The most notorious man in league ready to wave his red rag at the Bulls

Dave Hadfield meets Barrie McDermott, the Leeds forward who overcame losing an eye to launch an infamous career
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It takes two and a half pages of Barrie McDermott's recently published autobiography to list his disciplinary record - and that is without even going into his various scrapes with the law off the field.

It takes two and a half pages of Barrie McDermott's recently published autobiography to list his disciplinary record - and that is without even going into his various scrapes with the law off the field.

But rugby league's favourite pantomime villain fulfils the old cliché - that the hardest, meanest characters on the pitch can be the easiest blokes to like off it. The hard, mean side of the coin will be on duty at Old Trafford on Saturday, when he plays in the Super League Grand Final for Leeds against Bradford.

In his book, McDermott talks at length for the first time about the incident which had much to do with making him what he is. At 15, he lost an eye when a mate accidentally shot him with an air-gun. Ironically, that apparently cruel setback made him a professional sportsman, because, without it, he was set on joining the army.

As it is, everything he has achieved on the rugby field has been despite being, technically, disabled. McDermott jokes he could have a disabled sticker and a more convenient parking place, but some of the abuse he takes from the terraces is hardly a laughing matter.

"One eye, he's only got one eye," is one of rugby league's less tasteful anthems. "It doesn't wind me up as much as disappoint me," he says. "I'm not playing the victim and I definitely don't want anyone feeling sorry for me. But I'd just like people to change their opinion. The other side of it is that what I've managed to do in the game might inspire people who don't have the same self-belief."

Refreshingly, he has only been abused about his missing eye once by an opponent - during a particularly stormy Test match against Australia - but the misfortune left its mark on him in more ways than one. The accident gave him an attitude that got him into trouble on and off the field, one "misunderstanding" outside an Oldham nightclub giving him the unwanted distinction of becoming the first person in the country to be arrested by the police using CS gas.

He is now regarded as one of the calmest and friendliest of players away from the fray; in the middle of it, his approach to the priorities of the job remains much the same. "I have often gone to disciplinary hearings and been asked, 'Did you mean to hurt that player?'" he writes. "I might not tell them this, but the real answer is that I mean to hurt every player I tackle."

He sometimes puts it another way. "All I know about the rules is that when you see a yellow card you're going off for a while, when you see a red one you're going off and not coming back, and when the other bloke sees a green one (for the blood-bin) you're doing your job pretty well."

Which brings us to McDermott's famous on-field feud, certain to be resumed on Saturday, with the Bulls' Stuart Fielden. "We do seem to have a bit of a reputation for bringing the best and worst out of each other," he says of their frequent battles. "I hope people have got enjoyment out of it, because I know we do. Sometimes I've won, sometimes he's won."

Contrary to popular belief, however, there is no animosity between them, although there has been in his relationship with others, such as Wigan's Neil Cowie and even his Leeds team-mate, Jamie Mathiou, with whom he once went toe-to-toe in training.

"We get on well," he says. "People find it hard to believe, but the proof will be this next year at some of my benefit functions, where Stuart's prepared to come and do some stuff with me. There isn't many bad rugby lads. There's not much wrong with us and we mainly come from a similar background. It's just that it sometimes comes to nip and tuck in a game and a choice between me and him. Then it's got to be me every time."

Apart from getting on with Fielden, McDermott has another Bradford secret in his closet; he once signed for them. It was in 1996, at the end of his first season with Leeds after joining them from Wigan, and he agreed in advance that he would join the Bulls for the 1998 season.

Leeds sorted out their financial mess and the move never happened, leaving McDermott to wonder what might have been if he had joined arguably the strongest club - and certainly the strongest pack - of the Super League era. "It would have been nice to have been a part of all that," he writes. "But I don't wish I had moved to Bradford; rather, I wish Leeds had enjoyed the success the Bulls have had."

McDermott has already been part of the Leeds side that won the Challenge Cup in 1999, but victory at Old Trafford would mean more to a club that has not been crowned as the best in the game since 1972. It is something of a frustration to a player as passionate as he is that his contribution on Saturday is likely to begin with a stint on the bench and an introduction into the fray as a substitute midway through the first half. "Of course I'd like to be starting. I'd like to score three tries and kick all the goals, but it doesn't always work like that. I'm just happy to do a job for this team - to be one of 17 contributing to one of the great years in Leeds' history."

At 32, McDermott knows that his international days are probably over and that his new, one-year contract with the Rhinos could be his last. His notoriety will outlive his playing days, but on the last page of his autobiography he reveals how he would like to be remembered: "As a professional who loves his sport, has always given everything on the pitch and managed to remain a fairly decent sort of bloke off it."

Whether Bradford will agree with that self-assessment when he throws himself into action on Saturday night is another matter. "But that," says Barrie McDermott, with a glint in his good eye, "is the nature of the job."

'Made for Rugby', by Barrie McDermott and Peter Smith, is published this week by Sidgwick and Jackson, £17.99

Comments