IF you lose six county senior hurling finals in a row, as Loughgiel Shamrocks did from 2003-'08, and return for more and eventually conquer those demons, you have to be made of resilient stuff.
That kind of character-building and the long nights of torment that followed helped chisel the character that brought the Antrim men an All-Ireland hurling title yesterday.
It was well deserved and emphatic. When they won their only other title in 1983, Niall Patterson stood in goal and Aidan McCarry was scoring goals at the other end. This team is a polished and spirited inheritor of that glorious legacy. Coolderry failed to do themselves justice after a marvellous run and their first provincial win.
Their defence won't be happy with their day's work, but it would be mean-spirited to take that line when one man stood so imperiously above all the rest. Loughgiel have many fine hurlers -- and they have Liam Watson.
He is one of the most fascinating personalities in Irish sport and one of the least well known. Some of that has been down to his own wandering attentions and a habit of finding trouble where none seemed to exist. But he has looked determined to make his mark in the twilight of his career and this was his finest hour and most cherished experience.
Goals won this for Loughgiel, all four scored in the first half, and Watson claimed three of them. His final tally stopped at 3-7, with 1-6 from placed balls, and there was no player close in the bid for the man-of-the-match prize. His free-taking was impeccable and his opportunism resulted in a hat-trick of goals and guaranteed an emotional return to the acclaim of his family and people in Loughgiel.
At the final whistle he went for the match ball and he might as well have as no one laid claim to it with greater conviction. Watson scored the first point of the day from a free but he was being shielded from much of the action until he suddenly announced his presence and took the game into his own domain after a quarter of an hour.
In the 17th minute, he scored his first goal after moving to full-forward, Loughgiel's second, as they warmed to the open spaces of Croke Park. Watson laid off the ball to an overlapping Shay Casey and his ambitious strike was comfortably dealt with by Stephen Corcoran, but he parried the shot into no-man's land. Watson's follow-through contact wasn't clean, but the ball bobbled over the line.
Some days you get those sorts of breaks and Coolderrry couldn't buy one. But they were at least part-authors of their downfall and Loughgiel's first goal, from Casey after neat exchange passing by Declan Laverty and Joe Scullion, did not cast Coolderry's backline in favourable light. Casey turned his man easily and managed to weave about and make ground before booting the ball past Corcoran.
Those goal interventions gave Loughgiel a confidence and a sense of destiny. Superb points were driven over by Eddie McCloskey and Brendan McCarry, but Coolderry began to profit from direct ball on top of Cathal Parlon at full- forward. He scored one and set up two for Brian Carroll. That had the Offaly men level after 15 minutes.
Then Watson intervened. A first point from play was followed by the goal and he scored two more before the interval to give Loughgiel a 4-6 to 0-9 lead. The first came from a 20-metre free, audacious and viciously struck; the second from a neat first touch and finish.
At the interval, Coolderry took off his marker Trevor Corcoran. They made a rally with three early second-half points. But Loughgiel, fit and physical, stood firm to the challenge.
Scorers -- Loughgiel: L Watson 3-7 (1-6f), S Casey 1-0, E McCarry 0-3, E McCloskey, J Scullion, B McAuley 0-1 each. Coolderry: D Murray 0-8 (8fs), B Carroll 0-3, C Parlon, E Ryan 0-2 each, K Brady, K Connolly 0-1 each.
Loughgiel: D Quinn; P Gillan, N McGarry, R McCloskey; J Campbell, M Scullion, J Campbell; B McAuley, M McFadden; E McCloskey, D Laverty, J Scullion; S Casey, J Scullion, L Watson. Subs: S Dobbin for McFadden (h-t); T McCloskey for Dobbin (56); D McCloskey for Casey (60).
Coolderry: S Corcoran; B Kelly, T Corcoran, A Corcoran; B O'Meara, J Brady, D King; K Teehan, K Brady; B Carroll, B Teehan, M Corcoran; E Ryan, C Parlon, D Murray. Subs: K Connolly for T Corcoran (h-t); M Bergin for Teehan (inj 51); B Larkin for B Kelly (56).
Referee: A Kelly (Galway)
Sunday Indo Sport