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Sunday 17 December 2017

Cody's juggling faces acid test

Richie Hogan. Picture: Piaras O Midheach/SPORTSFILE
Richie Hogan. Picture: Piaras O Midheach/SPORTSFILE

THESE are the big decisions that managers live or die by. Even when you're the greatest of them all.

"When you are winning it's a stroke of genius, and when you get beaten it's a stroke of lunacy," says Adrian Ronan, echoing the widespread surprise among the Kilkenny cognoscenti at the make-up of the team put into replay battle against Galway last weekend.

"It's a fine line," Ronan adds. "Maybe that's how fine a line it is at the moment. Managers lose matches but players win them."

A playing contemporary of DJ Carey, and more recently Kilkenny's minor manager, Ronan was among the large Black-and-Amber throng who returned to Tullamore last Saturday, six days after the glorious anarchy of the original Leinster semi-final stalemate.

Doubtless like many of his fellow county men, he couldn't be sure what was coming next. He certainly didn't anticipate the team selection when it was finally revealed, shortly before throw-in.

For once, Cody had eschewed his usual Friday night announcement - a summer ritual as ingrained as the annual Kilkenny All-Ireland press night in Langton's, pre-2013. Now, with O'Connor Park filling to its 17,000-plus capacity, the PA announcer confirmed a team showing five changes in personnel … and some pivotal positional tinkering too.

Call-ups for Joey Holden and Brian Hogan in defence, Conor Fogarty in a new midfield role, Tommy Walsh and Aidan Fogarty up front. Crucially, Jackie Tyrrell back in the left corner, freeing up that centre-back conundrum for Hogan to refill.

"No one had picked the team the last day," Ronan admits. "The Kilkenny team that played against Galway the second day, most would have picked 12 or 13 but no one would have picked the 15 ... that is not normal in Kilkenny teams. You would normally pick the 15 in Cody's era.

"But definitely in the last year, but particularly last Saturday, some came out of nowhere."

Oracle

On Saturday, Cody's reshuffle worked the oracle and Kilkenny ran out eight-point winners - 3-19 to 1-17. True, the margin was only four points on the stroke of 70 minutes; but this time Kilkenny's overall supremacy - unlike in the drawn game - was reflected on the scoreboard.

That much is beyond refute. What remains up for debate is Kilkenny's actual place in the Liam MacCarthy pecking order, three matches into their summer campaign (starting with a worthless romp past Offaly) and after 140 frenetic minutes against Galway.

Neither the team itself, nor its inscrutable manager, has much time for such philosophical reflections because on Sunday they jump straight back into the summer cauldron. Here is that rarest of phenomena - a Leinster final where Dublin, not Kilkenny, are the holders and where much of the pre-match uncertainty centres on the challenger.

Mind you, old habits die hard ... Kilkenny are 4/9 with the bookies.

Emphatic

The local viewpoint is far less emphatic. Their trepidation partially stems from the still-fresh memories of last summer, when the team didn't hurl into August and didn't play in Croke Park for the first time under Cody's watch.

They are cautious, too, about Dublin's growing sense of authority and confidence, even when faced with their one-time nemesis. And finally, they still aren't entirely convinced by the level of scrutiny provided by Galway over the past fortnight.

"I thought Galway's touch was very bad," declares Kevin Fennelly, the last man pre-Cody to manage the Kilkenny seniors and bainisteoir of the Sky Blues for two years in the early noughties. "I was actually shocked at how poor they were ... their fouling was ridiculous. The referee nearly got embarrassed blowing up."

Thus, his judgement on his native Cats is somewhat clouded but he surmises that they have "improved slightly" from last year. The concession of five goals to Galway, the first day, is counter-balanced by the impression of a more solid defensive unit six days ago.

"We just have to wait another day to see how good our backs are - because I think Galway were disappointing," Fennelly reiterates.

"Dublin are a better team than Galway, no question about that. We'll have enough to do to beat Dublin ... they've had a rest. I thought we could have done without a game last Saturday. Dublin come at us very fresh."

Adrian Ronan is equally wary of Anthony Daly's men. If you exclude this year's Walsh Cup final, the Dubs have beaten Kilkenny in their last two meetings that mattered, last year's Leinster semi-final replay in Portlaoise and their league collision in Parnell Park last March.

"I would expect Dublin to ask more questions (than Galway)," warns Ronan. "As I said at the beginning of the year, I think Dublin are the team that everyone is forgetting about when they are talking about winners.

"They are forgetting about the Dublin revolution of the last two or three years."

Which brings us back to the Kilkenny revolution - of the team selection variety.

Even while Kilkenny were en route to winning their third consecutive Allianz League title - a first for Cody, by the way - their leader was clearly more intent on trawling the dressing-room in pursuit of more summer options.

That was one of the big shortcomings of 2013: as fatigue grew, injuries mounted and form dipped, management didn't have enough alternatives in whom they could trust.

Myriad players were blooded during the last spring. Some earned their championship spurs against Offaly. But as the Galway saga developed, some have fallen down the pecking order.

The level of upheaval last Saturday caught many off guard, but Kevin Fennelly is loath to question the judgement of a manager who is watching all these players every night and whose record is "there to be looked at".

Willy-nilly

Another former Kilkenny manager, Pat Henderson, also stresses that all these switches weren't born out of desperation.

"If you look at those changes, the players would all have experience of playing in those positions," says the iconic centre-back of '60s and '70s fame. "They weren't thrown in willy-nilly.

"Pádraig Walsh won a minor All-Ireland at centre-forward - no great surprise there. He is a 'play anywhere' kind of guy. Conor Fogarty played wing-back at minor, and midfield sometimes with the club.

"So, there is no great mystery about those (changes) other than they all occurred on the one day," Henderson goes on.

"They did learn maybe a little bit more about themselves after the last ten minutes of the (drawn) match. They found they had to tighten up in defence, and that was the secret."

Certainly, the leakage of those three late Galway goals - from the 67th minute - featured prominently in the post-mortems that followed.

"With five minutes to go the first day, it was a matter of who we would be playing in the All-Ireland," Adrian Ronan recalls.

"At the end of the game, we were as vulnerable as anyone. That five minutes of lunacy asked serious questions."

Publicly, Cody batted away such questions in the immediate aftermath but belatedly, after the replay, he conceded that Galway had run through his defence in that chaotic climax; that Kilkenny had dropped their guard and been ripped apart.

Defensive

The net result is that he went with a more defensively-minded strategy last Saturday. As one seasoned observer remarked this week, of the first 11 players, only one of them was a natural forward - Richie Hogan - and he started at midfield while actually spending most of his time around the half-back line.

As Ronan sees it, Kilkenny's midfield of late has been very good as a "scoring machine" but has leaked too heavily at the far end.

This didn't happen during the four-in-a-row era; Ronan harks back to the "under-estimated" contribution of 'Cha' Fitzpatrick as a defensive midfield shield during the glory years.

Different times ... Kevin Fennelly still has six teams on the shortlist for All-Ireland honours this year, namely Cork, Clare, Tipperary, Limerick, Dublin and Kilkenny, in no particular order.

"Any of those six are capable of winning an All-Ireland, and that's the first time that has happened in 15 years," he says, insisting the race for Liam is "more open" even than last year.

First things first, though: Sunday?

Fennelly is backing Kilkenny "for parochial reasons" but is not entirely convinced.

"I think Croke Park will suit Kilkenny and we'll find out more about Kilkenny, which we need to find out.

"It's their first time in Croke Park (bar the Walsh Cup final) in 18 months," he points out.

He then concludes: "Six players over 30 finished the game last Saturday. If they can win an All-Ireland, fair play to them. It has to be a concern for us."

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