Kilkenny manager Brian Cody at a pre-All Ireland final media event at Langton House Hotel, Co. Kilkenny last Sunday. INPHO/TOMMY DICKSON
By Dave Hannigan
There is a wonderful piece of video available on YouTube that features Alex Ferguson giving a speech at Salford City FC, the lower league club now owned by Gary Neville and the rest of his famous class of 92. With a microphone in his hand, Ferguson delivers a motivational talk the central theme of which is that “hard work is a talent.” It’s thought-provoking stuff and, listening to him, even years into retirement in a conference setting, you can see why so many players of different generations wanted to play and to win for him.
Arguably the most impressive thing about Ferguson’s achievement at Manchester United was the longevity of it. He took over at Old Trafford in 1986 and left in 2013. The players he managed in that first campaign were earning money not that far removed from the real world. On a Saturday afternoon (because that’s when games were played back then), that squad turned up for matches knowing that the win bonus in their contract mattered in terms of their weekly earnings. By the time Ferguson managed Untied for the last time, the win bonus scarcely figured in the calculations of footballers earning stratospheric wages.
Ferguson’s genius was being able to manage and to wring the best out of his players in those very different eras. When he took over the manager of any football club held all the power and the men in the dressing-room knew it. By the time he left the axis had shifted in a world where the individual stars earned so much money and enjoyed such celebrity that they were brands/corporations of their own. Yet, Ferguson could still win titles even though the environment had been turned on its head and those he sent out in his later seasons were enjoying lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Which brings us to Brian Cody. He took over the Kilkenny hurlers in November 1998. On this Sunday, Aug 18, he leads them into an All-Ireland final (counting replays) for the 18th time, questing for his 12th title. The statistics are ridiculous. That much is obvious and, win or lose, he is the greatest GAA manager in history. However, the longevity and the endurance is worth noting too. Like Ferguson, he has been in charge through eras of social and sporting change and the common denominator is that he keeps winning.
Hurling pundits have written and spoken a lot lately about how much the game has changed from the 1990s and even early 2000s. It has evolved into a possession sport where a canny 20 -ard pass is now more highly prized than the old staple of a defender bursting out of the back and hurling the sliotar blindly 70 yards down the field towards the full-forward. Cody won his first Liam McCarthy in 2000. Nearly two decades later, here is he again, trying to win another in a match that in style and content will be unrecognizable from his first victory against Offaly.
Part of Cody’s greatness is that he has evolved with hurling itself. For the longest time, the word from Kilkenny was that they eschewed the tactical revolution but the evidence suggests they have changed with the times. But, reacting to the on-field transformation of the sport isn’t the only reason why the Kilkenny boss should be lauded. When he took over the county 21 years ago, the world was a different place. The players who walked into that first dressing-room were different animals than the characters in there today. They, literally, belonged in a different century.
For starters, the amount of media coverage of hurling has mushroomed during his time in charge. The advent of social media has ramped up the pressure and demands on individual players. In terms of time and commitment and lifestyle, being an inter-county hurler today is a lot different from what it used to be. Yet, Cody still presides over Kilkenny with his baseball cap on his head, the one constant, unmoved by the winds of change, still able to send out a bunch of players now young enough to be his grandchildren trying to win glory. Still knowing they will do anything for that black and amber jersey and for him. How very Ferguson-like.