Certain words come to mind when you think of Brian Cody; success, ruthlessness, a boundless drive. In short, he’s a winner.
It’s a reputation he has developed and earned in his 21 years in charge of the Kilkenny senior hurling team. During that time, the 65-year-old has overseen 11 All-Ireland victories, 15 Leinster championship title victories and has won nine National Leagues, taking only a short break in 2013 after undergoing heart surgery.
His dedication to Kilkenny over the decades is immeasurable and it is no surprise that he will go down as one of the greatest GAA managers of all time when he decides to step aside, though don’t expect that to be any time soon.
Great players have come and gone under the Cody reign and what aided his success, was his ability to recognise when to take a chance on a player and when it was necessary to drop a player regardless of name or reputation. The good of the team before anything else.
Anyone to wear the black and amber jersey will surely testify to his cut-throat nature but many former players have also highlighted his willingness to help an individual in any way that he could.
That rarely seen aspect of his personality bounced off the pages in Eoin Larkin’s autobiography Camouflage written with Pat Nolan.
The duo have a long-standing relationship from clubmates, to student/teacher, to player/manager. Cody gave the eight-time All-Ireland winner his first start at senior inter-county hurling and trusted in him to transform into the prolific hurler he became.
However, it was his intervention in Larkin’s life off the field that possibly made the biggest impact of all.
For much of his adult life, the 35-year-old has lived with depression and has previously endured suicidal thoughts. During such periods, Larkin described his inability to get out of bed, his complete disinterest in training, hurling, anything that previously motivated him or brought him joy.
Yet despite his wife’s insistence, Larkin was unable to recognise and acknowledge that he had depression.
“I think it was just a ‘man’ thing to do – you don’t want to acknowledge that there’s something wrong with you”, he told Pundit Arena.
“My wife had been telling me for a long time that I was depressed, she was right obviously, but I just wasn’t willing to accept that there was something wrong with me.
“I often hear people saying that when they get a diagnosis of cancer that they think ‘this doesn’t happen to me, this happens to somebody else’ and I think that’s the way I felt with depression. It happens to somebody else, it doesn’t happen to me, it doesn’t happen to my family, it happens to the fella down the road. That’s the way I would have looked at it throughout my life.“
Larkin had previously visited the doctor but without his full buy-in, it proved futile. Yet one early morning phone call in 2016 after a zombie-like performance in a club game for James Stephens gave him the jolt he needed.
“How are you feeling?” asked Cody. And Larkin broke down in tears.
The Kilkenny manager advised him to speak to the team doctor Tadhg Crowley and Larkin recalls how, once he admitted his suicidal thoughts to him, he left a weight lifted off his shoulders.
“Until I was in floods of tears talking to Brian Cody when he asked me a simple question, I could never have realised what it was. After that, you have to acknowledge that there’s something wrong.”
Crowley prescribed anti-depressants for the former Hurler of the Year and he immediately noticed the difference in his mood and behaviour.
While only a matter of years ago, he couldn’t acknowledge his feelings, now he is upfront about taking medication and while he insists that there is no universal solution, he hopes that his openness can inspire others.
“It can be hard to talk about, people don’t want to acknowledge that they have a mental illness because of the stigma attached to it over the last number of years. I’d rather be taking some medication and feel good on a daily basis rather than feeling the way I was feeling for years.
“If I have to take that medication for the rest of my life, I’m very comfortable to do that. People just have to realise and be comfortable with that kind of a thing.
“One size doesn’t fit all and people’s experiences will be different. But look, I hope that they can take some solace from what I said in the book and get to a doctor or talk to someone that they feel they can talk to and go and get help from themselves.”
Needless to say, Larkin is very grateful to Brian Cody for recognising that something wasn’t right and picking up the phone. However, he doesn’t believe that he is special or unique in the manager’s eyes because of their history.
Everyone who passes through the Kilkenny squad feels the compassion of Cody if they need it.
“I suppose the persona that he has in the media is a cut-throat man who expects the very best and he has all that as well but I’m sure if you talk to, not just me, but anybody who has gone through the Kilkenny team with Brian Cody, if you have a problem at all, you can go and talk to him. Whether that be personal, work-life, hurling-wise, he’s always there to talk to and he’s very approachable. If there’s anything that he can do, he will do it.
“Obviously, I’ve felt the maximum effects of that with that phone call that morning. I have a lot to be thankful for to Brian hurling-wise, but also in my life as well.
“He’s been a huge part of my life even growing up, he taught me St Patrick’s school, he was part of the club I was involved in and obviously he was the manager when I was there with Kilkenny as well. I’ve seen all the different sides of him. But it’s not just me, everyone who has gone through Kilkenny has seen different sides of Brian and that’s just one of the sides that’s good about him.”
At this stage, it’s almost impossible to imagine a Kilkenny team without Cody at the helm. Of course, there is speculation that Henry Shefflin is being readied to take over given his success with Ballyhale Shamrocks while Eddie Brennan is also being touted.
Such talk is inevitable but in this case, it almost feels disrespectful to a man who clearly has so much left to give to his beloved county. People talk about a team in transition, that has lost almost all of the glory players while young guns are being blooded in. Yet the one constant that remains is Brian Cody and his unique ability to get the very best out of whatever is put in front of him.
“To be honest, I can see him staying there for a very long time. He loves what he does, he’s passionate about it and he just has an insatiable hunger for Kilkenny. As long as he believes he can make a difference in there, he’ll be there for the foreseeable future.”
Larkin maintains that no other manager could have taken the Cats to the All-Ireland final in 2019, a run that included a spectacular win over Limerick that reminded him of Kilkenny teams of old.
“Watching that game probably have to 2007, 2008 when we were working so hard for each other rather than yourself. Limerick did come back at Kilkenny in that game but you never felt like Kilkenny were going to lose it.
“They refused to be beaten on that day, refused to give up on anything and that’s a trait that Brian has instilled in teams over the last 20 years.
Kilkenny are associated with a sheer love and desire for the game. They live and breathe hurling. As Larkin described in his book, you could put any set of hurdles in front of a Kilkenny team and they will just get on with the game regardless. They have no interest in outside factors, they just want to hurl.
And who is the ring leader and driver of such a mentality? Brian Cody of course.
“I genuinely feel that’s led by Brian Cody. The team talks never differ or the meetings. When he speaks at meetings, it would still be the same words that are spoken all the time but he just reinvigorates things to a different level and you’d always walk out of there with a renewed belief that you can win an All-Ireland final. That’s one of his greatest traits, that he’s able to instil that belief in players and he’s able to motivate players on a regular basis.
“Even when we were there and winning so much, he kept us hungry, he kept us motivated and he changed the team around when it was needed and brought in new blood. That’s one of his greatest feats, that he’s able to keep himself motivated more so than players.
“It can be hard to motivate yourself but I think Brian was just brilliant at being able to do that. If he saw any sign of mental weakness, he knew the time to pull you together and have a chat with you.
“Obviously Jim Gavin is very good at it as well because Dublin are after winning five-in-a-row. It doesn’t seem to be widespread, the amount of people who have the ability to be able to do that but Brian is definitely one of them. I don’t think you can gain that experience, it’s either there or it’s not and Brian obviously has it and he’s able to use it in abundance.”
‘Camouflage’ is available in all bookstores now