Sam Barlow’s search for redemption following four-year ban

There’s a spring in Sam Barlow’s step as he marches across a large industrial car park to the site’s coffee shop.

He’s come straight from the gym, his grey top etched in sweat after his session on a cool Monday morning.

Barlow has one major reason to be enthusiastic. Last month, a four-year suspension came to an end, allowing him to return to rugby league.

“It’s been a long time,” is Barlow’s first of many admissions as he takes a sip of his coffee.

“For me it’s about setting the record straight, forgetting about the past and building a bright future.”

Four years ago, a bright future was inconceivable for Barlow. One disastrous night saw his life crumble around him in front of his very eyes.

On the evening of July 31st 2015, Barlow received a visit from a doping control officer at his home for an out of competition test. But things went badly wrong. After allowing the tester into his home, a physical altercation ensued. That resulted in not only a ban, but a common assault charge.

Barlow winces when the night in question is brought up. It seems, even now, the events of that July evening are filled with regret.

“I can’t honestly say why it happened,” he said.

“On the night I acted aggressively and over the top. I made a mistake. Looking back now, it would have been so easy not to get worked up about it. Whatever happened that night happened, obviously it was a mistake and I apologise for that.”

The repercussions were catastrophic for Barlow, who was 27 at the time.

“My main income was rugby, we were facing the possibility of losing the house, I had to sell my car, I had a legal battle in crown court.

“If I’m honest, the rugby side of things was forgotten about really because the main thing was to stay out of prison.

“But Leigh had just offered me a five-year deal, I’d had a significant, three-year deal from a big Super League club at the time. It all happened around the time of the ban. I lost all of that.

“I suppose when I got banned I didn’t just lose my contract and everything that comes with that, but I also lost my friendship circle. I lost strong relationships.

“Not only did I lose a lot of respect from the fans, but I also let them and everyone else down.”

Naturally, the impact the case had on Barlow’s state of mind was substantial. He started to gamble heavily, something he says started as a coping mechanism. He avoided his hometown of Halifax where possible and he completely cut himself off from rugby league. Financially, the court case was a major hit, to the point his parents had to support him.

“Halifax is a small town, everyone knows everyone and everyone knew because there was a lot of press.

“But my family, they stood strong. My mum and dad were so good, to the point they were helping me financially. My brothers and Mrs were great. I had a good support network. For them to stay strong when everything else was crumbling around me kept me solid.

“I did some work with Sporting Chance and they were fantastic for me. Through them I met some famous boxers and footballers, one of them being Ched Evans (the footballer who was found guilty of rape, only to have the guilty conviction overturned after serving his sentence).

“I ended up meeting some people with different philosophies on life. Their philosophy was that you can only see the best in someone when they’ve been at their worst, to not judge someone when they’re at the top, but at the bottom trying to get back at the top.

“I had a decision to make, I could sit and worry about it all or go and live this new life I have now and be successful in it.”

Barlow chose the latter. Roll the clocks forward to present, Barlow has now found success in property and his own car wash. Away from his career, he had his first child.

“It’s nothing like rugby but the teamwork still applies and the standard-setting applies too. The ethics of rugby have still fitted into my life, I just haven’t been able to play.

“It’s allowed me to set off on a good start back with rugby, I’m not having to worry about contracts and money, just training and earning a chance to play. I’ve proved to myself there’s a life outside of rugby.”

As the months passed, rugby, and a return, remained in the back of his mind.

“I think I’ve done alright in the years without rugby, but it’s in my blood, that’s never going to stop.

“I remember receiving a letter from the RFL saying my ban was coming to an end and a date when I could start training again, it was a big moment.”

But four years without being able to play any competitive sport had consequences.

“I was touching 22 and a half stone when I received the letter.

“I’d just not run since the ban. The most I’d run was to go get a takeaway! I’ve been eating out every night because I’ve not had to worry about what I’m eating. I’ve got four and a half stone off now but there’s still some work to do.”

Barlow’s return to the sport will be with Bradford. The Bulls have offered him a one-year contract after initially going on trial with his hometown club.

“I want to thank Halifax because they didn’t have to give me that chance.

“I remember on my first day being worked up, wondering what would happen when the ball was in my hands and if I would still have it, or if I’d be disappointed and not be able to play. But I still had the core skills and I enjoyed it.

“Albeit, the lungs aren’t what they were. I made a break and Scott Murrell ran past me! But it was great to be around the boys and it was important for me to know I could do what I did before, albeit not at that pace or with the same aerobic capacity. But the skills were there, which was important.”

As a player, Barlow’s skillset was unquestionable. However, most fans remember him for his aggressive, hothead style that boiled over on countless occasions.

“I know Wilf George who sits on disciplinary and he told me he was dreading me coming back!

“But I know since that night I’ve learned to control the bad side that I have. I lost control on the field a few times and my life was uncontrollable away from it too.

“I won’t know until I go out on the pitch but I think that agression was the natural side of my game. When you’ve got something natural you can’t change it, but you can channel it. That’s what I have to do.

“The game has changed a little bit. That kind of aggression, the punch-ups, they’ve gone now. The disciplinary has got tough now. If I’m like I was before I’ll be playing as much as I have in the last four years!

“I enjoy the physical side of the game and that won’t change, but the reds and the yellows, well I’ll manage that as best as I can. But I love the big collisions, that will still be in my game.”

Barlow has learned from his past, but it’s the future that excites him.

At 31 and out of the game for four years, the prospect of Super League rugby won’t be realistic to most, but he’s not giving up hope.

“I’m coming back to get to the level I was at.

“My happiest times were when I was playing at a good level, playing for Scotland against the Kiwis and so on. They’re the nights that I thrive on and the ones I want back. I understand it’s going to take a lot of hard work and conditioning, and learning too, but I think being in an environment where I can have that one-to-one training will accelerate me to being back to where I want to be and getting to the standards I was playing before I got banned, which ultimately would have seen me play in Super League.”

But if that doesn’t happen, there are other factors that he wants to take pride from when he hangs up the boots on his terms.

“I’ve got a little girl now and she’s an important part of my life. She forced me to change. I want her to see me, be able to run out with me and watch daddy. As for my family, I want to give them the good times again, they’ve deserved that.

“I know I’m going to get a lot of bad publicity and chants, but to be honest, I always felt that worked in my favour, I kind of thrived on it. Most of the time you can’t hear it anyway, it’s your family who hears them.

“I’m excited, I know there’s a lot of people to thank. Iestyn Harris believed in me straight away and he’s a brilliant guy. John Kear too, he’s going to be good for me I think.

“I’m four years behind and I know there’s a lot of hard work.

“But I’ve got to get my head down and earn respect back.”