Rugby League: Mad, bad boy has his day

Barrie McDermott used to have big discipline problems. Now he is a Leeds disciple.
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The Independent Online
"I DIDN'T see any good qualities in him in the early days. All he was doing was getting sent off and giving away penalties." You might say Barrie McDermott did not get off on the right foot with Graham Murray.

There would have been no shortage of people eager to tell the new Leeds coach at the start of last season that, in McDermott, he had inherited trouble; a prop who was mad, bad and dangerous to know, both on and off the pitch.

In Murray's first game in charge, the Challenge Cup tie against Castleford, McDermott confirmed all the worst suspicions with a performance of such monumental indiscipline his boss came close to publicly disowning him.

And that was it for 1998. Pushed to the fringe of the first team and then beyond the fringe, he started just four more games and was not even in the squad for the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford.

"I'd be a liar if I said that I wasn't thinking at the end of last season about what the future held for me," he says. "Last year was really disappointing. The season before, I was putting some decent form together, but I broke my leg and took 12 months to recover.

"When I came back, I didn't do myself any favours. But I've got a family and a wife who knows me well and she said if I walked away I'd regret it for the rest of my life."

So McDermott put in a ferocious close season, even changing the date of his honeymoon to give himself a clear run at it. Murray was so impressed that, having kept an open mind, he promoted him to the starting side.

Happily ever after? Not quite; after 20 minutes of the sort of rugby he is capable of playing in the Cup tie against Wigan, McDermott was standing over a prostrate Simon Haughton and the referee was pointing him in the direction of the dressing-rooms.

"Russell Smith had no choice," he says of that high tackle. "He made the correct decision, but I was a little bit disappointed in the player. Simon Haughton came to my stag night and he's not a bad guy, but I was disappointed in him."

Murray could have been expected to be fairly disappointed as well, but this time he kept faith with his errant front-rower. "Graham was good and I got a fair hearing at Red Hall [League HQ] for one of the few times in my career."

More to the point, McDermott, having served his time, has repaid the faith. Straight back into the team after his suspension, his headlong attack on the opening stages of every game is one of the things that defines Leeds' style.

"I'm a big believer in the importance of the first 20 or 25 minutes. It's collision time, the time when you get all the big hits and I want to be there for it. Sometimes I don't like coming off the field after that, but they'd have to change the game before you could play 80 minutes that way."

With his approach to the game, McDermott remains an object lesson in the importance of aggression and the equal importance of controlling and channelling it. His reputation for boiling over began early.

"The early part of my career I spent making a name for myself, a bad one, and I paid heavily for it. I don't have to bite so much now; I just bark. As a youngster, I didn't know anyone I was playing against. Now I know them all. Rugby league is a very small world and I've had a beer or a night out with most of them. I've not too many enemies in the game. Besides, what goes around comes around. If you go stamping on legs and head-butting, the next chance they get they'll do it to you."

One excuse for his excesses that is sometimes advanced on his behalf is that he only has one eye, the other having been lost in a boyhood accident, but he is having none of that. "I've never used it as an excuse, never said `Poor me.' I take responsibility for what I've done. People say to me I'm a very different person from the way I seem on the pitch. I learnt a lot about that when I was at Wigan with Kelvin Skerrett. He looks an absolute maniac on the pitch, but he's the nicest bloke you could meet - just a shy bloke."

McDermott is genuinely well-liked within a game to which he gives a lot back by coaching an amateur side in his native Oldham three nights a week. He admits, though, that he has had his mad moments away from the sport as well, most imfamously when he became the first man in the country to have CS spray used on him by the police. "When you get married and have children, you don't find yourself in those situations. As a single man, I liked to socialise. The biggest change in my life was having my son, Billy, nearly three years ago. I'm so proud for him to be part of my big day. With a bit of luck, he'll remember that he was there to see his dad walk out at Wembley."

And with a bit of luck too, Billy will see his dad walk the right side of that thin line that separates aggression from indiscipline. If he can do that, the commotion and controversy that have characterised Barrie McDermott's rugby league career might at last have resolved themselves.

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