It has long been a tool of Brian Cody’s personality that, though it might be summer, you’ll find ice on the inside of the windows.
riendship was never part of the transaction in his management of Kilkenny hurlers. If anything, the longer he has stayed, the more closed he has chosen to be towards his own dressing-room. It is as if the powers of kinship that govern success must, for him, carry a specific timeline.
Some of hurling’s most gilded careers have, accordingly, been ended with the cold equivalence of an eviction notice. All-Stars one minute, training ground bodies the next. Cody’s leadership is predicated on an understanding that nobody should be too comfortable within the group.
Or entirely safe.
On some levels, that single-mindedness has been his greatness. The ability to rinse emotion from decision-making. To create an imperceptible distance.
No player ever truly penetrated that distance, although it was broadly assumed that Henry Shefflin came close. Cody’s greatest on-field lieutenant would, after all, routinely slip away from Tuesday post-All-Ireland celebrations with team-mates for a quiet drink with management.
He alone had that ease of access, that status.
Within the county this week, “sadness” is the recurring expression in response to what seems a complete breakdown in the relationship between two iconic figures of hurling’s most successful team. Sadness that the most basic civility seems a struggle for Cody now in any engagement with the Ballyhale man.
The sight of Henry in a Galway tracksuit appears to offend his former manager quite profoundly. Why?
A view has long prevailed that the presence of the Connacht county in Leinster’s championship has never seemed an entirely palatable contrivance to Kilkenny’s boss. All-Ireland semi-final defeats to Galway in ’01 and ’05 are still considered crucible moments in his 24-year reign, but it is his fury at a 10-point Leinster final loss in 2012 that is remembered to this day as Cody at his most explosive.
So what do we actually know of what has been unspooling ten years later?
Anecdotally, Henry was invited to join Kilkenny’s management team in recent times (though neither party has confirmed this) and the rejection of that invitation appears to have darkened into some deep betrayal in Cody’s eyes through Shefflin’s subsequent decision to manage Galway.
For such a self-contained, self-aware figure, there was something intensely uncomfortable about watching the bad mood shimmer off Kilkenny’s manager – that glare, the delayed release of his hand – when offered a conventional post-match courtesy in Salthill on May 1.
True, Cody was clearly furious over the late award of a free that, essentially, won the Leinster round-robin game for Galway. But for TV camera personnel and photographers, that handshake was always going to be the day’s ‘money shot’. In the job for close to a quarter of a century now, Cody surely knew this. Yet he could not seem to complete the act without communicating an almost ungainly hostility towards Shefflin.
Having won his 18th Leinster title in Croke Park last Saturday evening, Cody had no apparent interest in diffusing that tension.
His post-match walk out on to the field was – in itself – a media event as he seemed intent on avoiding eye contact with Henry, who stood stone-faced on the line.
Eventually, prodded by conscience (or maybe it was anger), Shefflin took the initiative. The resultant handshake proved cursory at best and was followed by a clearly deliberate shake of the head from Henry.
Standing under the same dark sky, two of Kilkenny’s greatest men were islands.
And however bleak the energies of Salthill, this felt even colder. Confirmation for all to witness that no conciliatory phone call had been made nor, it seemed, would be. Cody’s record as Kilkenny manager speaks in a clear, clarion tone that ordinarily defies challenge.
But this feels as if it runs to a different place.
Ruthless culling of players and pointed resistance to sentiment has always been his style and even those hurt in the process have always recognised those as the unchallenged conditions of involvement with Kilkenny.
When DJ Carey was dropped for the 2004 Leinster final, there was no sugar-coating of the decision to omit such an iconic figure. Other managers might have alluded vaguely to injury, but Cody would have been entirely comfortable with the public’s understanding that he was dropping DJ.
Other All-Stars like Pat O’Neill, Eamonn Kennedy, Philly Larkin, Charlie Carter, Brian McEvoy, Denis Byrne and John Power were all decreed surplus to requirements before they themselves even anticipated the bad news coming.
After walking away in ‘03, Carter said he would never attend another Kilkenny game as long as Cody remained manager. Captain that year but unable to force his way into the starting 15, Carter believed he was treated “shabbily” by the manager.
“It’s something I’ll never forgive Brian Cody for,” he declared in his autobiography.
The last appearance of Power’s 16-year career with Kilkenny famously arrived in the dying seconds of their comfortable 2002 All-Ireland final defeat of Clare, but only after pleas from Shefflin and current Kilkenny selector Martin Comerford to put him on. For Cody, that concession to sentiment remains a resolutely untypical act.
Twenty years on, the Callan farmer is at a loss to rationalise today’s sundering of what once seemed an unbreakable bond.
If anything, he says, the fashion in Kilkenny now is to seek refuge in making light of something that creaks with such a depressing weight.
“You’d have salesmen coming into the yard here and they’d stick out the hand, then pull it back,” he reflected on Thursday.
“And we’d have the big laugh. Then they’d say to me, ‘John what’s going on?’ And all I can answer is ‘I wish I knew!’
“It’s very hard to have a judgment on it because, really, the only two people who know what’s going on are Brian and Henry. Everyone else is surmising. My read on it is that the county board wanted Henry to come on board with Brian, but he went to Galway instead.
“That was his choice and once he made it, wouldn’t you imagine it was over and done with for Brian? But it’s very sad to see what’s happening between them now because, at the end of the day, there’s loads of room for the two of them in hurling.”
Power suspects that the story is taking a starker toll on one than the other now.
“I heard Henry say on the television that he’s not bothered by it, but his body language on Saturday evening didn’t portray that,” he says. “I thought he wasn’t himself, even during the match. Now the Shefflins have been through enough of late for that, maybe, to be understandable.
“But, in all fairness, Michael Fennelly went to Offaly and there wasn’t a word about it. Eddie Brennan went to Laois and not a word. Maybe there was just a sense coming out of Galway that they were nearly going to canter to the All-Ireland even though Joe Canning – the best hurler they ever had – had just retired.
“And Brian is stubborn. There’s no relenting with him. When anything was put up against him, he always went full belt for it. And you could see a lot more bite in Kilkenny last Saturday than in previous matches. He wanted to win that game.
“I think everyone in Kilkenny recognises what he’s done for the county. But there would be a sense of people wondering why he’s doing this now too. It’s unfortunate because they’re great men.
“But I suppose, at the end of the day, it’s hard to change who you are.”
Heavy, unanswerable questions now follow this story down a cul-de-sac. Few people in sport are more fixed, more stoic, more unchanging than the Kilkenny manager and that, broadly, would be fine in just about any other circumstance.
But the idea of Shefflin today as some kind of unfaithful son of the county, an enemy at the gate, guilty of some wretched sin, is surely unsustainable in any adult conversation.
In both Salthill and Croke Park, it was he who offered his hand to Cody and, in both instances, it was Cody who seemed unwelcoming. And a great sadness must lie across Kilkenny as long as that energy endures.
Is it credible that 16 years shared together through some of modern hurling’s most epochal days means so little? Cody may never have entertained the inclination to turn a mellow gaze back to old glory days, but if Henry Shefflin isn’t worth his time today, what does it say of the value he puts on anyone in a Kilkenny dressing-room?
Are the bonds espoused really just a convenience of time?