Last month Eddie Brennan left inter-county hurling for good. The game, though, will never leave him. Nor will the medals, the eight All-Irelands, 10 Leinsters, four National Leagues. He could have hung in there, of course, hoping – quite reasonably – that September’s road would be paved in gold yet again and that a ninth Liam McCarthy would place his name in the pantheon above the Christy Rings and the John Doyles.
Yet hanging around for the sake of keeping up appearances just isn’t his style. While he’s proud of what he did, and almost embarrassed that his medal collection places him in the same breath as Ring, Doyle and Shefflin, he knew the birth of his first child, Harry, five months ago was another factor in explaining the death of his inter-county career.
“More than anything you have to be honest to yourself, firstly, and to be fair to your teammates and the whole set up, secondly. And the last thing I’d want is to commit to the season and then to reach May or June and realise then that between work, family and training commitments that I wasn’t able to give 100 per cent to the cause,” says Brennan. “That’d be the wrong thing to do.”
It’s this desire to do the right thing which reminds you of a child hoping to gain approval from a discerning parent, symptomatic of the relationship pretty much every Kilkenny hurler has with Brian Cody. Brennan’s was no different. His entire inter-county career was served under one manager and even though he was Kilkenny’s GPA representative (Cody’s antipathy to the players organisation is well known) a mutual respect prevented any disconnect occurring.
Of course it’s easy to respect a manager when he continually delivers but to gain an understanding of their dynamic, you have to go back to a time when no one believed in Brennan as much as his manager. The year was 1999 and the month was November. Henry Shefflin was the new kid on the block but down the corridor sat Brennan, a player Cody had found before Brennan had found himself. He was less sure of himself then, vulnerable to the angry voices from the terrace and someone who looked in awe at DJ Carey, even though Carey was a team mate.
Yet Cody brought the man out of the boy – his development of Brennan as a player acting as a perfect microcosm of his development of the greatest hurling team of all time.
“When I look back on my 12 years, there is a great pride in the men we were moulded into,” he says. “No matter what we did, what we won, what we lost, we had this attitude instilled into us that we shouldn’t gloat, that we shouldn’t get stuck in the moment.
“That’s down to Brian. He’s his own man, first and foremost, but he has been successful because he has been adaptable, because he’s changed with the times, because he has delegated responsibility to guys who are experts in certain fields and because he views every player the same, that we have to be grounded and have a certain work ethic.”
It’s a simple enough manifesto but implementing your policies isn’t always so straightforward, especially when you win an All-Ireland with effortless ease in your second season and reach a semi-final in your third having not been tested before …. BANG – you get ambushed by Galway. “Three days stick in my mind in the making of us,” says Brennan, “and Galway in 2001 was the biggest one. That seemed to be educational for Brian because from that day on, he was constantly reminding us that we had to dictate the terms in games and not allow the opposition to bully us as Galway did.
“Then, in 2005, Galway beat us again and after it, The Kilkenny People ran a headline saying –‘Thanks for the memories boys’ and privately, I thought, ‘right, I’m not finished yet anyway’.”
And so he proved as he, and Kilkenny, came back – duly winning a four-in-a-row. Tipperary ended that sequence in 2010 and in spring 2011, Dublin defeated the Cats in the League final. Cue another sporting obituary and cue Cody, “using that as a stick to bate us with. Publicly we kept quiet about those things but privately it stung that we were dismissed so quick.”
If the development of a chip-on-the-shoulder was an uncomplicated arrangement that everyone happily bought into then Cody’s handling of the Shefflin-Carey marriage was anything but. Of course it helped that when Shefflin arrived in 1999, Carey was happy to offload some of the scoring responsibilities.
“There’s no doubt Henry took the pressure off DJ,” says Brennan. “I mean, while it would be unfair to say DJ carried the Kilkenny side of the 90s on his own, by the same token he was head and shoulders above the rest. He was our banker to pull a result out for us. By 1999, Henry was there to share the free-taking duties, leaving DJ to think more about his own game.”
And all of a sudden, Carey smoothly moved back into top gear, winning a second Hurler of the Year title in 2000, scoring nine goals in eight Championship games during Shefflin’s first two seasons, the hottest streak of his career. “In many ways, they’d be similar characters,” Brennan says. “There’d be no ego there with either of them. Both would be fierce grounded and would talk to any new lad coming into a panel. Like, I remember when I joined, DJ would have been like a God to me. He’d been the player I’d have gone to see as a kid growing up and here I was sitting in a dressing-room with him.
“That sort of thing can intimidate you. So what did DJ do? He came across and spoke to me and because he is quietly spoken, because he’s just an ordinary buck like the rest of us, the fan-worship thing goes. He showed that to Henry and clearly had enormous respect for him. Think about it. Here was the best player of his generation letting a new guy take the frees right from the word go on his Championship debut. That tells you DJ is the ultimate team player. If a pass was to be made, he’d make it. He wouldn’t have cared if it was Henry or him scoring. There’d be no debate or fighting over who should take the frees, no sulking that this new star had arrived onto the scene. DJ’s no prima-donna. And even if he, or anyone else for that matter, was, Brian wouldn’t have tolerated it. He‘d have no divas in the dressing room.”
Instead, he had the two of the best players in Kilkenny’s history and by 2004, Shefflin had taken over the baton of team-leader, a title he still holds.
Unlike Brennan, he’s hanging around for a shot at a ninth All-Ireland. Then again, his job and home isn’t based in Portlaoise. His work doesn’t involve late night shifts. He has a family network around him to help with the children. His pressures are altogether different.
Watching his old school-pal – and his old team – chase a ninth All-Ireland will fascinate Brennan this year, as will the opening rounds of the National League which start this weekend. Yet it will hurt too.
“I’ve no doubt I’ll miss it, especially on the big Croke Park days. It’s going to be weird and I don’t envisage it being easy.”
Nor does he envisage Kilkenny’s summer being easy.
“I’m wary of Cork. They’ve a good man at the helm again and the last time Jimmy Barry Murphy was there with a young team, they won the 1999 All-Ireland. If I was a betting man, I’d be putting a few pound on them. You’ve also got to look at Dublin closely and there’s probably a bit of pressure on them to step up another level this season but if anyone can cope with that pressure, it’s Anthony Daly. Tipp probably took their eyes off the ball last year and maybe took things for granted. They’ll miss Lar Corbett but they’ll remain a huge threat. There is nothing like the disappointment of an All-Ireland final defeat to drive you on.”
“Brian will treat the League as he always does, wanting to win every game but not too worried if we don’t because his priority will be to develop the team and put a focus on performances and unearthing a few new players.”
After all, a few holes have been left unfilled. The one at corner forward is the biggest of all.