Brian Cody - Switches can be 'brutal'
THE Black-and-Amber ether has been thick with rumours about several potential changes to the Kilkenny team for their All-Ireland SHC final replay against Tipperary.
The talk is that Henry Shefflin, Kieran Joyce and Pádraig Walsh have all featured on the 'A' team in recent training matches. This has fuelled inevitable speculation that Brian Cody's recent musical chairs policy could continue with up to three more alterations this weekend.
But while Cody has never been shy about shaking up his line-up, his penchant for mid-game manoeuvres is far less pronounced.
He has been Kilkenny manager for 14 All-Ireland finals dating back to 1999 and made 38 substitutions in the process - averaging just over 2.7 per game (see panel).
Only four changes came in the first half, one at half-time, and at least three of these five were injury-related - arguably four, as Brian McEvoy was just back from a dislocated shoulder in 2000.
Moreover, holding back Shefflin until the 66th minute of that epic stalemate with Tipperary ten days ago has been cited, in some quarters, as further proof of a conservative substitution policy. Cody himself alluded to this during Kilkenny's press conference ahead of Saturday's Croke Park replay. "Most people here probably think I take too long," he said, "but that's another day's work. I mean, we have made changes quickly in some matches."
Then, this usually inscrutable interviewee cut to the heart of why he doesn't rush to empty his bench. "It's a hard thing to do, for starters, to take a player off," he said, belying the 'Mister Ruthless' stereotype. "There's no enjoyment in that. It's a brutal thing to be doing, for a player, and we not devoid of the feelings that the players would have ... we hate doing that but we do what we have to do.
"These calls, you either get them right or you get them wrong judged on how the game goes eventually. But I never, ever would claim to be the kind of fella who knows exactly what to do when I'm on the sideline - I don't.
"Eventually you decide to do something and it could be right, it could be wrong. You could make a change and you could win the game and it could go well for you and then people will say, 'Oh, but you should have made that change 20 minutes ago.'
"You go with your instinct, that's it. It varies and there'll always be players that you trust them: 'He'll be okay, he'll be okay, he's working, he's working, it's just not working out for him.' And then you'll say: 'Look it, I think he's off his game' ... and you just go with what you think."
He was then asked how he deals, subsequently, with a player who has been hauled off?
"You'd certainly be disappointed - obviously broken-hearted, to put it mildly, you'd be feeling like that. Would I have feelings for the fella? Most definitely," he maintained.
"It's an instinct, what you do (then). Some fellas are better off just left alone and maybe have a chat with him the next day; or sometimes you go to a fella straight away. I don't tend to go over to a fella when he's coming off the pitch and shake hands with him. For what, like?
"But certainly I would have absolute respect and a sense of the disappointment that that player feels ... it's an absolutely huge thing. I'd obviously have tremendous sympathy for anybody who, when you go to play a game like that, it doesn't work out for you. But at the end of the day we're a panel, we're a panel, we're a panel," he reiterated. "And we do what we have to do."
The Kilkenny management is not totally averse to early switches - even as the team went score-crazy against Offaly last June, Brian Kennedy's SHC debut lasted just 27 minutes because of some leakage to Brian Carroll.
But that switch was atypical of the summer trend, especially on All-Ireland days.
When Cody first assumed the Nowlan Park hotseat, a team was permitted just three full subs per game but that soon increased to five.
Yet Cody has been notoriously slow to embrace the 20-man concept on match day. In just one of his 14 finals - the heavy loss to Tipperary in 2010 - did he empty his bench. Even then, the only early change was precipitated by Shefflin's ill-fated cruciate 'gamble' - the remaining four changes came in the last 20 minutes.
This policy has attracted some critical comment, most notably (perhaps) after the 2004 final when Cork pulled away to win by eight points. Kilkenny didn't score from play in the second half, were held scoreless for the final 25 minutes - yet the first of just two substitutions didn't materialise until the 63rd minute.
The 2012 drawn final was notable for just one switch - again, only coming after 63 minutes.
In counter-argument, you can cite Martin Comerford's match-turning introduction in that classic 2009 decider against Tipp.
And besides, sometimes it's the pre-match selection gambles that make all the difference. Remember Walter Walsh, sprung from left field for the 2012 replay? Who's to say Cody hasn't another rabbit up his sleeve ...