WESTSIDE COLUMN FROM CLONMEL NATIONALIST

With the playing pitches squelching to a halt, the lead up to Christmas is usually the time when GAA biographies hit the book shelves for the festive market. Prominent among this year’s reading list is ‘Cody’, the story of the Kilkenny hurling manager as scripted by ‘Irish Independent’ journalist, Martin Breheny. As the most successful hurling manager ever, the book obviously doesn’t lack for material, though the end product for this columnist was disappointing.

Writing the Brian Cody story in 2009 carries an obvious limitation: Cody is a work in progress. He has been in county management since late 1998 and surely one of the sillier questions he was asked after last September’s All Ireland was whether or not he will be continuing next year. Managers don’t quit while on the cusp of an unprecedented wave of success.

In those circumstances there’s an obvious curtailment on commentary, one that limits the scope of this book. Whether reflecting on Kilkenny players or on rival managers, Brian Cody was never going to open up when one eye is already on next year’s campaign. This was never going to be a confessional account of the last decade. In essence this biography is premature.

And therein rests one of the main flaws with the production. The blurb at the back tells us that the book gives ‘a unique insight into the life and times of Brian Cody’. If it lived up to that claim then it would indeed be a fascinating read for hurling followers. Unfortunately, however, there’s nothing insightful between the pages of this book and by the end the man remains as inscrutable as ever.

Picture those post-match press briefings where Cody peers out from under the peak of the baseball cap and feeds the media their usual dose of meaningless platitudes: the opposition was excellent and Kilkenny faced a savage challenge and were lucky to win in the end etc. etc. Now enlarge that theme for a book and you have the tone and texture of much of this biography.

I have an issue with many of these GAA biographies, not just Brian Cody’s. For me a biography should be revealing. It should take you behind the scene and shed a light on events that are usually hidden from the public gaze. If privacy is your priority then don’t write a biography. Once you commit to such a publication you are putting yourself out there and the pundits who pay twenty euro for the book have a right to expect something more than mere church-pulpit stuff about spirit, respect and honesty, Cody’s three-pronged mantra.

A colleague told me he ditched this book after about eight of the thirty-five chapters. I can understand why. In fact the opening quarter of the book is particularly plodding and does test one’s endurance. If you’re a regular GAA follower the details of championship games are as unexciting as last week’s news. Yet you have these individual chapters which begin with the words ‘Martin Breheny writes:’ and there follows a long account of the championship progress of a particular year.

To be fair (am I ever otherwise?) there are some sections, which rise above the hum-drum, especially when Cody gets passionate about an issue. (There is always a sense with Brian Cody of public restraint and the outburst with Marty Morrissey after last year’s All Ireland final was a rare example of the mask slipping). On James McGarry’s failure to win an Allstar award you can sense the manager fuming: ‘Shame on the All Star selectors, they have done the scheme a great disservice … they demeaned themselves and the scheme … Still Kilkenny people know the truth about James McGarry and that’s more important than recognition by people who got this one so badly wrong’.

Brendan Cummins was one of the goalies who kept McGarry off the Allstar list and when you look at the individual years involved, Cody’s case weakens. Kilkenny people have a huge and understandable affection for McGarry, which tends to colour their judgment, but All Star selectors operate from a different premise. A goalie can only be judged on the saves he makes during the year and with a goalie there’s no juggling of positions like in defence or attack. The unfortunate thing for McGarry was that other goalies made a greater impact during each of those years and he lost out as a result. This year for once a Kilkenny goalie, P.J. Ryan, was seen as crucial to the All Ireland win and, sure enough, he got his All Star.

Brian Cody has a go at others too, as would be expected. The rivalry with Ger Loughnane in ’07 led, at the time, to an untypical outburst by the Kilkenny manager. Remember Loughnane had suggested that Cody’s players were using unsavoury tactics such as ‘flicking and belting across the wrists’. Cody’s response in the book, however, is restrained enough: ‘I was disappointed by Ger’s rubbish in 2007’.

There’s real grit in his criticisms of others, though, especially after the 2005 All Ireland semi-final defeat by Galway. A fellow Kilkenny man, Enda McEvoy of ‘The Sunday Tribune’, comes in for a lash after suggesting that Liam McCarthy wouldn’t be coming to Kilkenny again any time soon. You sense a certain touchiness here over comments from one of their own: ‘And that was coming from a Kilkenny man – so what did the rest think?’ Donal O’Grady too takes at hit at that stage.

In all of this there’s a certain defensiveness. Criticism sits uneasy with the manager, though he might protest otherwise. There are also barriers up when it comes to internal matters. In ’03 there were stories of internal frictions, which led eventually to Charlie Carter and Brian McEvoy departing from the panel in mid season. Remember Denis Byrne also had issues. You might expect some development of this topic but it’s surprisingly glossed over. The players opted out, that was it, goodbye.

What disappoints me about this book is that the subject has such great potential. Like many hurling followers I admire Cody for his remarkable achievements. In particular he represents for me a return to the basics. We’ve gone through (are still suffering) an era of false sophistication, an age of fanciful training methods where the simple is made complicated. Yet here is Brian Cody with his old-style focus on the training session where two teams whip into each other and replicate match-day conditions. The match is king and it’s a winning recipe. He’s a refreshing antidote to modern trends in hurling.

Martin Breheny is a man I admire too. Aside from the ‘colour’ writers, such as Vincent Hogan or Tom Humphries, I consider Breheny to be top of the class among the regular match reporters for the dailies. He is always well informed, accurate and balanced in his coverage of events. Last summer he stood apart as one of the few journalists who with great foresight anticipated Kerry’s football defeat of Dublin. Unfortunately in this book he’s hostage to a very impenetrable subject and suffers by association.

From a Tipperary perspective I suppose the events of the past year were bound to feature in this book because it was a season dominated by the Tipperary\Kilkenny saga. League and championship represent the twin peaks of the season and Tipperary and Kilkenny played out a two-part series that enchanted the hurling world. Sadly of course Kilkenny edged them both, so we were left bridesmaids on each occasions.

With regard to the league final there’s one extraordinary assertion from Cody in this book. On Henry Shefflin’s dismissal Brian has the following to say: ‘Henry isn’t the sort of fella who gets involved with opponents – unless, of course, he gets roughed up, which he did yesterday’. Indeed. Henry Shefflin roughed up, presumably by Padraic Maher his direct opponent on the ‘forty’. Curiously most Tipperary followers will remember the roughing up on the other side as Maher ruled the air over Shefflin. Then we’re told that Shefflin was sent off for ‘mistiming a pull’. Hm!

Incidentally Martin Comerford was sent off because Declan Fanning insisted on letting him know just how tough a game it was when he was introduced as a sub for the injured Brian Hogan. Who was in once said, tell the story and tell it slanted?

Anyway it is Cody’s story and so we can’t expect that it will have down-the-middle objectivity. I’m not condemning the book on the basis of those skewed assertions. In fact, in one sense they help to add spice, spark debate and generally liven it up somewhat.

At its core this book disappoints because it lacks revelation. It was at best mildly interesting but hardly a page-turner. In fact long before the finish it became something of a chore and if it wasn’t for this column I too would have given up, or at best flicked through for mention of games like the league and championship finals of ’09. Even the book’s structure, cutting back and forth between ’09 and earlier years, does nothing to enhance the reader’s experience.

It might have been otherwise. I would have liked some sense of the dressing room, the training camp, the behind-the-scenes stuff that can often be instructive. We got none. Or how about a bit more on Cody’s earlier life, his background, family, early development as a hurler. Again zilch. The manager is regarded as a shrewd judge of players but there was little analysis here of any hurler. Absent too was any substantial treatment of tactics on a given day. Instead platitudes ruled.

One little incident from the book sums up its limitations. After a major defeat Cody hinted to the players that he may not be continuing. Later in the car park he was approached by three of the players who pleaded with him not to resign. He was, of course, chuffed and stayed on but he refuses to name the three players. Why? Because, he says, the dressing room stuff is sacrosanct. And there in a nutshell you have the flaw in this book. Too much is sacrosanct and kept hidden. Buy it if you will but for me it wasn’t worth the twenty euro.

P.S. Best wishes to Cashel this weekend in their bid for a second All Ireland senior camogie title. They play Athenry, though the venue is undecided as I write. Good luck to them.

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