It was November of 1996. Ireland were taking on the then so called “minnow” of Iceland in a World Cup qualifier in the old Landsdowne Road. After Jack Charlton’s long reign had come to an end the previous December, the side were in the midst of a rebuilding process, and it wasn’t necessarily the smoothest transition.
Into the middle of this troubled re-construction came the prodigal son of Roy Keane, who had returned to the Ireland set-up after one of his customary “bust-ups” during the summer. As Keane was one of the most expensive and valued players in the Premier League, giving him a pivotal role in the international side was of paramount importance. It seemed obvious then, that the then Irish manager Mick McCarthy would return him to his natural position of midfield for the game. But, for reasons known only to himself, McCarthy put Keane in the unfamiliar position of central defence, and rather than overcome the Nordic side easily as expected, Ireland struggled to a stuttering goalless draw.
As you can imagine the knives were out in force after such an inauspicious result. Eamon Dunphy, as he was won’t to do, came on to RTE to berate McCarthy’s usage of Keane in his own inimitable style: “The problem is he’s got the rolls royce at home in the garage”
It’s not a direct comparison but there are echoes of McCarthy’s usage of Keane in Brian Cody’s continued deployment of Padraig Walsh at full back for the Kilkenny hurlers. They’re different sports, different people, different eras, sure, but the principle remains the same. Don’t play your best players out of position.
Now before anyone starts frothing at the mouth at a comparison between a hurler and someone from a heinous “foreign sport”, I know it’s not like with like. Padraig Walsh is one of the best hurlers in the current Kilkenny set up. Roy Keane was THE best Irish footballer of the last 25 years if not all time. But what held through for Keane holds true for Walsh.
Anyway who has watched Padraig Walsh play over the last few years will know of his importance to the Kilkenny team. Even last night it could be seen in the inspirational point he landed for the side midway through the second half. And, truth be told, his performance at full back was not altogether bad. To be fair, it’s not that he’s not good enough to be a full back. Rather, it’s that he’s TOO good to be wasted there.
The primary duty of a full back, is to be a stopper. Obviously hurling ability is necessary there, JJ Delaney performed admirably in the role in the last few years of his inter-county career, but even Delaney never mastered the position in the same way as his predecesor Noel Hickey did. Hickey, more than anyone, understood the primary role of the last line of defence. Even if you’ve pulled your hamstring in an All-Ireland final, the goal must be defended at all costs.
Cody’s persistence with the full back experiment for the Tullaroan man is a peculiar one, considering how much Walsh struggled there last year in the All-Ireland qualifier against Waterford. There were mitigating circumstances for sure, Walsh had been cursed by injuries throughout the year and the Kilkenny side was operating below capacity but the side leaked four goals and it could have been more. When you consider how quickly the Paul Murphy full back experiment was discarded, the length of Walsh’s stay in the position is somewhat of an anomaly.
Blessed with pace and outstanding skill, Walsh is a natural wing back, in much the way his own brother was. In a (current) Kilkenny side full to the brim with artisans, he stands out as a stylist. He won a much deserved All-Star in the right half back role in 2016. So yes, maybe in time he could develop into a great full back, but he already IS an outstanding wing back. Of course full back is a pivotal position, and it needs sorting out, but this appears very much a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
If Kilkenny are to be successful come championship time, the thought is another man with a bit more physical presence, perhaps last year’s under 21 full back Conor Delaney or Robert Lennon, can be used to fill the troubled position. Then again, the problem at full back is only a microcosm of the major restructuring that needs to be done on this team. Time was when you could ask a Kilkenny fan at the start of the year what the championship team would be and they could name 12 or 13 easily. But of the side that will go out in the first round against Dublin in Parnell Park in May how many could you say are certain starters. Perhaps 5 or 6? And even then, you’d have to be Nostradamus to decipher their positions.
Eoin Murphy’s performance in goal in the league opener was as excellent as ever. Before, Kilkenny goalkeepers rarely won All-Stars because, the argument went, “they didn’t have enough work to do”. Well Murphy is swimming in the amount of work he has to do, and his side are blessed that he’s so capable at doing it.
In defence only Walsh and Cillian Buckley look certain to have positions nailed down and even then what positions those are remain questionable. Buckley’s strength and experience make him look a natural fit for the centre back position but then who is going to bring his athleticism and scoring threat from the wing?
Conor Fogarty has been an automatic starter in the side for the past 4 years, and may remain so, but where that is, is open to conjecture. It’s likely to be in midfield, but he could easily slot in at corner or wing back if either Walsh or Buckley don’t figure there. Paddy Deegan figured at corner back last night, but considering he was a midfielder last year, the chances of him featuring there come summer seem remote.
Walter Walsh and TJ Reid look certain to start in the forwards, where they will probably be joined by Colin Fennelly, but how will Fennelly make up for the massive deficit of match fitness he will face come summer time? And where does Richie Hogan fit into the equation? Certainly, if fit and in form, he is a certain starter in the side, but given last year’s travails, there must be a doubt over whether his best days are now in the past.
So you could count perhaps 6 definite starters come summer time, with another 3 (Paul Murphy, Richie Hogan, Colin Fennelly) likely to start if, and it’s a big if, they are match fit and in form. That leaves 6 positions free with anything up to 20 players challenging for them. There may not be enough games to get sufficient playing time for those players, and at this stage it’s arguable that continuity is more important than experimentation. Cody has always argued about a side having a settled spirit over a settled side, but at least in the past he could always bank on having a solid framework. Could you say he has that now?
It might be time for Cody to give extended runs in the side to some of the younger panelists. In recent years there’s been a revolving door feel to the Kilkenny forward line. In 2016 John Joe Farrell seemed like a hurler who could win an All-Star award, now he’s not even on the panel. Likewise Ger Aylward won an All-Star just a few seasons ago and now his place in the squad appears in doubt.
It might be wise to imbue the likes of the impressive James Martin and John Donnelly with a confidence boosting run of games with the hope said players will start in the championship. It’s not usually in his nature to do that. But whereas before the task before may have been guarding against complacency, now the trick is to give players confidence. Otherwise they’ll constantly be looking over in fear to the sideline. And yes, it’s not something he’s done regularly before, but then he’s never operated in such strained circumstances before.
In reality Cody is working against the fact that there’s a surfeit of similar players, without sufficient class. Before, high quality players like John Dalton and PJ Delaney barely got a start for the county. How Kilkenny would kill for players of such calibre now. It’s slipped through the radar somewhat, but between league and championship, Kilkenny have won only 3 of their last 11 competitive games. There was a time when every other inter-county hurling manager used to envy Brian Cody. Well, given the difficulties he’s currently facing, there’s very little to envy about the Village man’s lot now.