but it was difficult to know who Cody was referring to. 

Of the 12 players on the 35-man 2016 squad who hadn't yet played championship, only four made their debuts last summer; Richie Reid, Conor O'Shea, Joe Lyng and Chris Bolger. Richie Leahy and Paddy Deegan also featured but Cody's rebuilding project clearly needed to be accelerated in Year Two. 

This spring, that phase was heavily reconstructed with last year's U-21 panel, 15 of whom were initially assembled together as part of a training squad of 50.

Cody used 29 players in the 2017 league but a whole new roster was rolled out this spring. Cody used 36 players, many of whom were rookies, and still managed to win the league.

Kilkenny's Bill Sheehan and Alan Flynn of Tipperary. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Kilkenny's Bill Sheehan and Alan Flynn of Tipperary. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Six of the starting team which defeated Tipperary last Sunday have yet to play championship hurling. Seven of the players used played in last year's All-Ireland U-21 final defat to Limerick. 

Two of those who started on Sunday - Alan Murphy and Martin Keoghan - didn't even start in that U-21 final. Murphy was third-choice goalkeeper with the senior team last year while Keoghan was still in school, having played for St Kieran's in the 2017 All-Ireland Colleges final.

Cody's trawl this spring has been more extensive than at any other time during his reign.

He has been forced to dig deep into his resources but Cody's ability to mine uncut stones and polish them into rare gems has been a hallmark of his, and Kilkenny's, success. Eddie Brennan, Derek Lyng, Brian Hogan and Martin Comerford never played minor for Kilkenny and were the greatest expression of Cody's philosophy.

There has always been a culture of late developers in Kilkenny, ranging from big names of Pat Delaney to Kieran Purcell to Charlie Carter. 

Eamonn Kennedy was 28 when he won an All-Star in his maiden season in 2000. Shane Prendergast, who captained the team in the 2016 All-Ireland final, made his championship debut the previous year at 29.

An arduous apprenticeship is often a prerequisite in Cody's world. Even some of the best players often had to do hard time. Michael Fennelly, Richie Hogan and TJ Reid spent years trying to establish themselves.

Not having as many quality young players rolling off the production line in recent years increased opportunity for older players and accelerated the massive flux the panel. 

But this spring, Cody has heavily invested in youth. And thrown them in a lot earlier.

There were no U-21s on the 2014 panel. There are five U-21s on the 2015 extended panel but none of them made the 26 for the All-Ireland final. Only one of the starting team for that final was under 23.

The younger players were handed the responsibility this spring. They may not have had the experience, or served the same apprenticeship as many were forced to in the past, but in Cody's world, the process in Nowlan Park has always been king.

That culture was always transferable. It was still largely dictated by the older players but the constant drip-feed of big-name departures in recent years left a huge vacuum. 

Their legacy was always likely to leave an unforgiving burden on those coming after them. On the otherhand, there were enough of them still around to ensure that they would show those young players the Kilkenny way, and what is expected under Cody.

The production line may have stuttered. Since winning All-Ireland minor and U-21 titles in 2008, Kilkenny have added just two All-Irelands, minor titles in 2010 and 2014. 

Yet Kilkenny's underage teams have still been competitive. The U-21s reached last year's All-Ireland final. The minors narrowly lost the semi-final to eventual winners Galway. 

And St Kieran's have won four of the last five All-Ireland Colleges titles. It would have been five-in-a-row if a young team hadn't narrowly lost last year's All-Ireland final to Templemore.

Many of those young players are now in the Kilkenny squad as Cody attempts to build another All-Ireland winning team. 

Last Sunday's win was his 20th national senior title as a manager (11 All-Irelands, nine leagues) but it was surely one of Cody's sweetest considering Kilkenny's starting point in 2018.

Winning another All-Ireland now will be one of Cody's greatest challenges. But it would also represent probably Cody's greatest triumph. 

Whatever happens, Cody will just continue with the process. Because in his world, the process has always been king.

In his post-match interview on TG4 immediately after Sunday's final, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill asked TJ Reid if he thought, after losing their first two matches against Cork and Clare, that winning a league title was a possibility. 

Reid instantly turned the question on its head by framing it in a completely different context, the context by which Kilkenny viewed their predicament at that point of the campaign.

"We lost to Cork by three points," said Reid. "We lost to Clare too by only three points, and we were missing six or seven players as well. 

"We won the league final today and still have three or four starting players to come back. There is great belief here."

A winning culture, and one that demands nothing only success, will always make Kilkenny see things differently to everyone else. 

And Sunday's win further underlined that, while the names and the faces may change, the culture under Cody never will.

Kilkenny's Walter Walsh and Luke Scanlon with Alan Flynn of Tipperary. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Kilkenny's Walter Walsh and Luke Scanlon with Alan Flynn of Tipperary. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

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