Hurling and camogie

Antrim and Loughgiel Shamrocks' finest Liam Watson was truly one of a kind

Liam Watson has decided to retire from hurling at the age of 37 Picture: Mal McCann

“I’d change nothing and I regret nothing.”

 

LIAM Watson knew a stiff suspension was coming down the tracks and there was nothing he could say or do that was going to change it.

But it didn’t stop him from telling Croke Park officials exactly what he thought of them.

“I hit a boy from Tipperary,” he explains. “I was never going to hit that man.

“I went down to Croke Park to a CCCC hearing with an Antrim official and to look at the footage of the incident.

“There were about 12 men sitting around this big table and I’d a wee, tiny table in front of them. There was a big TV screen…”

‘Liam, you know what you’re here for?’

‘Yep. I do.’

‘Okay, we’re going to play this clip here and you can give us your thoughts.’

“So they pressed play and the clip shows me driving the hurling stick into the man’s face guard. They turned it off and everybody on the big table looked at each other [exhaling], getting on like this here. My temper was going up and up.

“So I says: ‘Could you rewind it back a wee bit there for me, please?’

“And one of them says: ‘No, we’re here to talk to you.’

‘Wait a minute. I f***ing know you’ve your suspension made up already. I don’t need to be sitting in among a crowd of you boys with shirts and ties. You know nothing about the game.

‘If you rewind that back you’ll see he slapped me square in the face first. When he was lying there and I had the stick, the names he called me, I’m telling you boys here now, I didn’t hit him half hard enough…’

“I put my hand below the table I was sitting behind; I stood up and I flipped the table over and walked out. I got the train home. I went my own way…

“The county board forwarded me on an email a while later to say I got a two or three-month suspension. Sure I was always getting that suspension.”

******

LIAM Watson was wearing number 11 and never moved a muscle. He quite literally stood there at centre-forward for the entire duration of the in-house game between Loughgiel’s senior and reserve teams ahead of the county championship.

Two nights earlier, he’d lined out for the club’s reserves and did well. By the time Thursday night’s practice game came around he thought he’d merited a promotion to the seniors.

But it never came.

“I thought they’d change the teams and maybe move me up to the senior team, but I saw the teams up and I spat the dummy out,” he smiles.

“When the ball came to me I never even moved for it. Everybody knew that was just me, I was sulking. It’s not nice being dropped...”

He headed into the changing rooms, picked up his kit-bag and disappeared.

We’re sitting in Watson’s living room a short distance from the village of Loughgiel on Friday afternoon.

Amid telling the story of how his own club career hit the hard shoulder two seasons ago, he stops and warns.

“Now, I don’t want this to reflect on Johnny [Campbell] in any way because we’re friends for life. I won an All-Ireland with that man.”

A bad hernia problem forced Campbell to retire prematurely and within a short space of time he had assumed the manager’s role at the north Antrim club.

Campbell rang Watson the following night and the pair met at the club to talk things over.

Going forward, Watson never played under Campbell, but it said everything about the mutual respect they had for one another that their friendship remained unaffected.

“Johnny and me had a great relationship on and off the hurling field,” Watson says.

“When Johnny Campbell got a free, I knew where he’d put it and I knew where to be. After he quit I lost that because we got balls with snow on them.

“I would like to have seen Johnny play on a bit. He’d two or three bad operations with a hernia… but it got to the stage he was in agony playing. He couldn’t go to work and stuff, so if it’s going to hamper you that way, there’s no point…”

Watson was sitting in a pub in Armoy one afternoon and took a call from a man called Tony Joyce.

A Belfast man, Joyce was manager of Warwickshire hurlers. And that’s where Watson ended up in 2017, helping the Birmingham-based hurlers claim the Lory Meagher Cup.

“Warwickshire?” Watson replied inquisitively on his mobile. “Is that a cricket team? I didn’t even know they had a hurling team.

“Turned out Tony Joyce was a legend, a great fella. We called him ‘The Ram’ because he’d always want you to ram your opponent (laughing). I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Warwickshire.”

Watson, who was plainly too good for the Lory Meagher, top-scored with 11 points in their final victory over Leitrim at Croke Park.

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LAST Monday night, Watson (37) took to Twitter to announce he was retiring from hurling. A big factor in stepping away from hurling are his plans to spend more time indulging his other sporting passion: motor cross.

“I want to do something else before I’m too old to do something else,” he says.

“I kept going and going. I didn’t want to let the parish down; I didn’t want to let my wife (Maighread) down. We’ve twins [Bláithín and Aodhán] who are one-year-old and she wanted me to keep playing so they’d remember their dad hurling. And my other kids Cormac (two) and Eoin (15).

"I didn’t want to let my mum and dad down because they loved watching me play.”

He is the proud owner of a Husqvarna 450cc motorbike. Even to this untrained eye, it’s a beautiful looking specimen.

“I’m not great at it. I’m going to race the Irish and Ulster Championships next year. I competed in some events last year but when it came to the summer I had to concentrate on the hurling.

“I’ve been talking to sponsors and that kind of thing. I’m going to get coached. I hope to win something at it. I just don’t want to take part.”

It’ll be eight years next March since Watson achieved the closest thing to perfection on a hurling field – not once, but twice.

After putting up stout resistance to O’Loughlin Gaels in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-finals, Loughgiel Shamrocks returned to the big stage the following season and edged out Munster kingpins Na Piarsaigh after extra-time in an epic semi-final.

Watson scored 16 points and was magnificent.

“The Na Piarsaigh game was the best game I ever played,” he says categorically.

“Going into the Na Piarsaigh match, you just knew things were right,” recalls the club’s All-Ireland winning manager PJ O’Mullan jr.

“The team was right, Liam was right. Everything he touched turned to gold.

“And it didn’t stop there. He went on and scored 3-7 in the final against Coolderry. He got 2-3 or 2-4 from play. He’d good players around him but he was the fulcrum.

“If he hadn’t got sent off on Eoin Cadogan in the Cork game in 2010 [All-Ireland quarter-final] he probably would have got an Allstar.”

O’Mullan is quick to acknowledge the rich contribution both Joe McGurk, a Lavey native and brother of Johnny, and the late Jim Nelson made to squeezing the absolute best out of Loughgiel’s mercurial forward.

“Joe McGurk got Liam good when he was in some bad places,” O’Mullan says.

“And Jim was fit to coach him. Jim had a brain in the same way Liam had a brain and they were just on the same wavelength.”

You utter “Joe McGurk” to Watson and ask what he did for him in his career, the former Antrim hurler shoots back instantly: “Everything.”

“I’d a bad gambling habit and I was going to go to a [rehabilitation] place in Galway,” Watson candidly admits.

“Oisin McConville was asking me to go to it. I says: ‘Oisin, I can’t afford to go in there. My mortgage, my wee’ans – who’s going to pay for all that? I have to be at work.’

“Oisin said: ‘You can’t gamble your work money, Liam.’

“I said: ‘I’m not gambling all of it; I’m gambling a right bit of it and getting the bills paid…’

“But there were days I was going down to training and Joe McGurk was fit to know I was sitting up in the house gambling. Just the minute I came in the gate.

“'Well Liam,' he’d say. 'Bad form?'

‘No.’

‘Yes you are. Come over 'til I talk to you.’

“Because I love road racing I used to go down to Armoy. It’s 10 minutes down the road. The hurlers always laughed at me for going and I’d have to go back and say ‘sorry’ to them all.

“Anyway, I met a load of bikers at it and hurling wasn’t mentioned. I sat in a pub with them and watched road racing when I was supposed to be playing hurling.

“ The whole panel was saying to the management: ‘You need to drop him.’

“Joe came to the house and said: ‘What’s up?’

“I said: ‘I’m not going down to train and listen to a pile of shite. I’m my own person. I’ll do what I want.’

“I didn’t train for two or three weeks because I wasn’t going down there for somebody to look down their nose at me. You’d end up fighting and that leaves you in worse form.

“But Joe said: ‘Listen, I’ll get it sorted.’ Joe was the go-between.

“Joe was superb to me. Without Joe, I might have quit earlier or I might have got sent off a lot more. He settled me.”

Without Joe, without Jim, Watson mightn’t have been around to produce the scrapbook moments against Na Piarsaigh and Coolderry.

“Jim and Joe just knew how to say things in the right way. They put time into me. They knew the capabilities I had to help the team. They knew I could read the game.

“I told Joe a lot of stuff, a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t repeat and Joe wouldn’t repeat. The only time he would repeat it was to me – and that’s why that friendship will last a lifetime. Jim, God rest him, was the same.”

Liam Watson was never easy to man-manage - but not impossible says, PJ O’Mullan.

“I don’t believe this notion that you can’t manage Liam Watson,” says his Loughgiel club-mate.

“Of course you can manage him. Look at what he achieved and the people who managed him achieved.”

But what about the player himself?

He accepts he mightn’t have been the easiest to handle but the positives always outweighed the negatives.

After a pause, Watson says: “I would say I was and I wasn’t [easy to manage]. The difference was when I saw somebody putting time and effort into me, somebody who knew the ability that I had and wanted me to showcase it, I’d give them, you know, the time of day.

“Other managers I couldn’t get on with them at all. I heard a lot of stuff. They must think I’m stupid and never go out of the house.

“People would then say: ‘Why is Watson not on the Antrim panel?’ And they’d say: ‘Because he’s a hindrance.’

“‘But how could he be a hindrance if he’s going to score 12 points?’”

Watson wasn’t averse to going on benders either – and the axe did fall several times for his bouts of absenteeism.

“I wouldn’t agree with everything he does or everything he says,” O’Mullan says, “but I wouldn’t say a bad word about him. Anybody who knows the real Liam Watson knows how to take him, knows how to deal with him. If he has a few drinks in him, he’s like many of us with drink in us.

“If he’d missed a training session he’d turn up on the Thursday and be looking behind him after a run to see where everybody was.

“We knew he would act the bollocks but once he pulled on the jersey and started to train he was as good as we had and I mean in terms of everything you want in a hurler.

“No matter what we were doing on the pitch, he did it with everything he had in his body as if he was playing for the last time. He was one of our fittest men. He is a complete freak of nature.”

Watson’s worldview was pretty straightforward. Playing top level hurling didn't necessarily mean a monastic lifestyle.

“If you have 35 guys, they’re not the same. I’m different. I am different.

“The best about it was if I was out on a Saturday or a Sunday, if you weren’t training, sure you’d train on a Tuesday night. I didn’t see the problem. They wanted me to sit in the house over the weekend.

“And I’d say: ‘No. There’s a weekend there.’

“You work all week, you go out and do what you want. When we trained, I was in the top three every time.”

So how would Liam Watson, the manager, deal with Liam Watson, the player?

“I would put him in number 15 and tell him to go and do his job. And that job would be good enough for any manager.”

 

Liam Watson says he has no regrets after serving Loughgiel Shamrocks with distinction over the last 20 years

There’s no doubting Watson should have had more appearances in an Antrim jersey than he did.

The last time he wore saffron colours was the spring of 2016.

He loved playing under Dinny Cahill in the early days.

“I was only 17 or 18 and I was running about with a wee baby face on me and I wasn’t as thick as that phone turned sideways.

"I was taking rips and races at the likes of Aidan Mort, big Colm McGuckian and Jim Connolly. I always loved playing for Antrim with the likes of Brian McFall, the Richmonds [Paddy and Liam], Jim Connolly, Johnny McIntosh, Johnny Campbell, Mickey Kettle, Chris Hamill, Ciaran Herron – we didn’t fear anybody.

“But when we won our first club championship [in 2010], I realised club hurling meant more to me than the county.”

He was genuinely overwhelmed by the hundreds of goodwill messages he received after announcing his retirement on social media last Monday.

Sworn enemies sent their best wishes. Some of the greats – including TJ Reid and Brian Hogan - tipped their hat to ‘Winker’ on Twitter.

A message from former Antrim ‘keeper and Shamrocks man Niall Patterson almost moved him to tears.

“I always tried to do something different,” he adds.

“I knew where the posts were. Some players don’t know where they’re actually situated. Like, they don’t move. They are the same on every pitch. Sometimes you think somebody moved them.

“When I was training I would know my distance. I knew when I had to turn my shoulder. Half the time I didn’t have to look up at the posts.”

At 37, Watson insists there will be no encores or U-turns. The hurling road stops here for one of the game’s great entertainers.

What he had you could never coach. A natural hurler and smooth as silk.

Liam Watson will keep travelling on the road, his own road.

The establishment can breathe out again…

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Hurling and camogie