Antrim’s Liam Watson has spoken out about the fracas that led to team-mate Cormac Donnelly's suspension from this weekend's hurling Qualifier against Limerick.
Speaking about incidents that occurred in their Leinster Championship defeat by Westmeath, aggrieved Watson claimed: “Westmeath did almost what they liked. It appeared one rule for them and another for us.”
After 16 minutes of that match, Watson and his marker Conor Jordan were both booked for their part in a squabble, while mentors from both teams were cautioned for their conduct.
The week after, Antrim manager Jerry Wallace quit his post following a row with RTÉ over video evidence of the incident.
In a statement released through Wallace's solicitor, the Cork man commented: “My intervention with RTÉ staff at the Westmeath match was to ascertain if they had full footage of the incident which commenced with an attack on one of my players, Liam Watson.
“I made this inquiry as I felt that fair procedure, towards my player Cormac Donnelly, would not be followed by merely showing a selective excerpt from the fracas which was started by Westmeath.”
Watson, for his part, believes the performance of Laois referee Anthony Stapleton did not help the situation.
“I thought the ref wasn’t great that day,” he commented.
“One of our players was punished for trying to break up a fight — he got a suspension and I thought that was very harsh — and someone was then fit to come on and hit me. It’s something I wasn’t happy with.”
With Wallace gone from Antrim, Jim Nelson has stepped in to hold the fort.
A coach of Watson's at club level with Loughgiel, he appreciates the value of Nelson.
“If you don’t give a manager respect, you’re never going to get anywhere,” said the 2010 All Star nominee.
“Once you give him respect and buy into what he is doing, you’ll travel in the sport.
“To be honest, that’s what Loughgiel did. Once Jim got to speak to the players and we got into his way of thinking and what he is about, it changed my attitude towards hurling. He’s a wee gem around Loughgiel at the minute.”
Paradoxically, the success of Loughgiel in winning the All-Ireland club title over Coolderry on St Patrick's Day left Wallace short-handed for the league.
Although Watson feels that Antrim's results in the league were positive, he can see how they might have suffered from ‘Crossmaglen-syndrome'.
“You have to understand that you have a club team in your county that wins an All-Ireland, one of the biggest achievements you can get.
“If you miss nine or 10 players out of that panel from your county, of course it’s going to weaken your county squad.
“At the same time Jerry had to develop what was available and I thought we did very well in the league,” he said.
Either side of that poor result against Westmeath, selectors Gregory O'Kane and Terence McNaughton resigned and while the Antrim management team became a revolving door, their on-field rehabilitation hasn't reflected the off-field mess.
In recent friendlies the Saffrons had a narrow loss to Liam Dunne's Wexford before hammering Laois, who fell to Limerick last weekend, 6-21 to 1-11.
Despite the upheaval, Watson is eager to get stuck in against Limerick.
“Once you play hurling, the biggest stage you want to play on is Croke Park.
“You can only get to that stage with your club by reaching the All-Ireland club final,” explained Watson.
“Not a lot of people get a chance to do that, so the other chance you have is with your county, trying to play against the best opposition you can get,” he said.
“As good as you think you are, you can only get better.”
Last year Antrim were giving Limerick a good game in the Qualifying series before Karl Stewart's sending-off.
They eventually slumped to a 0-12 to 3-22 loss, a tally the Treatymen equalled in the league encounter with Antrim this season in another heavy defeat.
Watson was out with injury last season and he knows the Saffrons have a very tough contest ahead.
He stressed: “You have to be realistic about the thing. We’re not going down to get beaten, don’t get me wrong.
“For sure, there’s some good hurlers in Antrim and from corner-back to our corner-forward we will give everything we have.”