Late arrival James Barry becomes rock at heart of mean Tipp defence

Switched to ull back in panic move in 2014, James Barry has made spot his own

James Barry in action in the  Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship quarter-final against Cork in  Semple Stadium in May. Photograph: Ken Sutton/Inpho

James Barry in action in the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship quarter-final against Cork in Semple Stadium in May. Photograph: Ken Sutton/Inpho

 

In the spring of 2014, Tipperary had a frog in their throat. They were conceding goals, too many of them – and far too many in the same way. In the beginning it was just a tickle, occasionally it would catch and interrupt what they were trying to say. But they were so eloquent in attack, they generally got their point across all the same.

Still, it was a problem. In that year’s league, they gave up 20 goals in eight games. The worst of it was that teams weren’t having to blind anyone with science to score these goals – generally a big man on the edge of the square did the trick. Colin Fennelly scored a hat-trick against them, Séamus Harnedy banged home two, Johnny Glynn scored one and got fouled for a penalty.

By the middle of the championship, it was borderline pneumonia. Another two went in against Limerick before Glynn repurposed his role from the league game and either scored or had a hand in four goals in a qualifier in Semple Stadium to put Galway six points up with 20 minutes to go.

Ten games, 26 goals, four different full-backs. That Pádraic Maher was the latest incumbent told you everything you needed to know about the struggle. Brilliant hurler, massive presence – but very much not a full back, as Glynn was demonstrating.

The game wasn’t gone from Tipp but it was going. In a panic, they switched James Barry in for Maher. Barry was playing at centre back in only his second championship game and hadn’t been one of the four who’d tried his hand at full-back up to then. Indeed, he’d never played full back in his life. Fingers crossed, prayers offered.

“A quick decision had to be made on the hoof and we put James back in there,” says Paudie O’Neill, then a selector on the Tipp sideline. “The situation at that point was that we couldn’t afford to leak another goal. After that game, all the focus was on how we outscored Galway by something like 2-10 to 0-1 to win the game in the last 20 minutes.

“But make no mistake about it, the winning of that game was James Barry going back in to full-back and nullifying the threat of Johnny Glynn. The game turned on that. He didn’t do anything spectacular, just played the percentages. People leaving the stadium wouldn’t have been saying, ‘Wasn’t James Barry amazing at full-back?’ But if we had leaked another goal that night, we were dead.”

Quick and all as the decision was, O’Neill knew they weren’t throwing just anybody back there. James Barry was no taller than Maher and certainly no more physical, but he had the smarts not to fight Glynn’s fire with a flamethrower. He barely took the ball into his hand for the rest of the game; crucially, neither did Glynn. The richest gamblers are the ones who know you don’t have to bet on every race on the card.

By the end of the summer, he was the nailed-on Tipp full back and hasn’t had any challengers in the position since. Last year, his first full season in the role ended with an All Star nomination. This year, the Tipperary square has seldom been threatened. That’s not to say it won’t be tomorrow, just that teams evidently don’t see it as the handy route to goal it used to be.

Barry is an alumnus of the storied under-21 All-Ireland winning team of 2010. The one that was supposed to safeguard a heap of All-Irelands and mark a sea change away from Kilkenny.

Though it was laced with star names – Mickey Cahill, Noel McGrath, Brendan, Pádraic and Bonner Maher had all won senior All-Irelands the previous week – it took some of the other players longer to emerge.

A wing back on that side and underage again the following year, Barry didn’t get called up to the senior panel until 2014. Son of former Tipp hurler Séamus Barry, he was regarded as a handy player – but then they weren’t exactly short on handy players. He captained UCC in the Fitzgibbon though and scattered a few birds from the branches that way and by the time he joined up in early 2014, he was a blank canvas.

“Some guys in Tipperary can look like they have it made by the time they’re 21 or 22,” says O’Neill. “But that didn’t happen with James. He came through that under-21 team but he had to wait another four years to play for the seniors. And I think the fact that he had to knock around for a few years made him open to suggestions as to where he was going to play.

“He didn’t have it in his mind that he was a number five or a number seven, even though that’s where he would have been known for playing.

“We went down to Tralee for a Waterford Crystal game in January 2014 and we stayed overnight and ran on the strand the next morning. We had nine or 10 new lads on the panel, and myself, Eamon [O’Shea] and Mick [Ryan] wanted to split them up and take a few each and get to know them on this weekend away.

“I sat down with James and got talking to him. It was obvious from the start that this was a guy who was intelligent. He was doing a master’s in UCC and he was very open-minded. He was well able to engage and had absolutely no problem sitting down and talking man to man. We had a good, long chat in the hotel and the theme of it I guess was, ‘This is what you’ve been doing in UCC, how can you make the next step up?’

“That was January 2014. By September he was playing in two All-Ireland finals in Croke Park against Kilkenny in a position that wasn’t familiar to him. The reason he was able to do that, I would say, was that he was such a good thinker and so open-minded to a new idea. Whereas another guy could be looking at you going, ‘Ah Jaysus, full back? I don’t know about that’. James was very much, ‘Okay, let’s do what needs to be done here. Let’s work on it’.”

Accidentally or not, Barry has solved a problem for Tipp at full back. Against Galway in the semi-final he was the coolest man in the Tipp defence, on a day when Cathal Barrett was making his first mis-steps all summer in the corner, and Barry was having to deal with plenty of traffic coming down the middle.

Tomorrow, Kilkenny will surely check in now and again see if he has quite eradicated the vulnerability under the high ball that dogged Tipp in the past. How he deals with it will be crucial. Generally, he’s not one for the soaring catch and 90-yard clearance, preferring to spoil and hassle and disrupt the full-forward. It’s part of the reason they put him there in the first place

“It’s a position where you’re not looking for a guy who’s hurling a ball every minute,” says O’Neill.

“You’re looking at a guy who can play the percentages. We needed someone in there with composure and the right temperament. Paudie wanted to be out the field, he wanted to be on the ball. James evolved into it.

“The sequence of games through the qualifiers in 2014 brought him on so much. He was able to take it on as a challenge and not have a negative mindset about it. If he was going in there worrying about what might go wrong, he was in trouble. Or if he started worrying, like, ‘Oh Jesus, why are they asking me to go in there?’ That’s no good either. But he is the guy for the position now.”

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