Barrett's cruel decline robbed Ireland of a star
WHEN Ireland face Russia tonight, for many it will bring back haunting memories of a cold September evening in Moscow when they lost 4-2 in 2002.
But none more so than, Graham Barrett -- who, at the time, was the great white hope of Irish football. Despite scoring on his international debut as a 20-year-old a month previously, Barrett didn't make the squad for the Moscow trip but he wasn't unduly worried. He thought time was on his side. It wasn't.
Just over a month ago, the man who received a three-and-a-half-year contract from Arsene Wenger, made his first appearance in senior football as a replacement for Thierry Henry and scored on his Irish senior debut retired at just age 28.
Yet it didn't command a single column inch of a newspaper. Heck, most people in Irish football still aren't aware that Graham Barrett's playing career has come to a premature end.
Was it the prospect of repeatedly reeling out the details of his long and winding career -- the pain and misfortune that he suffered or the delirious highs which make those lows evermore regretful -- that led him to shun a high-profile exit?
"I had good moments in my career but I didn't see anything worth glorifying," he explains in typically modest fashion.
Barrett wasn't just a face in the crowd amongst the heavyweights when, at 17 years of age, Wenger began to edge him into the first-team picture.
Already, he had won an U-16 European Championship under Brian Kerr, and starred in a Gunners Youth Cup team that featured the likes of Ashley Cole, Jermaine Pennant and Steve Sidwell. He later captained that team to an FA Youth Cup trophy in 2000 -- receiving the man-of-the-match award in one of the final's two legs.
But by then, he had already been handed a senior debut, just after his 18th birthday.
"I came on for Henry against Leicester for about 10 minutes," he recalls.
"I remember being clear through on goal and the linesman putting his flag up, but it was on Sky and my mother told me later on that the replay showed I wasn't offside!"
With the Gunners' rise to prominence and plethora of prodigious attacking options, however, Wenger encouraged Barrett to drop a division on loan and assured him a good spell would see him challenging Dennis Bergkamp and Henry for a starting berth.
Little did the Dubliner know, though, that at 20 years of age and with only three appearances in the famous red and white shirt, he had already reached the pinnacle of his club career.
"I'd worked hard as a young player, I always set out to do extra work and did everything I could to make myself the best player," he says.
"Perhaps I was too intense. I never got carried away with hype, I was just delighted to be a part of it and thought that, having progressed so quickly, it was all going to be like that, but it didn't pan out that way."
His loan spell at Bristol Rovers was supposed to propel him into the first-team picture in North London, but he was diagnosed with glandular fever having played just 20 minutes under Ian Holloway. He didn't play for six months and lost a stone. It was the beginning of the end for the striker-cum-winger, and everywhere he went thereafter, the injuries followed.
Despite making an impact on the international scene in the interim period, scoring minutes into his Ireland debut under Kerr in a friendly against Finland in 2002, his career stopped and started and spiralled into a steady decline.
The killer blow came while he was on loan from Coventry at Livingstone.
"I knew straightaway it was bad," he winces as he recalls the knee injury that put him out of action for almost two years. "I had never felt pain like that. I jumped up to trap the ball and felt a crack, like a hammer to the knee."
Barrett had three operations, but was later informed that his injury had been misdiagnosed and the scalpel came out for a final time -- but by the time that ordeal was over, he was a shadow of the footballer that had earned six Ireland caps, scoring twice.
"Falkirk took me on and they did everything they could but it got a point where (manager) John Hughes sat me down and said 'I don't think you'll ever get back to where you were, you've lost a yard, you can't twist and turn, you're limping when you're jogging'. I didn't want to hear that as I'd worked so hard."
Before long, though, Barrett finally had to admit defeat. Another cruel twist of fate meant it came just before he could play any part in a pulsating title-race for Shamrock Rovers.
"Michael (O'Neill) offered me a final chance at Shamrock Rovers and I had done OK, but I was getting more and more pain in my knee.
"It came to a stage where Michael just said, 'you need to be careful and think about a few years' time, how you'll be when you're walking around the garden with the kids', so that's when I knew."
He finally cut the chord, although he is still regularly appears in the Hoops' dressing-room and remains eligible for a medal if they do win the Airtricity League this year.
What a fitting end that would be to such a roller-coaster career.