'It was tough for Robert because everybody was a Joey Dunlop fan, but I knew he had a great talent too'
Ballymoney's Liam Beckett tells Ivan Little why he did not want Robert Dunlop to compete in his last fatal race
Liam Beckett arrived at the hospital just too late to whisper a last farewell into the ear of his friend and hero Robert Dunlop, the motorcycling superman he thought was almost invincible.
"I held his hand and the wee cheeky grin was still on his handsome young face which was unmarked. I rubbed the stubble on his chin and he was as warm as you or me. I thought he would do as he always did - and give me a wink. But not that time," says Liam, still finding it difficult, even after seven years, to talk about the devastating loss of Robert, the rider he mentored from a motorbiking beginner to one of the sport's all-time greats.
Liam didn't see the crash at a practice for the North West 200 which took Robert's life in May 2008, but he heard about the accident within minutes in a phone call from a friend.
"I didn't want Robert to ride in the 250 race. I thought it was a step too far for him. He was severely disabled from a crash on the Isle of Man," says Liam, who remembers fear gripping him as he went into the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine after the accident.
"God knows, I had been at a lot of hospitals after Robert's crashes, but the goose-pimples were all over me that night.
"I said a wee prayer as I was brought in to see him, but his brother-in-law Jim Stevenson told me he'd gone."
Liam says he had to be strong for Robert's wife Louise and three young children and helped with the funeral arrangements, even co-ordinating a visit to the family home by the First and Deputy First Ministers, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness.
Liam is still close to the Dunlops and keeps a watchful eye on the next generation of motorcycle stars in the dynasty.
But he says the void left by Robert and Joey - for whom he recently left flowers at the spot where he died in an accident in Estonia in 2000 - is a constant "dagger in the heart".
Having re-invented himself as one of broadcasting's most erudite analysts, Liam is a sportsman for all seasons - covering football during the winter and the bikes during the summer.
And he's respected by everyone in both sports because Liam knows what he's talking about. For he was a hard-man footballer and astute manager as well as a gifted mechanic on the motorbikes.
But though he rode a road bike in his time, he never raced motorcycles "because I didn't have the b***s".
His knowledge of sport is matched by his wit. For this ace pundit is also a joker in the pack, on air and off it.
Spend an hour or two in his company and he'll have you doubled up with laughter as he reels off his hilarious anecdotes about everyone and everything under the sun.
With his glasses perched on his bald head, there's a look of Brendan O'Carroll about him but I never mentioned the Mrs Brown comparison. For in my mind's eye I can still see the fearsome Beckett on the football field, where he cut a terrifying not-to-be-messed-with figure, with his long flowing locks of old and moustache.
And I only watched him from the safety of the terraces. Opponents who actually played against him still have the scars of battles at the Showgrounds in Coleraine and Seaview, where Liam did nothing to dispel the Crusaders' Hatchet Men nickname.
"No I hit hard. The best way to mark gifted ball players was to mark them, if you know what I mean," says Liam, who rubbishes the modern day ritual of players shaking hands before games.
"In my day we all went for a beer after kicking lumps out of each other, but the pre-match handshakes are totally false. They drive me mad. And so does watching footballers rolling around the pitch as if they've been shot. That was a sign of weakness back in the day."
As well as playing for Crusaders and Coleraine, Liam also had a spell with Drogheda in the League of Ireland … and a story about that move always raises a smile during his after-dinner speeches.
For the southern club's officials didn't realise that this Liam, who grew up as a Linfield supporter, kicked with the other foot. "They were so convinced that I was a Catholic that they marched me down Drogheda's main street like an oul heifer they'd bought at the market and introduced me to all the shopkeepers.
"Then they took me into the church to see the head of Oliver Plunkett.
"I had as much interest in his head as he had in mine, but the penny dropped that they didn't know I was a Protestant.
"My full name is William Alexander Beckett, but my family called me Liam to distinguish me from all the other Billys, Willys and Williams around me."
But Liam still gave his all for the club beside the Boyne and had a ball with players like Danny Trainor, George O'Halloran and Gerry McCaffrey, who were also from north of the border.
After retiring he went into management with his hometown team Ballymoney United before moving to Cliftonville and Institute, but Liam, who was just two when he lost his father, quit the Drumahoe team to spend time with his mother who was dying with cancer.
"It broke my heart because she had reared me on her own," says Liam, who has seen more tragedies on the roads than he would care to count. But he doesn't believe motorcycle racing should be banned.
At the weekend Liam, who is married to Gillian, was commentating on the Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod when Scottish rider Andy Lawson was killed.
"I'm still sick to the pit of my stomach," he says. "I have a son who's the same age as Andy - 24 - and I know if I got news like that, someone would have to pick me up off the floor because I just couldn't cope with that. The very thought of losing my son would be unbearable. I can fully understand why people on the outside think competitors are mad. But even though I wouldn't race, I'm a huge fan of the sport and everyone connected with it. It's also a very unforgiving sport. But I respect the wishes of the racers who are honest-to-goodness folk who know the risks.
"They are doing something they love and I think they cope by pretending it won't happen to them.
"Some people aren't happy playing a game of Ludo, preferring to climb Everest and indulge in extreme sports."
The death of motorcycling's flying doctor John Hinds at the recent Skerries road races shocked Liam, who had recorded a piece with him for the radio only a short time before he was killed.
"He was a selfless man who brought a lot of badly injured motorcyclists back from the brink. He was so calm in a crisis, too.
"And I am fully supportive of his drive for an air ambulance for Northern Ireland," says Liam, who was a reluctant broadcaster.
"I was first approached about 12 years ago to do some work on a casual basis for the BBC, but I was uncomfortable about it primarily because I have a strange accent.
"Coming from Ballymoney, for the first 10 minutes of a conversation with strangers, they always think I'm Polish."
His former footballing colleague Jackie Fullerton was one of his champions in Ormeau Avenue. And his forthright views made the sports bosses sit up and take notice.
And Liam makes no apologies. "I'm not one who says what I am told to say. I won't paper around anything and if that rubs somebody up the wrong way, that's just the way I am.
"I really enjoy the work. And all the lads in the sports department are very good to me and we have a great rapport, which helps us on air. The banter is great, too, at work and on the golf course.
"A couple of years back when the rain interrupted the North West, we had to fill in for ages. And we got texts from listeners saying they hoped the racing wouldn't re-start because they were loving the craic so much," says Liam, who was introduced to motorcycling by his uncle Jackie Graham - Joey Dunlop's mechanic.
"Like everyone else in Ballymoney, I became hooked and when my football career was ending I started to help Robert Dunlop out by letting him use my garage to work on his bikes.
"It was tough for Robert because everyone was a Joey fan, but I knew he also had the ability, though his focus in the early days was poor.
"He idolised Joey and thought he could never be a star in his own right. Eventually he lost the slap-hazard approach and I became his mechanic/manager, and I laid down the rules." Liam says Robert became like a younger brother to him. "And even though we did fall out sometimes, there was a trust, a bond between us." This was evident in Liam's powerful contribution to the award-winning feature documentary, Road, about Robert and his family.
Liam will rubbish reports that Robert and Joey didn't get on in his autobiography, which he has almost completed with journalist Kyle White.
But there'll be humour, too. Joel Taggart told me recently Liam was a dream to work with - and a nightmare, because he never knew what he was going to say next.
There's the story of a Portadown v Linfield game when Liam tried to big up the performances of two makeshift defenders for the Blues. He wanted to say they were playing like giants, but couldn't find the word.
In the end Liam said the players were like two colossuses, but the word went on far too long. Joel - and journalists listening in the press box - dissolved into laughter and the commentary descended into farce. But only momentarily. "I still haven't lived that one down," says Liam. "But I looked it up and it really is a plural of colossus though maybe I did go on a bit."
He has also famously talked about players whose passing was so poor that "they couldn't find Black Beauty in a field of white daisies" but his quips sometimes surprise him as much as anyone else. "They just come out," he says.
Liam Beckett's entry on Wikipedia, ironically, may contain only 15 words, but his book is expected to run to over 80,000.
Even then it probably won't be able to tell the whole story of this remarkable sporting all-rounder, who can switch from playfulness to pathos with the turn of a telling phrase.