Watson makes case for tilt at title
All this week, Liam Watson was keeping the head down, not letting talk or thoughts of St Patrick's Day seep into the noggin.
On the other side of the All-Ireland club Championship draw await Na Piarsaigh and Portumna. But Loughgiel – winners in 2012 and defeated last year by eventual champions St Thomas' during their defence – have Carlow's Mount Leinster Rangers in their sights.
Hurling talk is common currency in north Antrim but Watson sees nothing wrong in becoming clannish on weeks like this.
"There is a lot of talk in other parishes," he explains.
"Cushendall and all would say 'this Mount Leinster team is no use', and 'Loughgiel will do this' and 'Loughgiel will do that'. We will turn a deaf ear to that, keep ourselves to ourselves and this week try to keep it as in-house as we can, try and stay away from all the trash-talk you listen to coming into a big match."
Others might dismiss that kind of talk as harmless, but perhaps because the man himself carries so much responsibility, he sees it as dangerous.
"Boys would put stuff into your head, 'if you can't beat this crowd you're no use.' It's just got to the stage where you can do no right. We won an All-Ireland and 'all them teams were s****.' That's all we got up around north Antrim."
He adds, "In my opinion it's just jealousy, complete and utter jealousy that Loughgiel won an All-Ireland."
He doesn't need reminding us of course, that they have two in the roll of honour. Yet perception is a powerful thing. Portumna have not been in the final for four years yet Paddy Power has priced them favourites (6/5) to pick up their fourth Tommy Moore Cup. Behind them lie Na Piarsaigh (5/2), before Loughgiel at 3/1.
It's clear that Watson doesn't have to look far for irritation. Another thing bugging him earlier was a toothache that required a visit to the emergency dentist on Monday night. It's not going to keep him out of Saturday's game, just as a banjaxed ankle is not going to keep manager PJ O'Mullan off the sidelines.
And if they ever needed something to lift their spirits, they got it in the last month when their coach Jim Nelson – who has been battling serious illness – calmly reappeared on the training field one night, no fuss, no fanfare.
You hear the awe in Watson when he talks about Nelson's return.
"We just thought he might not be back. When you see him coming it was, 'Jeez, there's Jim!' and then the word spread.
"Everybody was running about with a wee 20% boost in their fitness and their stickwork because he was back.
"He brings that atmosphere to it, someone fighting an illness and he carries on as usual. The players have that much respect for him it's unreal. Everything he asks you to do you just jump. When he is down around Loughgiel he is treated like a god."
The backroom team has needed to be fluid this season, with O'Mullan in serious difficulties and selector Mick O'Connell stepping down for family reasons. Gavan Duffy has come in to take some sessions and received a great response from the players. It looks like he may make the commitment long-term.
All this effort is being poured into righting the wrongs of this time last year. St Thomas's emerged from Galway and proved sticky opponents in Parnell Park. It took a last-minute 20-yard free from Watson – blasted past eight men on the line to earn them a draw.
Loughgiel were lethargic in the replay scoring only seven points, but Watson refuses to hear it, instead shouldering the responsibility of missing three early frees that he aimed low and hard.
"If you are a penalty and free-taker like myself and you got 30 goals in a season then you are a great player, but if you miss them then you are no use," he harshly critiques his role.
"You have to take the rough with the smooth, it's all about learning and taking the responsibility you are given and I am pretty happy to take it."
Despite that, he acknowledges that the same bite from 2012 was absent that day.
"We just knew that we had left something out there on the pitch on that day.
"We knew we had to put things right, to try and get back to this place again and see if we could take it from there. We are in an All-Ireland semi-final now and everything is going well and we are playing some of the best stuff we have ever played."
After taking a break for the Ulster campaign to sort a hernia problem out, Johnny Campbell is back in the defence. The likes of Shay Casey and Benny McCarry are now assured of their position and less likely to try the impossible in order to impress their way into the team.
"Now they are a wee bit older and they see how a game develops. It's not all about trying to do everything yourself against a difficult team. It's about doing the best for your team and we have a good understanding in our six forwards," says the leader of that unit. Our movement on and off the ball, I don't think there's many teams that do as much movement as we do, or understand each other."
That quality was in evidence in the Ulster final.
Slaughtneil jumped into an early nine-point lead but it felt like they were only postponing the inevitable as Loughgiel assuredly went through the gears.
Last weekend, the Shamrocks went down to Newry for a run-through of this weekend. They played an on-house game on the Saturday, stayed at the Carrickdale Hotel that night before training again at the venue on Sunday.
There was some rainwater lying in the goalmouths, but they were due to be resurfaced this week. With them throughout the weekend was Nelson.
Their inspiration. As if they needed any.