Wednesday 25 April 2018

No easy way to say goodbye

An accumulation of small factors led to Lar Corbett's shock inter-county exit, writes Damian Lawlor

LAST December, while holidaying in New York, Larry Corbett caught up with some old friends.

As the night wore on, the Thurles man spoke about his goals and ambitions away from hurling. Earlier in the year, he had told this newspaper of his desire to run a GAA-themed bar in the proposed Tipperary Venue and it was clear he was already preparing for life beyond the game.

One of the New York group remarked that they had sensed a clear change in his "life goals".

As he peered out from the top-floor office of his bar last Tuesday, however, and saw three TV crews pitched outside, he must have wondered if the pursuit of those other aspirations was actually worth the hassle as reporters, cameramen and photographers descended on Thurles to find the real story behind his shock retirement.

Their search was futile. There were no clues to be found, either, with his parents Eddie and Breda but the press corps did catch a break when they spotted Lar's car in the town square and noticed his parking ticket was close to expiring. With this fresh lead they waited for him to emerge and slot a few coins in the meter.

But the ticket was never renewed and Corbett, by now hungry after hours of office-confinement, never surfaced. Instead, his car was left at the mercy of the traffic warden while locals arranged to bring food to their friend.

The exchanges between the townspeople and press were light-hearted. One local claimed he had no idea where the 2010 Hurler of the Year was, minutes before he told someone else that he'd be back soon, he was just "bringing Lar up a sandwich".

Corbett politely turned down an invitation from the Late Late Show and countless other radio and TV programmes before, gradually, the posse departed. As the reporters headed for home, Corbett sent a number of texts thanking them for their help over the years but saying how difficult the situation was for him and requesting a bit of space.

Tipp's newly-appointed captain, Paul Curran, texted the panel, telling them not to panic but to be wary of the massive public interest Corbett's retirement would attract.

A media storm was indeed brewing. The most prolific hurling forward around could no longer meet the commitment demanded by management and was unable to balance those demands with running a pub in the most challenging of economic environments.

Very few, however, believed this was the full story of his departure. Wednesday's Irish Independent questioned whether there was a bust-up with management or trouble in the camp. Declan Ryan's dismissal of speculation about a row in an RTE interview failed to convince the public that the bone had been fully fleshed.

"There was no bust-up whatsoever," says one well-placed source. "But the bottom line is this shouldn't have happened. Any teething problems should have been nipped in the bud. Everyone is saying it wouldn't have happened under Liam Sheedy but, in fairness to Declan, there was no row with him either. Even Larry's closest friends were shocked after his text message was received."

It is more likely that instead of one explosive tipping point, a series of underlying factors nudged him towards the exit doors.

He missed two weights sessions before Christmas and copped a fair bit of flak for that. Corbett is not -- and never will be -- a gym monkey or someone to relish the brutality of winter training, but he is a natural athlete, with an amazing first touch and pace to burn. And those are surely more valuable commodities than a flair for lateral pull-downs and bench-pressing in February.

He was carrying a niggling injury but not everyone deemed it as serious a complaint as he did and this too might have caused friction. Having endured three years of back problems and chronic hamstring injuries, Corbett perhaps felt entitled to voice his unease about going flat-out before the league even started.

Tipperary train six nights a week, including at least one supervised weights session, meaning that players could be away from home from 5.0 to 11.30 any given night. The squad meets each Monday night in the gym, Dr Morris Park on Tuesday, gym again on Wednesday before another field session on Thursday. Friday means more weights while Saturday is mostly rest -- but only if there is a game on Sunday. On rest days, players are discouraged from golfing or doing anything strenuous and have to follow diet plans. They have no day off. This template is not unique to Tipperary.

After Easter, Tipperary fly to the UK for a week-long training camp. Corbett might have looked at the schedule, examined his business commitments and fretted over how he could combine both. "The punters go to Larry's bar to see him and no one else," says a Tipp team-mate. "He has to be there behind the counter now, ready to talk hurling if he wants customers. The days of throwing your name on a sign and only popping in are well over."

Corbett and his business partner, Kevin Coppinger, have been extremely active in promoting their business, bringing in live music, hypnotists, magicians, comedians and singer-songwriters to the bar in an effort to beef up business. They are less than a mile away from the campus of LIT Tipperary but that doesn't guarantee a trade. Like most pubs these days, it can be very quiet during the week, leaving the business at the mercy of weekends.

He has plans to expand his business in time but first comes consolidation. This means a constant presence in the premises, but how can you marry that with a training regime of six nights a week? He obviously failed to find a formula that could allow the two to co-exist. Tighter man-management might have nipped any concerns in the bud.

Amidst the rumours circulating last week was the theory that he was unhappy over his injury being questioned and at not being made captain. Under former trainer Eamon O'Shea, Corbett was encouraged to express his individuality. On O'Shea's watch, the player placed a massive emphasis on work-rate and took as much pride in hooking or blocking opponents as he did in raising flags.

Certainly the robotic nature of weight training -- and what comes with it -- at this time of year wasn't exactly nurturing his appetite. After one recent gym session it's believed he felt almost pestered into taking a recovery protein drink when he doesn't really go in for that kind of thing.

"A lad who has scored 19 goals and 31 points from play in the last three seasons should be allowed drink full-fat chocolate milkshakes if it works for him," says one insider. "Some people don't go in for that sort of scientific stuff but when a fellow produces the goods on the field, he should be left alone. If you have a guy like him who produces the goods on big days, I'd leave him be."

Newspapers also speculated that he didn't appreciate the axing of his Thurles Sarsfields team-mate Stephen Lillis from the panel two weeks back, but that's a management call and not something for players to worry about. The truth is that six fringe members were jettisoned within a 10-minute spell after training recently and none of the panel was too impressed at the directness of it all. But the guillotine always falls in February and life goes on.

What's more pertinent in analysing Corbett's departure is the dreadful way he was treated by some supporters after last season's All-Ireland final defeat. Coming into that decider he was odds on to be the Hurler of the Year but was instead held scoreless by Jackie Tyrrell. Some Tipp fans didn't spare him. At a club game in The Ragg weeks later he set up a score with a sublime pass only for one to shout loudly: 'Pity you couldn't do that against Kilkenny.'

In the county semi-final, he gradually lost his cool which resulted in a dismissal. Coming off the field he was booed by rival supporters. This was the guy who had scored 4-4 in that year's Munster final, who had notched three scintillating goals in an All-Ireland final. It showed how unforgiving the public can be.

Subsequent trips to San Francisco (All Stars), New York and Australia probably reminded him of another way of life, far away from the din of it all. In Australia, he got engaged to his girlfriend Elaine and on returning was most likely faced with the frank realisation that the pub needed his full attention. He spent a full week agonising over whether to walk away and at least one close friend pleaded with him to consider it further. He did, but only for a few days.

"We're all only guessing," says another insider. "Maybe not everything was 100 per cent for Larry in the set-up and maybe he felt he wouldn't win an All-Ireland or rediscover his best form and just left."

There's no doubt he misses the influence and understanding of O'Shea, whom he held in high regard. Yet, until last September, his scoring sprees showed no signs of abating under Declan Ryan and Tommy Dunne.

His haul against Waterford was a remarkable one, but he remained level-headed in the wake of it. "If I was standing on the terrace against Waterford, the ball would have landed in my hand," he said. Upon meeting the Queen at Croke Park last year, he was congratulated on reaching such a lofty level in society when he came out with the classic retort that he still had to stop off and pay for his dinner on the way home.

Given time and space, the promise of some flexibility and an arm around his shoulder could yet entice him back, but it's unlikely. Only a year and a half ago he told the Sunday Independent: "Tipp only have the bones of 10 competitive matches each year and I live for those. I'm not living for going out at the weekend, I'm living for hurling."

Looks like that tunnel vision has waned and now there's a serious possibility he'll never be seen in the blue and gold shirt again. Our summers just won't be the same.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport