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'People say now will you miss it? I don't think I will because I'm satisfied' - life after Tipp hurling

It’s new for James Barry to be watching on as Tipperary’s 2020 season commences.

Tipperary defender James Barry celebrates the 2016 All-Ireland win.
Tipperary defender James Barry celebrates the 2016 All-Ireland win.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

ALL-IRELAND HURLING final day was winding to a conclusion last August when James Barry got the call.

It was set up for a perfect Croke Park swansong. Tipperary closing in on glory at the expense of Kilkenny. Pressed into action off the bench, he’d be on the pitch for the celebrations at full-time.

Then his hopes were scuppered.

“I came on for Paudie (Maher) as a blood sub with a couple of minutes to go. I was hoping he would actually stay off until the end.

“But knowing Paudie, he’s doesn’t like being off the field at all!

“When you come off as a sub you’re supposed to go back up to the actual subs bench but I wasn’t moving. I told them go away, there was only a few minutes left. I sat in beside Brendan Murphy and Paddy O’Brien so I could get straight into the field when the final whistle blew.”

And so Barry was first man in to join the mayhem when Tipperary finished the 2019 race at the head of the pack.

It was different to his 2016 experience, defensive anchor then when they lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

That winning act was repeated against Kilkenny but being absent from the starting fifteen did not diminish the value for Barry.

“No, no. When you’re involved in it, and even when I didn’t start for the final, for the players I’d have been seen to as a go-to person for advice, Ronan Maher and Barry Heffernan were onto me as I’d marked (Colin) Fennelly a good few times before that.

“It didn’t really matter that I didn’t start the final because I was so invested in it. If Sheedy thought the best 15 was without me I didn’t really care just as long as the group won the second medal. I didn’t care what I’d to do for it.”

The desperation to succeed was fuelled by the growing sense that he was on the brink of bowing out.

He turns 30 in June, got married to Shannon last November and has plenty on his plate with the nine to five work for Gas Networks Ireland in Cork.

Last October he ended his time as a Tipperary senior hurler.

As the 2020 league campaign begins tonight, he’s watching on from outside the camp.

Still it was hard to script a better departure.

padraic-maher-james-barry-seamus-kennedy-and-ronan-maher-celebrate-at-the-final-whistle James Barry celebrating with Tipperary team-mates in 2019. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

*****************

Here’s his sliding doors moment. There is a before and after in the Tipperary hurling career of James Barry but it all pivots on Saturday 5 June 2014.

Before that day – in the midst of his first full senior season with Tipperary – he was nailed down at right half-back.

Number five for Tipperary in the 2007 All-Ireland minor win and the U21 victory in 2010. Number five for UCC’s Fitzgibbon Cup titles in 2012 and 2013. He filled half-back roles for Thurles CBS when captaining them to win the Croke Cup in 2009.

james-barry-lifts-the-trophy James Barry lifts the Croke Cup in 2009 Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But for that 2014 qualifier in Thurles, his county required something else. Johnny Glynn was wreaking havoc for Galway having taken the Tipperary defence for a couple of goals.

Michael Ryan was Tipp selector, the veteran Upperchurch-Drombane full-forward back in 2005 when Barry was pitched into club hurling for the first time as a 15-year-old alongside him. He issued the instructions.

“I would have been good in the air, always coming up along. I remember Mick (Ryan) running in and just saying, ‘Go back and sort that’.

“That was it. It was simple enough just to break the ball. Just make sure he didn’t catch it.”

Tipperary were in arrears 4-12 to 1-15 in the 51st minute. From there to the close they outscored Galway by 2-10 to 0-1. That’s strong validation for the defensive shift put in.

Thus Barry’s new awakening began as the Tipperary enforcer in front of goal. He played in a thrilling two-game saga against Kilkenny in September 2014.

The following year he picked up a Munster medal and an All-Star nomination. 2016 delivered the All-Ireland he had craved and an All-Star.

It was a reward for patience. When Tipperary’s senior stars were making waves as they rose up through the ranks, Barry was the less-heralded figure alongside them.

The Maher triumvirate and Michael Cahill shone. Seamus Callanan was a year ahead. His link with Noel McGrath stretched all the way back to a Primary Game team in 2001.

But while his compatriots exploded onto the senior stage, Barry found his progress slow.

“At the time it was tough, I was probably thinking I was never going to get called in. You panic when you get to 21 thinking, ‘Jesus I should be inside with Tipp now’. I was frustrated but looking back on U21 videos, I wasn’t physically developed. I can see now why I didn’t get called in.”

He found other avenues to explore. Won an All-Ireland with the Tipperary intermediate team in 2012. Sitting in a UCC dressing-room populated with county players also helped.

“You’re in the shop window for county managers there. Definitely from a confidence point of view, playing with the likes of Conor Lehane, Paudie Mahony, Philip Mahony, I knew I was competing. Like Seamus Harnedy was in the ’13 All-Ireland final and then when you’re playing with him at college level, you’re thinking you can’t be too far off Tipp.

brian-murray-seamus-harnedy-and-james-barry-celebrate James Barry celebrating UCC's Fitzgibbon Cup victory in 2012 with Brian Murray and Seamus Harnedy Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“I remember in 2013 I was going to do a J1, go over hurling in America. Then I was called in by Eamon O’Shea. When you’re hauled in, you settle down and actually do a bit of work.

“Looking back now I’m nearly happier I didn’t get called in because I was able to enjoy my college hurling and college life. I appreciated it more when I was called.”

That first season saw Tipperary bomb out of Munster early against Limerick and then Kilkenny pushed them to the exit door in Nowlan Park. 2014 was about trying to make his mark and get used to the elevated status.

“It took a while to get used to togging off beside people you’d be used to watching in the stand for years. Eoin Kelly, he was the main man. Watching every game underage, at half-time you’d go out and pretend to be him pucking against the wall.

“Offaly in the qualifier in ’14, it was the first time we actually played on the same field together. We were well up, he came on and I remember thinking to myself, ‘God I’ve finally got a chance to hurl with Eoin Kelly’.”

After settling into the camp came the adjustment to the new position. There were plenty sounding boards. Seamus Barry hurled at a time for Tipperary when it was not as prosperous. The campaigns in the 70s were at the heart of the hurling famine that  gripped the county.

He wasn’t expecting his son to become a Tipperary full-back but helped as he could.

“My father always said I’d be the last lad he’d put in there! He was like a selector with the Harty Cup teams, always down in Cork for the Fitzgibbon games as well. Never mind missing a match, he hardly ever missed a training with the CBS lads. By the time we got to second or third year, the teachers had copped he was always there so he kind of came on in an advisory role. 

“I would have been a kind of loose half-back. Watching Tommy Walsh growing up, he used to read the game himself so that would have been my game based on that. 

“In training in ’14 I used to go back to mark John O’Brien, there was a good few left-handed forwards around. There was no better lad to get physical with than Johnno. It was a tough learning curve.

“We’d Micheál Donoghue in as a selector in ’15, at training matches he’d be around the field and keeping a close eye on movement. Paul Curran was around the scene as well, so there was a lot of lads helping me .”

It all came to fruition in September 2016, the completion of that Celtic Cross set. His mother Noreen watched on from the Croke Park hotel, generally too nervous to take in games from the stands, but the rest – Seamus, his three sisters and Shannon – were there.

james-barry-celebrates-with-the-liam-mccarthy James Barry celebrates Tipperary's All-Ireland win in 2016

“I didn’t touch the ball in my hand that day until the 57th minute. I mainly just had to make sure Colin (Fennelly) wasn’t catching the ball. That was my job. You wouldn’t want to be waiting for a hit of the ball to settle your nerves. 

“It was strange the last two or three minutes of the game, we’d pulled eight or nine points ahead. I remember Colin Fennelly and Richie Hogan were standing beside myself and Paudie (Maher) and Darren. They turned around and shook hands with us and said congrats with maybe 50 seconds to go.

“I always had a very special relationship with Darren in goal. Everyone else had gone up the field when the whistle went, Darren was the closest person behind me.

“I made a point that I am going to be on the Hogan steps when Brendan lifts the cup. That’s something you always hear, it’s like folklore growing up, being on those steps.

“To meet the father after, I think I’ve a picture with him of every trophy I’ve won. There’s a nice collection there.”

That’s a treasure trove of memories to delve into. He got to pit himself against the very best forwards hurling had to offer as well.

“TJ is one of the best. I didn’t mind marking TJ, I used to struggle a lot more with the likes of Alan Cadogan or Shane O’Donnell, more smaller and nimble.

“TJ has everything you want though. I’d always find if you’re getting on top of TJ at full-forward, he’ll go out wing-forward and try you out there. He’s clever, he takes players around.

“Then Seamus Harnedy, Conor Lehane because the way Cork played, you’re naturally isolated on them. Harnedy and TJ are the two standout names that I’ve marked. Then Seamie for the club in Tipp, he’s some marksman.”

He also crossed paths with another Kilkenny icon.

“For the drawn game in 2014, Shefflin came on, I was marking him. There was 30 seconds left before we got the last point to draw and I was thinking I can’t be marking him when he wins his tenth medal and I still haven’t won one!”

When Barry did finally win one in 2016, he cherished the homecoming.

“I never thought I’d get to walk from the primary school, up through the village in Upperchurch and up to the hall. I was very lucky, the cup only goes back there so soon because the manager is from there. There’s some brilliant photos of it. That’s a moment we’ll always have for such a small club. The fact that it was the manager’s parish and it was a week after, it was fresh in people’s minds.”

So why move away then? With work in Cork, home in Ballyporeen and training in Thurles, the driving was relentless. Commitments were stacking up off the pitch and his appetite was sated.

“I didn’t want to finish up having won one senior medal. I knew after winning the second one, I’d achieved what I wanted. When I spoke to Liam, he said did you speak to Paudie or Noel or Seamie about stepping away. I didn’t really want to because I didn’t want to involve them in the whole decision making.

“I gave Liam a call and then wanted to meet up. He knew then by the way I was talking that I was comfortable. Then there was an unbelievable touch by Liam at the medal presentation. He wished myself and Shannon well with the wedding, then he’d a small video played for myself and Donagh (Maher) who’d retired. Damien Young had put a montage together of our clips over the years for maybe three minutes. To have a moment like that, you couldn’t have asked for better.”

The off season has been busy. Liam MacCarthy celebrations, his wedding in Tipperary, a honeymoon in New York and the Caribbean, then back to the Big Apple for the winning team holiday and off to Cancun. He signed off in early January, Tipperary players bidding him farewell at the airport when they landed.

*************

He won’t be in Semple Stadium tonight. When Shannon has asked the last few years about his availability for a trip to England to see her grandparents, he’s ruled himself out due to hurling commitments.

With his 2020 diary free, he’ll be in London rather than Thurles as Liam Sheedy sends his charges into battle against Limerick.

But Barry doesn’t intend to be absent for long, there’s plans to head along to most of the matches with his father to join the Premier fan club and he’s already thinking of how to secure a ticket for Walsh Park in May for the summer opener.

“People say now will you miss it? I don’t think I will because I’m satisfied. Even if the lads go on to do back-to-back, I’ll be the number one supporter hoping they do win it. I’m not watching the clock the whole time to try to tear back to training. Even for Shannon, it’s great as I’m around home more evenings. Now give it a month or two and she’ll be getting fairly sick of me and looking for me to go back training somewhere.

“I read AP McCoy’s book three or four years ago and he said you should go when people think you should stay as opposed to the other way. That always stuck with me. It just seemed the perfect time and now it’s time to focus on the next stage of my life.”

“I’d an amazing seven years and I’m happy with the memories I have.”

A career to be pleased with.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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