Christy O'Connor: Battle lines drawn by infamous handshake as King Henry plots succession

1 May 2022; Kilkenny manager Brian Cody, left, and Galway manager Henry Shefflin shake hands after the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 3 match between Galway and Kilkenny at Pearse Stadium in Galway. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

THE handshake. The hold. The stare. The glare. The lookback. The fallout. The body language and the loud message it transmitted. It's unknown if a handshake ever generated as much discussion as the exchange between Brian Cody and Henry Shefflin did after Galway and Kilkenny met in the round robin of the Leinster SHC in Pearse Stadium on May 1.

On The Sunday Game that evening, the former Limerick player Shane Dowling said that “it didn't look great” from Cody's perspective “especially considering how Henry has had such a tough few weeks”.

Shefflin buried his younger brother Paul, who was only 41 and who died suddenly in March, but both Cody and Shefflin played down any notions of tension in the exchange afterwards.

“I have no idea what's tense to do with anybody else, because whenever we play a match as long as I'm involved with it, it's got nothing to do with who is in charge of any team,” said Cody.

Shefflin also skirted around the belief that there was any strain in the relationship.

“I didn't notice any tension,” he said. “For me, I suppose there's a lot of different emotions. The handshake happened. I didn't see anything in it.”

Neither man was going to publicly state the obvious because there clearly is a strain between the pair. In the past couple of years, Cody has approached Shefflin to come on board with him as a selector but Shefflin has turned him down.

If Shefflin has his sights set on becoming Kilkenny manager one day, it was a smart call. Shefflin has surely assessed the track record of coaches and selectors Cody had brought into the set-up over the last decade.

After James McGarry and Derek Lyng came on board for the 2014 season, the assumption was that one of them would step up in time and take over. McGarry is still part of the management team, but the likelihood of him becoming manager has receded over time.

Lyng stepped away after the 2019 All-Ireland final and took over as the Kilkenny U20 manager, whom he led to an All-Ireland title two weeks ago.

DJ Carey only spent one season as a selector in 2020 before moving on. Anyone with aspirations to be the next Kilkenny manager would need to spend time as a selector with Cody first, but Shefflin would never have included himself in that category.

The ambition Shefflin has already shown with Galway has underlined his willingness to do things his way. If Shefflin had become a selector with Cody and was knowingly been groomed as his successor, how long would he be expected to wait, not knowing from year to year if Cody's departure was imminent or not?

It was never Shefflin's style to wait. Elite winners like him don't hang around. For anything. Or anyone.

The tension around the whole Cody-Shefflin dynamic extends far beyond just the pair too. Shefflin's appointment as Galway manager for three years last October was bound to be heavily intertwined with Cody's decision to return for a 24th season. Talk of stagnation and lack of succession planning inevitably bubbled to the surface with Shefflin's move but the general response was an understanding of where Shefflin is coming from.

The belief that Cody is the right man to build Kilkenny's next All-Ireland winning team certainly doesn't carry that same conviction that it did for decades. Cody no longer has the same cast of Hall-of-Fame players that drove Kilkenny's success, but Shefflin's move has inflated the sense of the potential damage Kilkenny's lack of succession planning is now causing.

Initially, losing Shefflin was weaponised against Cody, more so for what Kilkenny lost than what Galway gained. Shefflin is the Kilkenny County Board's preferred successor to Cody but do they expect Cody to remain on for another three years? If Cody was to depart at the end of this year, are they banking on Shefflin just walking away from Galway because the board are then prepared to call him?

Shefflin surely will manage Kilkenny some day. Whenever he does, he will be a far better manager from his experience in Galway, but Kilkenny may have to wait longer for that to happen than they may like. Once loyalty and trust has been built up, which has clearly happened in Galway, and when a project the manager has started looks to be going somewhere, it's not as easy to walk away from.

If Shefflin was to manage Galway for three years, it's too simplistic to say that he might then be primed to just step into the Kilkenny job, especially when a five-hour round trip to Galway three-to-four times a week, and the huge commitment inter-county management now entails, could easily have left him burned out.

Cody may or may not be manager next year, but does the narrative that Kilkenny would not be doing any better without Cody fully stand up? He has led Kilkenny to successive Leinster titles, and is back in to another final this Saturday against the Tribesmen. They could have been in last year's All-Ireland final, losing to Cork after extra-time in the semi-final, but there was still a staleness, tactical inflexibility and lack of coaching creativity that inevitably comes with managerial longevity like Cody's.

Kilkenny have been good and bad this year. Have they improved? They have evolved tactically in how they are using some players in different roles, but they have still already lost twice in this Championship, albeit by narrow margins.

Losing a third time in six games would not put Kilkenny out of the Championship but it would be unbearable for Cody, especially with Shefflin in the other corner. Cody hates losing but there are also a number of different elements at play in this whole Cody-Shefflin debate.

Cody in an intensely loyal James Stephens and Kilkenny man. He has never been a fan of managers and coaches being involved with other clubs and counties.

Other former players from Cody's dressing room have managed other counties, but none were a threat to Kilkenny and none were asked to join his management team. In that context, the manner in how Cody controlled the mood and temperature of the worldless exchange five weeks ago made perfect sense.

The battle lines have been firmly drawn but Shefflin knows Cody and his methods well enough by now to know full well how to respond.

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