Thursday 18 January 2018

'It's what you gave your whole life to'

The infusion of new blood on the Tipperary team is bringing the best out of old hands like Larry Corbett, as he tells Damian Lawlor

WHEN Larry Corbett knocked on Josie Collins' door yesterday, she pressed a bottle of holy water into his hand and sent him on his way. There wasn't much said. No need.

Josie, her husband Bob, and their family live beside the Park Avenue Hotel in Thurles and over the years, for no particular reason, their house has become a second home for Corbett. He palled around with one of their sons in school and he's been calling around since. It's part of his daily routine.

Each day, around lunchtime, he'll head down to their place for dinner. If he's not at the table by 1.0, he'll get a phone call from Josie telling him that the others are waiting. It's just an easy and natural routine they've slipped into.

"That woman is like a second mother to me," Corbett says. "It just developed over time, calling around for the grub every day. I get the best of everything there; a big dinner, a bit of dessert afterwards. If there's a big match coming up, she'll have steak ready. I'd rarely talk hurling up there either. I always said that if Josie and my mother went on holidays at the same time, I'd be in right trouble. You wouldn't have to lift a finger with either of them around."

Spend any time with Larry Corbett and you'll understand why he has such stop-off points and safe houses about town while he "sees out the recession" in his own family stead.

When Josie goes shopping before big games, the local butcher knows to have a prime cut ready for Larry. He has another haven close by for mornings after matches where a hearty, hot breakfast will be on the table waiting. All around Thurles it's the same. And it's easy to see why.

This is an era of paranoid GAA players and managers with an abhorrence of the media. Take last weekend's football semi-final between Kildare and Down: Kieran McGeeney wouldn't let his players talk to anyone in the build-up while James McCartan nominated just two men -- and only then in a controlled and sterile environment.

That media ban didn't do Kildare much good and while Down's win was thrilling and exciting, supporters around the land know little of their players. The colour and life is slowly being sucked out of the GAA and Corbett is mystified.

"All the one whether you talk to me in January or the week before an All-Ireland," he shrugs. "I'll have forgotten the interview ever took place when the game comes around. If people think I'm putting pressure on myself, chatting, that's fine. Pressure makes you play better."

He strolls into the Anner Hotel at 11.45 for the interview and chats casually for an hour before we get down to business. Later in the afternoon, when the formalities are concluded, photographer Gerry Mooney brings him out the Dublin road to some local landmarks for pictures. Corbett must have struck a hundred poses in an hour but never once complained and stayed shooting the breeze until 5.0.

Indeed, with the All-Ireland final nigh, there's only one thing troubling him. After Tipp were walloped by Cork in May, the county's many experts cut the team to the bone. But amidst a frenzied blame game Corbett received support from close allies, telling him to keep the head up. He dreads letting those people down today.

"People said we were certainties to beat Cork," he says. "It was like 2003 when we lost an epic league final against Kilkenny. Two weeks later, Clare hammered us in the championship. We fell into that trap against Cork again. Maybe we took the wrong approach. Did we think we were a little bit better? History repeats itself every few years in hurling -- not every 40 years -- and as long as I'm involved with Tipp, that Cork match was the hardest I've ever had to deal with.

"People jumped off the bandwagon straight away and we lost folk who used to have great faith in us. But I got three text messages afterwards telling me that we weren't gone yet. It gave me heart. Close friends. They weren't saying it for the sake of it. My biggest fear was if we lost that first qualifier match against Wexford, how I'd look those three people in the eye again. That fear is still there."

* * * * *

EVERYONE knows Corbett's story by now. Played senior for Tipp before he played under 21; never made the minors. Won an All-Ireland at 19 before back and hamstring problems threatened to curtail one of the most exciting careers around.

He is loath to delve back into that catalogue of complaints. "It got to the stage where you wouldn't see the name Lar Corbett without the mention of 'hamstring'. I was sick of it and sick of reading about it."

After visiting any amount of consultants, he got the fright of his life when one said he'd never play at the elite level again. Eventually, he sought the help of international sprinter Gary Ryan and it kick-started the recovery. The excellence of team physio John Casey these past few years has helped too.

But for a while his flamboyant career hung in the balance; the 2004 season passed in a blur and he managed just 55 championship minutes in two qualifier games. A year later, he was substituted against both Limerick and Clare as the niggling injuries persisted. He didn't start Tipp's first 2006 match against Waterford and made a hesitant start to the '07 campaign before featuring prominently in their seven matches.

But in the county's 12 subsequent championship outings, Corbett has fully recovered and brought his game to a new level, playing all bar three minutes of that schedule.

He has developed into an outstanding goal-getter, shooting 16-58 in 42 appearances and was only surpassed by Tommy Walsh for the 2009 Hurler of the Year. But then, Tipp always knew they had a class act on their hands.

"I'm injury-free, thank God, and that allows a bit of consistency," he says. "The second thing is work-rate. Three years ago, Liam Sheedy, Michael Ryan and Eamon O'Shea took me aside and I was left in no doubt that I needed to up my work-rate. I was 27 and there were times when my man would run off with the ball and I'd say 'fuck it anyway, I'll get the next one' -- that doesn't wash anymore.

"The three lads don't judge me on what scores I get -- they look at my hooking and blocking count. It took a while to understand that. As a corner-forward you're always worried about being called ashore. Jaysus, sometimes if the attendance isn't up on a given day, it's the corner-forward that's taken off first.

"But Liam said I had to up my input, I've done that and I've never been as happy. If I don't get a score, I'll still work my arse off for the team. I'll do it all day. And I'm delighted that my mindset has changed because I'm enjoying my hurling more."

There are days, like when he hit the winner against Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final, when Sheedy would remark only on how many blocks he made. No mention of his scores.

"It's all changed," Corbett says. "And that's down to the younger lads."

He name-checks the glut of promising youngsters; Noel McGrath, the three Mahers, Seamus Hennessy, all of whom have experienced success at minor level. Indeed, they'll still be smouldering after today's final when they'll have to turn and prepare for the under 21 decider next Saturday.

Corbett reckons they have brought a steely confidence with them. For six years he played on teams that fell to the likes of Kilkenny, Galway, Wexford and Waterford in Croke Park. They would travel up to Dublin hopeful of a result. Now they expect to win. He puts that down to the kids.

"They came into the seniors with more assurance because the majority were All-Ireland winners at Croke Park. For years, we found it very hard to win one match at Croke Park; All-Ireland quarter-finals, league finals. But we're breathing off them now, looking up to them because of their mentality, confidence and work-rate."

He cites the defeat of Galway as evidence of such input. "The young lads definitely rubbed off on us that day because I can't remember when we last came from behind to win a tight championship game at Croke Park. All I could remember about Croker was being in the showers in a desperate state, looking over at Eoin Kelly, saying 'here we go again'. Always going home in disappointment.

"We were sick of the sight of it, but now we can get results. We're going up today knowing the work is done and we'll play what's in front of us. There's not an ounce of pressure there."

* * * * *

SO, the cubs are taking over, but it doesn't mean Corbett will forget the men of 2001, the last Tipp team to win the All-Ireland. He forged life-long friendships with the likes of Eamon Corcoran, Philly Maher and Mark O'Leary and regrets that they don't see much of each other these days.

"It's unreal how quick time has gone," he says. "At 19, I remember John Leahy and Declan Ryan saying how they waited 10 years from 1991 to win another All-Ireland. Sure it's happened Tipp again; we're almost the same now. I'm there 10 years, we're waiting nine. It's been too long and it's not good enough."

He bumped into Corcoran lately and they both marvelled at how long it had been since they met. There was a time when they'd have been chatting three times a week.

"You've only tunnel vision when you're in the Tipp squad," Corbett explains. "I'd be living for matches. Maybe there would be only 10 games in total over the year. I'm not living for going out weekends, I'm living for hurling. So you don't get to see men you soldiered with. It's on both sides. People take up different things in life. Eamon went off playing soccer.

"It's sad in a way spending all your life, every minute of it, thinking about hurling, but when it's all over, that's when you do your own thing. And you meet a lad years later at a wedding or a funeral and give all day with him knowing we soldiered together. They're things you have for life."

Winning today would bring a flood of old friends back onto the horizon. Corbett admits they still carry the anguish of last September's defeat, but insists that retribution hasn't become an obsession. "I was devastated last year but you still get up the following morning and nobody's dead. Okay, it's what you gave your whole life to. And you came so close.

"I was just delighted to get back in January. We slept on it for a while and we sat down and tried to answer some questions. We're still carrying that hurt but it's not a hindrance. Eamon O'Shea always says not to worry about the past or future; worry about the now. And thank God we have the chance to get a good crack at it again."

He's done all he can to get back to Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. He has ticked all the boxes; right food, preparation and rest. The body is strong, able to be pushed harder than ever. Around 2.0 he'll open his kit-bag and bless himself with the holy water Josie Collins gave him.

That won't do him any harm either.

Sunday Independent

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