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Cathal Barrett

Cathal Barrett

SPORTSFILE

Cathal Barrett

Cathal Barrett had the 'flu last weekend and missed the Cork match. He was on his way home from a pharmacy in Thurles with a bag of medication when he pulled in and turned the radio up to full blast.

As his team-mates overcame a 12-point deficit to record a third successive win against Cork, Barrett was thumping the wheel in delight. That win meant a huge amount.

"We have the quality and talent in Tipp," Barrett said. "It's just to get that extra bit of character into it."

Last Sunday they got that. The game may have been dead rubber, but for Tipp - with the heart they displayed - it could prove to be a pivotal point in their season. The day they dug in, away from home against their greatest rivals. It was only a league game in March with nothing at stake, but they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. In other years they would have given up the ghost. During the week Eoin Kelly remarked that the fight was back in Tipp. He could be right.

If so, it's down to the likes of Barrett who last year emerged from the shadows, took on the biggest names in hurling and became Young Hurler of the Year in his debut season. He had a target drawn on him in every game but each time Barrett saw a big name coming his way, he faced up to them.

There's a bit of cut in this lad; an old-style corner-back who hankers for a more central role further out the field. But at corner-back, save for Paul Murphy, Barrett is the best around.

He struggled against Dublin in the league opener, but the way he bounced back in the next three games was hugely impressive, his tackle on Walter Walsh against Kilkenny showing the bravery of a lion.

Kilkenny tried Walsh on him twice last year but Barrett handled him each time.

First, though, he earned his spurs by marking the greatest of them all - Henry Shefflin - in the 2014 Allianz League final. Tipp lost, but Barrett more than held his own in his first major final, and then his place for the remainder of the season.

"To be honest, my head was not spinning at the thought of marking Henry. Someone hinted to me that he would be put on me to target me. But that didn't really faze me."

At one stage in the second half, Shefflin broke away and the Tipp man had to make up ground. He did that, but James Owens awarded a free against him. "And Henry was holding me!" Barrett exclaims. "I had to go off the field and go around him to get the ball which I did but James gave a free against me - I'm lucky he didn't hear me giving out about him!"

Surely the task of taking on Shefflin made for a broken sleep on the Saturday night? "I might have been a bit faster but it counted for nothing with his experience. For another ball, we were side by side but he still got the sliotar in hand when I thought I had it. To say I played on him is nice to have in the memory bank because what he's done is remarkable."

The Tipp management knew the Holycross rookie would be targeted in his breakthrough season so in training they set him the task of shadowing Larry Corbett and Seamie Callanan. And at LIT, he looked after Joe Canning during internal games.

"Those lads are savage to mark in training; I went on Larry before last year's All-Ireland semi-final and while he only scored two points, he gave me the complete run-around and hit the world of ball away. That gave me some rude awakening for what would lie ahead. Marking Seamie, once he gets the ball in hand he'll take you for a spin, simple as that. But I prefer taking those guys on - you know if you hold them some bit you're near championship pace."

Against Limerick, he was up against Seánie Tobin, Galway threw David Burke on him. He held Joe Bergin for the Offaly game and the in-form Colm Cronin when they met the Dubs. It was relentless from there - Patrick Horgan against Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final, Walter Walsh in the drawn final, John Power in the first half of the replay, Eoin Larkin in the second. All big, powerful men, sent in to take on a guy small in stature and light on experience.

"I'd prefer it that way," he says about facing big, physical players. "I suppose you're proving people wrong. People who see me as a weak link."

This year, everyone is warning him about second-season syndrome. Barrett, however, doesn't get the fuss. Holycross-Ballycahill's first Tipp championship performer since Declan Carr, he played most of his underage hurling in the forwards but there was one particular day when he stamped his mark on the Tipp hurling landscape.

It was the 2010 county minor B final against Lorrha. Holycross were down to 14 men for the entire second half but Barrett was colossal at centre-back, his favoured position, and fielded everything that came his way, driving them on to a famous win. That was the day supporters left feeling they had seen someone with county credentials.

The subsequent progression wasn't immediate as he was physically light and continued playing in the forwards, but the call eventually came late in 2013.

He got in for Tipp's first pre-season game with Westmeath and never relinquished his place. As he acquired belief at that level, Eamon O'Shea's trust in him soared. "I got up to the pace and developed an understanding of how our lads play but I would never have dreamed of ending the season with awards and that stuff - if someone said to me that I'd play a few minutes of the league here and there I'd have taken their hands off," Barrett recalls.

He is fast becoming a big name in the game but it hasn't changed him. For all he has achieved in a short spell he would only talk this week of getting over the 'flu and getting his place back, pointing out that Mickey Cahill is still to come back and that Paddy Stapleton is now back in tow after a hip replacement.

"You can't be missing any games really with lads chomping at your heels, especially the likes of Michael and Paddy," he said. "But that's good for the team."

Behind the self-assurance and the insatiable hunger to win, Barrett is also a character.

Last week himself and a pal took out two sticks from the car boot and pucked around. After a while they found a bit of steel, placed it on a wall and took aim. It developed into an all-out, western-type showdown. A shoot-out. One that Barrett just had to win.

"Can't help it," he smiled. "'Tis just something inside."

In November 2013, a charity boxing fundraiser was held between Upperchurch-Drombane and Holycross-Ballycahill.

Most of the 'athletes' took to the ring in character, whether that was in the guise of Al Capone or one of the Bananas in Pyjamas. Barrett raised the stakes a little by making his entrance to the ring in a coffin. Carried by six of his best friends.

"The lads carrying me were half-polluted," Barrett laughs. "And they let the coffin fall too. They were all supposed to lift on the count of three but let's just say some of the lads didn't make it to three and so I fell."

Still, the boys had enough diesel in the tank to get him safely to the ring in the home-made wooden box. When he leaped out he went glove to glove with Michael Gleeson, a mechanic from Upperchurch. A big man too. They went at it for three one-minute rounds and Barrett won on points. He felled Gleeson and tried to claim a KO, but the referee saw it more as a blatant trip. "I think that was probably a fair ruling," Barrett laughs.

He is part of a close club and a close family. His father Seamus was a decent hurler and his uncles won All-Ireland junior medals with London, where they now live. He has siblings in England and Australia but the bond between them all remains strong.

"They all came home for the All-Irelands last year and they were all giving me advice and telling me I could play better - I felt like telling them all to head away again," he laughs.

It was Seamus who brought his young son down to the hurling field at six or seven. There, Tommy McGrath and Timmy Delaney took a grip on his development. Everywhere he turned there was hurling, or talk of it.

The aim now is to beat Offaly today, finish off the league in style, avoid second-season syndrome and help drive Tipp over the line later in the season to see Eamon O'Shea off in style.

"Eamon has great belief in us too and we believe in his system. But to bring it onto the pitch every day, that's the biggest test. It took me a fair while to cope with losing last year and I thought Eamon was gone from the job too. We all want to win for him. Looking back, that defeat will hopefully just add a bit of fuel to fire."

Barrett will have no problem providing the kindling.

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