Antrim will move forward without Liam Watson
Antrim hurling star Liam Watson has left the county squad ahead of their Christy Ring Cup campaign, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Watson, the Saffrons' last All-Star nominee in 2010, made a comeback to county hurling when pre-season training began under new manager PJ O'Mullan. He had been overlooked in each of the previous three seasons by Kevin Ryan.
However, an inability to commit to the level required along with the time constraints of starting up a new business has led to his axing ahead of their Christy Ring opener against Kildare on April 23.
Watson is not the only one to depart, with Ballycastle's Saul McCaughan also gone.
O'Mullan explained the decision: "The week before the London game, he wasn't able to train. And then he couldn't commit to going to London. We just decided then that he couldn't commit and that was it.
"Going forward into the Christy Ring after the league campaign, everybody's commitment levels have to be at 100% to try and salvage something from the season. We can only take people at the minute who are 100% committed and unfortunately for Liam he can't do that. That's why he is not involved."
At 33, and with O'Mullan committed to the job for the long haul, this could spell the end for one of Antrim's most gifted hurlers. In 2013, he had been approached to play for Dublin under Anthony Daly, who subsequently went on that summer to win the Leinster title in a famous final victory over Galway.
Watson's performances for Loughgiel continued to draw headlines, including the hat-trick of goals in the All-Ireland final against Coolderry.
After rupturing the cruciate ligaments of both knees since then - one incident happened during his impressive showings in the Irish Motocross dirt bike Championships - his appearances became more fleeting, something O'Mullan acknowledged.
"He had been working really hard," O'Mullan admitted.
"Things hadn't maybe worked out on the pitch, but sometimes that happens. People seem to forget that Liam had only played one full game of hurling in two years before he came back.
"I think the time of the year didn't really suit him. Coming into this time of the year where the pitches harden up and get faster, I think that's when Liam would have come into his own. It's just a pity that he has other commitments at the minute."
Part of those commitments include a window-cleaning business that he has recently set up.
Looking ahead to the summer, O'Mullan reveals he has brought in a number of new players, while several Cushendall stars are expected to hook up with the panel following their All-Ireland club final defeat to Na Piarsaigh on St Patrick's Day, including Ryan McCambridge, Conor Carson, Eoghan Campbell, Paddy Burke, Aidan McNaughton, David Kearney and Sean McAfee. Neil McManus and Arron Graffin are going travelling.
After a disappointing league campaign - which began with opening wins over Derry and Kildare before morale-sapping defeats to Carlow, Westmeath and finally London - O'Mullan has expressed sentiments similar to other recent Antrim managers who have been disappointed at the lack of commitment and apathy towards playing county hurling.
"Any new manager needs time to see how the county is set up, how everything works, how players react to you," he said.
"The bottom line is you give everybody a chance, you treat them like adults and you expect the same back. You find over the course of a couple of months that you think there are people doing the work and they aren't.
"At this level, you can't afford to carry them regardless of who they are, you are better having 25 players who are immersed in Antrim hurling for six or seven months of the year.
"I will work with them, rather than having three or four guys who you think are doing the work, but at the end of the day are out drinking on a Sunday and a Monday.
"The apathy in Antrim hurling is relentless. It seems to be gathering momentum, the apathy. Until everybody gets together and turns that around, it is very hard. Players have to do the business when it comes to training and on the pitch.
"I think given a couple of years that the whole thing can be turned around. It won't happen overnight. It's not a three and a half month project anyway."
Despite several attempts to reach him yesterday, Liam Watson was unavailable for comment and was not returning phone calls.