Craig Cathcart’s target is to make next season as good as the last after finally getting his hands on the Northern Ireland Football Writer’s International Personality of the Year prize.
The Watford defender was unable to attend the NI Football Awards gala dinner in May as he was preparing to play for his club in the FA Cup final just a few days later.
On a short trip home after playing a key part for Northern Ireland as Michael O’Neill’s men took their perfect start in Euro 2020 qualifying to four games with wins in Estonia and Belarus, the 30-year-old collected his trophy from David Kernaghan of award sponsors Reaveys Solicitors.
He would be happy to forgo a trip home to Glengormley next summer if it means playing for his country in a second successive European Championship finals.
“If we’ve another successful season we won’t be far away from playing in the Euros,” said Cathcart, as he received his award.
“We go into the games in September and October and they will be great nights at Windsor again.
“We know the games are going to be tougher against high-quality teams, but we have to take confidence from the results that we’ve had so far and the way we have been playing.
“We might have to adapt a few things tactically because we’re not going to see as much of the ball. We know they will be different games, but we’ve seen before that anything can happen at Windsor Park and we’re confident that we can get results at home and we’re tough to play against even away from home too.”
Cathcart succeeded his defensive partner Jonny Evans when he was named as International Personality of the Year. His impressive performances at international level were coupled with a stellar season at club level with Watford, which culminated in that trip to Wembley – although that ended in a 6-0 defeat to an outstanding Manchester City team.
What made his performances even more impressive was that they came after Cathcart sat out almost the entire 2017-18 season with a knee injury which required surgery and ruled him out of the climax to the World Cup qualifiers.
“It’s an honour to receive this award, especially as if you look at the squad now we’ve got so many good players and we’ve done so well over the last few years, so to get a bit of recognition is really nice,” said Cathcart.
“Coming back from the knee injury was tough. I injured it at the end of the previous season, came back fit and did it again in the first game back. It was disappointing, but once we knew what the problem was I got the surgery and then was in Dublin for six weeks doing rehab.
“I wanted to get back as quick as I could and I managed to get back and play the last seven games of the season. I got a good summer and pre-season under my belt which I think made a big difference. I managed to stay fit all year, played a lot of games and it’s gone really well.
“I only played one World Cup qualifier if I remember rightly, against Norway at home. I missed most of the campaign so I was gutted. I managed to get to the Switzerland game at home because I was in Dublin at the time and I was in the dressing room with the lads that night, but to get back playing is definitely better than sitting watching.”
Individually Cathcart's performances for Northern Ireland during the season were reflected by being named International Personality of the Year. Collectively it was a season of two halves, with the team gaining plaudits, but not results in the Nations League before the four successive wins in the spring and summer, which puts O'Neill and his players top of their group ahead of tough battles with Germany and Holland in the autumn.
“Everyone says the same things, we were playing really well, we just weren’t getting the results," said Cathcart.
“We knew we were playing well and we knew the results would come if we just kept doing the right things.
“Michael is very detailed in what he does. We go through all the games and we know what we’re doing well. Some of the stats from the Nations League games showed that we were the most dominant we’d ever been.
“We knew we were playing well and we knew it was just a matter of time before the results would change and thankfully they did just in time and the start we’ve had, with the four wins, has been brilliant."