Wednesday 13 December 2017

Back where he wants to be

Waterford's difficult No 3 jersey has found a willing occupant in Liam Lawlor, writes Damian Lawlor

Damian Lawlor

TWO years ago, Liam Lawlor made a winning championship debut for Waterford against Clare but the game passed by him by. He struck the ball just once in 70 minutes.

"I hit it twice in the Munster final against Cork," he laughs. "That's three touches of a ball playing full-back in 120 minutes of championship hurling. It takes time to get to grips with full-back anyway -- but you'd really have to be mentally prepared to go most of the game without the ball. That's the way hurling is gone now.

"A full-back is more of a stopper these days. Hitting the ball only seems to be a bonus. I'm lucky enough, I suppose, I play a sweeping role at centre-back for my club, Fourmilewater, and I'm constantly on the ball, so I get lots of hurling that way."

Consider, too, his past exploits with the Waterford footballers -- in his three years with them he essentially played in the role of a quarterback, constantly spraying the ball around, and made an incredible 33 plays in a Division 4 clash against Leitrim in 2009 compared to the inter-county average of 15.

"Some difference now alright," he says. "But do you know what? If I didn't even see the ball this time and we win I'd be very happy. Especially after how we fell to Tipp last year."

They lost 7-19 to 0-19 in last July's decider and looked a beaten docket. Then they bounced back, caught Galway with a sucker-punch and turned a 21-point provincial final loss into a 10-point All-Ireland quarter-final win. Where did the dramatic turnaround come from?

"Look, we had a lot to prove to an awful lot of people after the Munster final. It was just one of those days but I think we proved ourselves against Galway and this year we've kicked on again, I hope. We didn't do too badly against Clare in the Munster semi-final a few weeks back anyway. We remember that we left a lot of people down last July but days like that are few and far between for us and I think it's great to be back here again. We're back with a new-look team, a very good manager and a fresh set-up."

In that drubbing to a highly-charged Tipp outfit, Lawlor was summoned from the bench at half-time to replace Darragh Fives, the latest in a long line of Waterford full-backs to encounter turbulence in the position.

As he trotted onto the field to assume his position, one newspaper man described the substitution as Lawlor once again taking hold of the 'poisoned chalice of Waterford hurling'.

It's been 47 championship games since the well-regarded and specialist number three Seán Cullinane, now a team selector, last featured on the edge of the square. In that time, they have regularly experienced chronic back trouble. Fergal Hartley came out of retirement to try and secure the position, before Declan Prendergast, Tom Feeney, Eoin Murphy, Kevin Moran, Ken McGrath and Michael Walsh all took a shot at it. Wayne Hutchinson and Mark O'Brien are two recent inhabitants.

Quietly, though, over the past two years, the laid-back Lawlor has made the position his own. He's only yielded one championship goal to a direct opponent -- Aisake ó hAilpín in 2010 -- in that time. Despite undergoing two knee operations in the past 15 months, he was still a certainty to feature against Clare in this year's championship opener once fully fit.

"I'm still only learning about the position," he admits. "I used to get wicked nervous when I was younger playing at wing-back but now I'm able to relax a bit more -- even if full-back is the sort of position where every ball is important. In fact, the next ball could be the last you are going to go for."

Now 27, he's around long enough to know that if the Tipperary forwards pop up in different positions, today's assignment could be another taxing one. There are signs Tipp are close to a level they were at 12 months ago. The long-ball tactic devastated Waterford last time out -- the Déise defence conceded 4-13 from long balls alone -- but Lawlor is relishing the chance to lock horns with them again.

He was first drafted into the Waterford squad at just 18, having made his name as a stylish wing-back. He managed five league games in his first season of 2003. That was cut to three the following year and two of those were against Down and Antrim. His face didn't quite fit under Justin McCarthy but before they played Offaly in the 2005 qualifiers he was told he was back in the mix. Regretfully, he cancelled plans to attend his cousin's wedding but then spent the entire 70 minutes looking on as Waterford beat Offaly by nine points.

"In 2006, I was dropped altogether, so I finished college at WIT, went to Edinburgh Napier University for a degree in civil engineering and didn't pay much more heed to inter-county hurling. Looking back, it took time to make it because I was very nervous right from the time I was a minor for Waterford. I suppose I kind of wanted it so much. I would be wicked stressed the night before matches and the day of matches.

"I looked around at the likes of Ken McGrath, Dan Shanahan and Paul Flynn and while I was delighted to be in their company, I didn't develop like I should. I was probably thinking that I could never be as good as those lads. Maybe that's why it just didn't work out."

Sensing an opportunity to snare a potential asset for his team, John Kiely approached Lawlor to see if he would tog out for the Waterford footballers. He had just started studying in Scotland but the offer intrigued him. It was something different. And it would help him get back to his girlfriend and family.

"I went with the county football team and enjoyed that a lot more because it came more natural to me and it was a lot more easy-going," he says. "I went out with no pressure and there was no one watching -- you'd only have 20 or 30 at some games and the visiting teams often brought more supporters to Fraher Field.

"But I just enjoyed it big time and under Jackson (Kiely) we made serious strides. We should have been promoted over two seasons and then John Owens came in and the lads went up a division which they fully deserved. It was a very big thing and they got to play in Croke Park as well.

"'Twas an easy sell to get me to play football because I had an easy position to play, sweeping in defence. Sure I didn't have to mark anyone -- I just got on the ball and short-passed it around, tried to build from the back. Jackson told me to play like a quarterback and I wasn't the fittest, nor the fastest, nor was I in great shape so I suppose it suited me because I was able to play a bit of ball, able to whizz it around."

In the meantime, most of his WIT class had surfaced over at Edinburgh University, and they landed the 2010 Fergal Maher Cup (third tier cup of university hurling). "We didn't exactly mix too much with the locals or do much for Irish tourism," he laughs. "There were so many of us from home that we all stuck together. There was no danger of coming back with Scottish accents anyway."

Upon completion of his degree, he returned home, stayed with the footballers and played intermediate hurling for the county. But his club hurling form was again recognised by Justin McCarthy who called both Lawlor and another dual player Gary Hurney into the set-up.

"I was back in, but still way down the pecking order on a 36- or 37-man training panel," he says. "I didn't make the official squad, although Gary did. So I was back to square one."

Davy Fitzgerald took the reins midway through a fraught 2008 season that ultimately saw McCarthy step aside but it was only in 2010 that Lawlor was catapulted back into consideration. Surely he was getting to the stage where he felt his chance had passed?

"No," he says, flatly. "I love hurling and if I was not good enough then fine but I was going to give it a right go. I grew up wanting to hurl for Waterford and hurling is mostly what we talk about in our house so there was always great belief in me."

He was given a chance in a trial game against Wexford early in 2010 and did fine. They stood by him as the side captured the Waterford Crystal Cup, beating UCC in the final, and he played against Dublin in the league at Walsh Park and once more held his own. Just as he was starting to finally feel that he belonged, though, Galway's Joe Gantley outfoxed him, rattling in three goals in their league fixture. "That was a bloody education," Lawlor smiles. "Mark O'Brien then took over at full-back until the end of the league."

But Fitzgerald gave him another shot in their final league match against Kilkenny. They put him on Eoin Larkin and he coped well despite having the 'flu.

"I suppose it stemmed from there. I'm after coming from that point to getting a few championship games and while you'd still doubt yourself at times, the good thing is that I'm more relaxed."

He settled into the role and enjoyed some good duels. His tussles with Aisake ó hAilpín in the 2010 drawn and replayed Munster finals were particularly fascinating, even if Lawlor was replaced by Jamie Nagle after 50 minutes in the drawn game, having picked up a yellow card. "That was the right call by the manager," he admits. "In a game so tight we couldn't afford to have a man sent off. I had fouled Aisake a few times. Another foul and I was probably gone.

"But playing in a Munster final was an absolute dream for me. The huge crowds and that took some getting used to especially after playing in front of 10 or 20 people with the footballers where you'd hear every word said about you! I'm more used to that now and even on Munster final day I can blot out the crowd and imagine I'm back in Fraher Field."

Funny how it goes. Three years ago, he couldn't buy a game; now hurling is keeping him in the country. "I spent a while looking for a job after college but there's nothing there," he says. "I'm hoping to go back to WIT and back to the studies but if I didn't have hurling I'd be abroad. There's nothing to stimulate your mind if you're not working. I've been lucky to get a month's work at Camp Rockwell outside Cashel. But if I didn't have hurling I don't know how I'd manage."

Little wonder he relishes days like today. As tough as they are.

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