Cathal Barrett: 'You have to break the corner-forward's spirit'
By John Harrington
Cathal Barrett is the sort of corner-back that gives corner-forwards sleepless nights.
The tigerish Tipperary defender is not just utterly fearless in his approach to the game, he’s also as skillful as he is tough.
It takes a certain sort of mind-set to be a corner-back, and Barrett has it hard-wired.
He relishes the individual contest that pits him against one of the opposition’s best finishers, and loves nothing more than exerting his authority over them.
“You nearly have to try to break his spirit in a way and be constantly annoying him,” says Barrett. “I do enjoy it. I love the physical battle.
“For me the physical one-on-one battle is what it's all about. You do have to grind them down and try to break their spirit as best as they can.
“A lot of it is mental, not just physical. If you're playing corner-back and your man gets the first ball that comes down and puts it over the bar you're going to think, 'Oh no, I could be in for it here'.
“Whereas if it's the other way around it doesn't look great for the corner-forward if the corner-back is coming out with ball after ball.
“A lot of it is mental rather than phsyical. It's tough in the corner when it's one on one.
“At least out the field you might have a couple of lads to help you out, but when you're in the corner you're fending for yourself.”
There are few better at fending themselves than Barrett who’s instinct is always to grab the game by the scruff of the neck.
He’s not the sort of containing corner-back who shadows his man and tries to limit his influence with hooks, blocks, and sheer doggedness.
Barrett has skill to go with his love for a scrap and the self-belief to play his man from the front and seek out the ball himself at ever opportunity.
“I suppose when I started hurling I was always a forward,” says Barrett. “I only started hurling in the backs when I was about 16. I was always a forward and would have been always looking for the ball.
“To be honest, I'm there to play and I want to play the ball the whole time. That's the way I play as a corner-back, I stay out in front the whole time. Because, to be honest, if you're playing corner-back and your man gets the ball at all you could be screwed for a goal.
“The biggest worry for me is my man getting the ball. But if he doesn't get it, I've my job done.”
His ability to play on the front-foot, beat his man to the ball, and then do some positive with it was brilliantly showcased in the All-Ireland Final this year when he set up John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer for the second-half goal that gave Tipperary an unstoppable momentum.
After winning a hard-ball he powered his way past a series of Kilkenny tacklers, soloed to half-way, and then lanced in a perfectly judged delivery to O’Dwyer that allowed the Tipp corner-forward to take the ball on the turn and leave Paul Murphy for dead before firing to the back of the net.
It was a brilliant finish by O’Dwyer, but it was almost as much Barrett’s goal as it was his.
“I think a lot of people probably thought I was going to shoot,” says Barrett. “I remember I was running past Noel McGrath and I thought he said to shoot. I asked him afterwards what he said and he said 'you've time'.
“He said he thought I was going to shoot as well because I've been known to take one or two shots. And I will always take a few shots.
“But I saw Bubbles and I knew the best thing to do was to give it in to him. I think we were up a point but it was in the melting pot and nip and tuck. Kilkenny had just got a goal.
“I just saw Bubbles and put it into him and Bubbles did the rest.”
Barrett’s first two years on the Tipperary team ended with heart-breaking defeats to Kilkenny in the 2014 All-Ireland Final replay and then to Galway in the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final when Tipp were beaten by a last-gasp point.
So to finally get over the line and win his first All-Ireland medal was a sweet moment for the Holycross-Ballycahill club-man.
“It was a great sense of relief,” he says. “You put in so much effort. 2014 was a massive year and we put in so much for 11 months of the year. So just to get pipped on the line was a massive heart-ache. It took a lot to get past it.
“And then last year we went down by a point against Galway which was another hard day. Getting beat by a point, you'd nearly rather get beat by 20 points.
“So to finally make the breakthrough and beat Kilkenny who have been the benchmark for the last 10 to 15 years...they've been unbelievable champions and they still are. I don't see them going away any time soon.
“To finally get past them and quench a few demons and all that was just a massive relief. More relief than anything because you're so exhausted afterwards.
“It was an unbelievable feeling to be able to just enjoy it with the lads you've struggled with for the previous 10 months.”
In the immediate aftermath of Tipp’s All-Ireland win, experienced players like Seamus Callanan, Brendan Maher, and Paudie Maher stressed the importance of building on the achievement and winning more silverware in the coming years.
They suffered a lot of sore defeats in the years following their previous All-Ireland success in 2010 and don’t want to go through that experience again.
And, according to Barrett, the younger players on the Tipp panel are just as determined to drive on in the coming years.
“Absolutely, that's the general consensus,” he says. “The older lads obviously know how hard it is to win because there was a six year gap since they won it last and I don't think they want to let any more years slip by.
“But I think all of us, this was my third year, and even the lads who came in this year, we are all looking forward to 2017.
“At the end of the day you have to park 2016. 2016 is over and done with now and we're all looking forward to 2017.
“We're starting at the bottom of the mountain again and we have to work our way back up and start again with Cork on the first week of May or whenever it is.”
Barrett is developing into one of the real leaders in this Tipperary team and in his home parish some are even comparing him favourably in style and character to another Holycross man who played corner-back for Tipp, the great John Doyle.
“I've heard it once or twice but I don't think you can compare me to him,” says Barrett.
“The man has eight All-Ireland medals and God knows what else. I don't think there were All-Stars in those days, but if there were he'd probably have eight of them as well.
“It's gas though that we're both form the same club and play in the same position, but I don’t think you can compare me to him just yet.”
Self-belief is something that Barrett certainly doesn’t lack.
So even though he thinks it’s far too soon to be comparing him to a legend like Doyle, he’s hopeful that someday his own achievements will stack up favourably alongside the most successful player in the history of Tipperary hurling.
“I'm not resting on my laurels,” he says. “I always have a name for wanting to be the best at what I'm doing.
“So obviously my aim is probably to win eight All-Ireland medals. Whether that's possible or not, I don't know, but I'm going to focus on getting a second one anyway for now.
“Winning one All-Ireland hasn't changed me at all. I still have the same attitude and drive as if I haven't won anything yet.
“I'm not satisfied yet, anyway.”