Forever perched on thin line that divides calm and storm
Liam Watson's talent for trouble is almost as prodigious as his talent for hurling, writes Dermot Crowe
In last year's All-Ireland hurling quarter-final between Antrim and Cork, Liam Watson produced the glowing performance that would win him an All-Star nomination and showcase his talents as a hurler of the first rank.
After 50 minutes he had nailed six points from play, not a prosaic score among them, but there was still time for a depressingly sour finale. Lucky not to be red-carded as early as the second minute, another flashpoint five minutes from the end of normal time resulted in him being ordered off the field.
His offence was there for everyone to see and judge. He became entangled with John Gardiner, yanked off the Corkman's helmet and then, when the heat seemed to have subsided, kicked the headgear away in a theatrical fit of pique. The referee had only one option; as an act of folly it was hard to surpass. Earlier, Watson had struck Eoin Cadogan off the ball and been blessed to escape with a yellow card. Despite that reprieve, and the scatter of points that followed, he still could not contain his temper over an hour later.
There have been numerous incidents like this one. In the 2008 Ulster semi-final against Derry, he was warned to keep his composure if they, as Antrim expected, tested his patience. He was sent off within ten minutes, leaving his team with 14 men for most of the match and having to dig themselves out of a hole.
His first Croke Park visit in 2002, while still a teenager, earned him a yellow card for striking Tipperary's Paul Ormonde. Television replays showed the offence in unsympathetic light and yellow was later upgraded to red. There have been various conflicts with management and in 2007 and 2009 he played no hurling for his county, having fallen foul of the management team of Sambo McNaughton and Dominic McKinley.
But he feels he has matured, at 28, and last year, in spite of his troubles, brought him a cherished and hard-earned county medal and national recognition through an All Star nomination. Next month his club, Loughgiel Shamrocks, will face the Leinster champions in the All-Ireland semi-finals. Their long-awaited county win ended a barren stretch that included a scarcely comprehensible six squandered finals in a row. Watson also began his first season in the IFA Premiership with Donegal Celtic, after spending the previous two seasons trying to win promotion. He was voted the supporters' best player and considered among the top three performers in the division.
Joe McGurk, part of the GAA family from Lavey, is on the Loughgiel management team and is cited as being one of the positive influences on Watson's efforts to reform. This is the player's own testimony. McGurk gave him Liam Dunne's autobiography which he has read and that has given him a sense of purpose and a feeling that he is not alone in his predicament. Dunne, too, had a career which mixed sublime hurling with controversy, and ultimately he came through and achieved a sense of peace and triumph.
Jim Nelson, the former Antrim manager and a Loughgiel coach, has also been a calming presence. Watson promised Nelson he would not be sent off in 2010 for Loughgiel. He proved true to his word. There were games, as he says himself, when he was "battered from the first minute to the last minute" but, "I never even said 'boo' to them". That was the difference."
But it is a constant battle. Before Christmas he returned from injury to face Coleraine and was sent off after just 15 seconds.
Dinny Cahill was the first manager to introduce Watson to the Antrim team and he managed to resurrect his career when he returned for the 2010 season. But even Cahill has been frustrated. He imposed a drinking ban leading up to the Leinster Championship match against Offaly which Watson breached by going to a close friend's stag in Liverpool. Then there was a fight in training with one of the Antrim players. He was dropped from the panel, restored, then dropped from the team. Not all of Cahill's management team were happy to see him come on at half-time in the Offaly game, but Cahill believed he needed him and made the call.
Cahill, he knew, would be pleading to him to return to inter-county hurling once he went back to managing Antrim. "I thought, 'Oh my God, I am going to get a call some night and it's going to be an hour long'. It came one Monday night. Och, he just wouldn't take no for an answer. I just told him maybe I didn't have the commitment he wanted, with the football and that. He said he would work round it."
He returned and hurled in the early rounds of the league, then got a straight red card against Laois and was suspended again. The season didn't pass without incident, but he believes he gave the county a lot, culminating in the six-point performance against Cork. For a while he had to balance two careers, with the Irish League running from August to May. During the hurling league in the spring, a balance needed to be struck but Cahill made the necessary accommodation.
"I left Donegal Celtic one Saturday evening (after a game), drove to Kilkenny and went to bed and played Kilkenny the next day and went back up. I was training four or five nights a week and playing two matches at the weekend and it got to the stage where I was not performing. I went to Dinny and said 'Dinny, I am trying to keep everyone happy and I am not performing'."
But even Cahill's patience was tested. He does a shaky impression of a Dinny Cahill accent, enunciating his reaction when told of the impending stag do: "Stag do's is out, weddings is out, funerals is out; everything is out." Watson told some of the players he was going regardless of Cahill's reservations. "It was my mate's stag who I have hung about with for 20 odd years, it was the least I could do."
Cahill phoned Watson while he was in Liverpool and he confessed. They agreed to talk on Monday when he returned. The next day he was texted news of a story in the newspapers saying he had been dropped from the panel. Cahill later overruled that decision and then had to face the training ground bust-up. Watson explains it as follows: "He [another player] hit me a dirty slap at training and he didn't think it was but I did and I turned around and hit him. Dinny talked to me and I told him, 'look, what I done in training I would do it again. It was a dirty slap for a training session'. He's a good fella (the player I hit) and I speak away to him now but I don't regret it, no. I said it to him, if that happened, I would do it again."
He has some regrets. On the Ormonde incident, he is asked if he deserved three months and is unequivocal that he did. "I hold my hand up," he says now, "it shouldn't have happened." But he is less contrite about other flashpoints. The Gardiner incident is one. He is asked why did he do it. "He (Gardiner) got me raised. See, when the ref was getting a hold of me, Gardiner was still poking two or three of our players and that is what annoyed me.
"I have no qualms. I don't like Gardiner and I never will. I don't regret kicking Gardiner's helmet. I would rather kick him up the ass to be honest, I don't like him. He is one I would never shake hands with."
The tussle with Cadogan is also recounted. "We were told what way they were going to come on to us. Before we started, we never shook hands . . . He (Cadogan) said I was in for a hard time. First ball I went for, he fouled me and I fell. I just got up and said 'you don't know who you are dealing with, you'll get it'. So then it went on and on."
You could have been sent off. "No, because it was early on."
So you took a calculated risk? "Aye," he says emphatically. "To put manners into him. Instead of him treating us like shit and I was going out to treat him like shit. End of the day I think it worked, I ended up playing well. To be honest, when I go playing hurling I can't go out and go through the motions, I need to be right up there. If somebody hits me, it's the best thing you can do to get me going."
On Friday, Watson went to a doctor in Ballymena who diagnosed a medial ligament tear in his knee. That would rule him out of Donegal Celtic's Irish League match with Coleraine, a repeat of the tie in November which, in his comeback game after another medial knee ligament tear, Watson received his marching orders. He enjoys playing football, is very happy with Donegal Celtic, and says he would love a crack at playing for Linfield or one of the bigger clubs if the opportunity arose.
But hurling is his game and he makes no bones about it, at one stage only half-jokingly deriding football as a "poof's game". He enjoys the physical nature of hurling and he has taken his fair share of knocks over the years, including a broken jaw in a county semi-final against Dunloy that had him eating through a straw for six weeks. Yet two weeks after getting his jaw wired up he turned out for Loughgiel in the county championship final.
His last medial ligament tear required keyhole surgery and if this requires the same treatment then he will postpone corrective treatment until after next month's All-Ireland club hurling semi-final. When he suffered a similar tear on the other knee last year, he "played through it". He featured in the county final win, the club's first since 1989, and hurled through the Ulster championship that followed by taking a series of painkilling injections.
On Thursday night, he went up to the local GAA grounds to watch the hurlers go through their paces. The bitter cold didn't deter them; they looked determined and eager, but injury to Watson is an untimely blow and his team-mate Eddie McCloskey has suffered a bad hamstring injury. Watson's six-year-old son Eoin is already a hurling fanatic and taking a keen interest in his father's career. His father recalls him watching the Cork game, praising the points his Daddy scored, then "tut-tutting" when he got the line.
Liam Watson knows that now, at 28, he should be a leader, carrying lads and showing example. In 2008, he was dropped from the Antrim squad the night before they faced Galway in the All-Ireland qualifiers at Casement Park. The offence was to play a soccer match two nights before in Limavady, part of an annual tournament, of no great consequence except that he did it every year. The same night he was due in Casement Park for training and a press night with the county hurlers. He never informed the management team he would be away and the next day he received a call saying he was being dropped.
He resented not being told face to face, instead hearing the news on his mobile while out shopping. But there are holes in his reasoning, given that he failed to communicate his absence the night before, and ran the obvious risk of injury by playing a relatively meaningless soccer match a couple of days before one of their big matches of the year. Any inter-county management team would have reacted in the same manner.
"I knew if I mentioned soccer there would be uproar, thought it was better saying nothing. Maybe I should have said I am going here. I made a lot of mistakes, you know, I am not saying I am perfect. Aye, I could have handled it better. I could have gone to them and said I am going here to play football and I will contact you right after the match to say everything is alright. Like, it was a mistake of mine. I will hold my hands up when I was wrong and maybe that was one of the times. I should have knocked the tournament on the head."
But did it hurt him enough to miss the Galway game? "You always look forward to playing the big teams," he says, "and put yourself up against the best, but once I got the phone call, I would rather they had met me face to face, I wasn't best pleased with that there. After the phone call, I didn't give a shit to be honest, it was one of those feelings where I said 'fuck it'. I thought at that time it was me and Antrim finished."
His relationship with McNaughton and McKinley, which had already been tested, never recovered. Antrim, after a plucky first half hour, were annihilated by Galway in Belfast. He wouldn't make himself available for the final qualifier match in Walsh Park against Waterford and the county was walloped again. He didn't hurl the following year for Antrim and he hadn't hurled in 2007 either.
McNaughton and McKinley had been in charge of the county minors and were building a new senior side from those reserves. They were anxious that the right example would be set by the more senior players and Watson's reputation contravened those ideals. They wanted him to hurl but he was hard work and more often than not they regarded him as too much of a liability.
He admits there were times when he went missing, even for Loughgiel, where a night out morphed into two and maybe three and the next training session was missed without prior warning. This would lead to words and that would only make him worse. One year he missed a first round championship game for Loughgiel when he went on a lost weekend after a motorbike race. He had to return with the tail between his legs and apologise to his team-mates gathered around him on the field.
If some don't believe he will ever fully reform, it is understandable. But he feels he is making ground. The quality of his hurling has never been in dispute. He jokes that if he were his own manager he would lock himself up and only release himself for training and matches. "Since I have come on the hurling scene, I know I have made a lot of mistakes but in the last two years I have grown up a lot, made a lot of changes. But I've still a lot to change. Long way to go. Last year was very good for me and that was part of my changing."
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