Christy O'Connor on why Brian Cody was one of hurling's great innovators

After losses to Cork, Tipp and Limerick at various stages across his incredible management career, Cody was always able to reshape his Kilkenny team and alter his tactics
Christy O'Connor on why Brian Cody was one of hurling's great innovators

Kilkenny's Brian Cody and Cork coach Donal O'Grady. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

IT wasn’t really his style but on his last trophy-winning day in Croke Park, Brian Cody controlled the mood and atmosphere for most of the evening, and certainly at the end, when he had the whole stadium in the palm of his hand.

The central narrative of the Leinster final had focused on Cody and Henry Shefflin. When the final whistle blew, Shefflin made the mistake of not just bolting for Cody and shaking his hand so as to get the drama out of the way. 

When he didn’t, Cody had no interest in looking for his former player, heading off to celebrate with his players.

Cody had never been distracted with side issues or matters outside of winning but the way that whole drama played, with Shefflin eventually making his way over to his former manager, underlined how Cody was always in control, of how he invariably always had the final say on big days in Croke Park.

Kilkenny's Brian Cody (3) in action against Cork's Jimmy Barry Murphy (14) as Kilkenny's Frank Cummins (8) and Cork's Bertie Og Murphy (10) look on. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Kilkenny's Brian Cody (3) in action against Cork's Jimmy Barry Murphy (14) as Kilkenny's Frank Cummins (8) and Cork's Bertie Og Murphy (10) look on. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Even the way Cody bowed out of the inter-county game on Saturday afternoon was true to him. 

The announcement was low-key and loaded with the bottom line of how creating an unbreakable spirit among his players was more important than anything he had won. It was his greatest legacy but it was also the very essence of Cody and the culture he created.

Everything about Cody was expressed through his teams and the way they played. Nothing ever changed, especially the same core values of an unbreakable spirit, togetherness and a savage work rate.

Cody had this incredible self-belief in himself, and in the players at his disposal. Even when Kilkenny were struggling in recent years after losing so many Hall-of-Fame players, his attitude was that there were always enough good hurlers in Kilkenny for someone else to step up and do a job.

The power of that collective was honed and sharpened in Nowlan Park because everything he demanded from his players was created in that environment.

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody dejected after the loss to Limerick. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody dejected after the loss to Limerick. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

The bond was unbreakable yet Cody managed those relationships from a distance, which added to his mystique. Affection was never a dynamic in his relationship with the players but Cody 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.

Cody believed that instability was a source of power because the desperation to make the team when nobody really knew where they stood added to that collective force. Shaking up the team so often was his means of oiling that machine.

RELENTLESS

The machine was relentless but, while he never saw himself as an innovator or an original thinker about the game, Cody absolutely was. The team that won the five-in-a-row completely altered how the game was played with the template set in the 2006 All-Ireland final win against Cork.

He was never a fan of short puck-outs or systems but the way in which Kilkenny adapted and reached this year’s All-Ireland final showed how Cody was willing to evolve to keep going.

He did but his core philosophy of management never changed. That mystique about Cody and his personality meant that his own players never knew how to take him.

Former Kilkenny manager Brian Cody on the line against Cork at Páirc Uí Chaoimh this year. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Former Kilkenny manager Brian Cody on the line against Cork at Páirc Uí Chaoimh this year. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Man-management has become one of the most important aspects of modern management, but Cody always worked off the same template. Sentiment or loyalty 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 have assumed such a status. Another player could have crumbled but was Cody’s tough love the making of Reid?

Of course, there was 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. “I was in denial for a long time,” wrote Larkin. “And I might still be in denial only for Brian ringing me.” 

Nobody ever saw that human touch because Cody’s public persona was so different. 

All the public saw was this imposing figure patrolling the sideline under the baseball cap, spitting into his hands, almost hurling every ball, hunting after it like the players he inspired.

The next challenge was all that ever mattered for Cody. The past was irrelevant. As Cody continued to crave and hunt for more, his hunger and thirst for success remained insatiable.

Brian Cody at the Ballincollig GAA club in 2014. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Brian Cody at the Ballincollig GAA club in 2014. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

This year’s Leinster title was Kilkenny’s 74th provincial title and their 18th under Cody. To put that number into greater context, Cody has managed Kilkenny to nearly a quarter of the Leinster titles won in their entire history.

There have been some great GAA managers, from Heffernan to O’Dwyer to Boylan to Harte to Gavin. Gavin may have some claim to being called the greatest after guiding Dublin to the five-in-a-row in 2019. But, in the minds of the wider GAA public, Cody had no equal; he will always be the greatest.

No manager has won more All-Irelands. Leading Kilkenny to another title on his final day in last week’s All-Ireland final would have been his greatest achievement yet. But the way in which Kilkenny pushed Limerick as hard as they did was another testament to Cody’s greatness.

In any case, Cody didn’t need any more titles to confirm that status. His name and legend are firmly secure in the pantheon.

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