Possessed and obsessed, Watt brings down final curtain on an Irish career on the edge

Brash and aggressive, Mikie Watt’s fierce style and approach was very much synonymous with the Green Machine’s growth and belief on the world stage, playing “on the edge” at all times, something he makes few apologies for.

The Belfast man retired from the Irish national team earlier this month following a spectacular career, encompassing 12 years, 201 caps, Olympic qualification and a European Championship bronze medal.

Mikie Watt was a fierce competitor, one synonymous with the development of the Green Machine. Pic: Adrian Boehm

More than that, his team mates would describe him fondly as “a back-of-the-bus sitter, the biggest joker off the pitch and, on the pitch, played like a man possessed! He backed himself off the pitch to score as much as he did on it.”

It is not something he overly disagrees with and says that scoring was always something he was drawn to.

“Yeah, I was always found myself as a striker or points scorer in all sports and hockey was no different. I always liked to attack and didn’t fancy defending too much so attacking style of play and scoring goals was what I loved.

“It probably comes from all your sporting heroes you grow up watching on tv. I don’t think many kids grow up idolising players like Gary Neville who get clean sheets… except maybe Paul Gleghorne!”

Watt ended up as the highest Irish goalscorer to date who was not a corner specialist, claiming a total of 57 [though the official record reads 54!] He jokes he does not keep his records as meticulously but does concede more than a passing interest in his stats.

“Haha, it is something I keep a note of but maybe not quite as the likes of Alan Sothern or Shane O’Donoghue. I was always more concerned about my all-round game. How I played, chances I created, corners I won, defensive steals etc.

“Having said all this I do have a record of my official goals tally and against who so maybe it is more important to me. It’s 57 by the way. Not 54! I scored three additional goals in WL2 2015 that haven’t been included so maybe that answers your question, haha!”

His first beginnings in hockey came running around Collegians – now Belfast Harlequins – while his mother played with his brother and Peter Caruth who was often there as his father was coach.

It was also where he first met ‘Dukie’, who sadly passed away recently, remembering who he would bring them comics and sweets every week and hit a ball with the youngsters.

He started playing officially at eight years old at Inchmarlo, the prep school of RBAI, where Graeme Francey was a teacher. He started with Instonians not long after with Hadyn Taylor before moving to senior school at RBAI where he shared his time between hockey and rugby.

“I was a bit of jack of all trades master of none growing up. I played pretty much everything.

“RBAI has a huge sporting tradition but is probably most known for it’s success on the rugby field and this is the route my brother pursued which got him a scholarship at Trinity. He played Irish schools rugby and was in the Ulster set up for a while before he decided to hang his boots up in his mid 20s.

“When I went to RBAI, I decided to initially pursue rugby rather than hockey, just like my brother. I was the out-half and kicker of the team so maybe helped with my social status but, after a couple of years, I realised that my best future would be on the hockey pitch so made the switch back when I was about 14.”

He credits Francey for providing a key turning point, dangling the carrot of international hockey under his nose.

“He was coaching at for the Irish Under-16s. Hearing about them playing against Holland, Spain, Germany etc made me consider the switch. The prospect of international sport at such a young age pushed me to make the switch.”

With the spark ignited, he would help the school to lots of trophies in a star-studded outfit coached by David Wilson.

“With Mark Gleghorne as captain, we won the Burney cup and lost the Irish schools final to Wesley who were full of many future Irish internationals like Peter Blakeney, Andy McConnell, Mick Maguire, Neil Lyons to name a few.

“The year after was our most successful year. We won all three trophies [All-Ireland, Burney, McCullough Cup] and went the entire season unbeaten. This team also included many future internationals like Paul Gleghorne, John Jackson and Steven Redpath and many underage internationals and senior provincial players.

“It still holds some of my best hockey memories to date and can still be used to shoot down a few Banbridge boys of that generation who I played with for years after like Eugene [Magee] and Geoff [McCabe]!”

From the very start, Paul Gleghorne would describe him as “incredibly competitive” from the start, something he carried through his career.

“Haha, that’s one way to put it! Yes, I always hated losing since I was a kid. I used to cry when it happened. I didn’t care so much about winning but I just hated losing.

“It stayed with me for life. There are times during my career where I have let this desire or aggression boil over and I regret my behaviour in certain moments but all in all, if I’m honest I wouldn’t change my approach if I was to go back in time.

“I learned that I played my best when I was on the edge and it made me help achieve the success I have had. No doubt, I haven’t made many friends on the pitch, both players and umpires, but this was never a concern of mine.

“I have been this way since a kid so I soon learned it was never going to change but with certain coaches and players assistance I learned how to channel it in the right way which was invaluable!

“The more I played the more I got to know most umpires and I get on really well with them. I think they prepare a bit as they know it’s coming so let me away with the odd mouthy comment!”

He won the Irish Senior Cup with Instonians in 2004 while still in school before embarking on a European tour, starting with four years in Edinburgh for university, qualifying for the Euro Hockey League with Grange.

Early into his time in Scotland, Dave Passmore gave him a call for an Ireland debut while still 19. It came a day before John Jackson and Mitch Darling made their international bows in 2006, a month before Conor and David Harte and two months before Alan Sothern.

The group went on to form the nucleus of the side that broke boundaries, qualifying for the Olympic Games and winning European Championships bronze.

“We all had an inclination it was a special era but perhaps nobody could envisage the levels we would eventually reach,” he said of those beginnings.

“Under Stephen Watt, we had Under-18 sides finish first, second and fourth in Europe in a three-year period, made up of a high level of talented and driven players who were maybe more used to winning than perhaps teams of the past.

Watt gleefully celebrating a goal against Poland in 2009. Pic: Adrian Boehm

“Along with those guys mentioned we had others like Gormley, Magee, Caruth, Cargo, Cockram, McConnell, McCabe and Gleggy who were drafted in just before.”

His first major event was the 2008 Olympic qualifiers, scoring twice in the opening 4-0 win against France. The tournament ultimately ended with Ireland finishing level on points with hosts New Zealand and Argentina but missed out on the final by a single goal on goal difference.

“Passmore made a ballsy call to bring me for my first major tournament. I was young and probably didn’t quite realise what was at stake so played with a lot of freedom.

“We missed out on the final which was, of course, disappointing but part of me was just happy to be there. We competed but I don’t think looking back we were on the same level as Argentina and New Zealand at that time so the disappointment wasn’t too hard to handle.”

“2012 was a different story,” looking back at the London Games qualifying campaign and the heart-break in the last seconds against Korea at a sold-out Belfield.

“We had made unbelievable strides under Paul Revington. We had consistently beaten top teams, playing an exciting, attacking brand of hockey.

“The belief was huge and the manner in which we lost that final was something that was very hard to deal with. I have never experienced such disappointment and the thought of it still makes my heart sink to this day.

“Looking back, we were an extremely young team but it didn’t feel it at the time. Korea were a top quality side and finished fifth in London. It is my biggest regret in my career not playing in that Olympics as I feel we could have been extremely competitive there.

“I’m sure all the players have let their minds wander and thought it was never going to happen. But we are all so lucky to have such a large number of driven individuals who made sure that we kept pushing and improving and it is now paying dividends.

Contesting a decision against Belgium. Pic: Adrian Boehm

“After 2012, we lost a few players and as you aren’t aware of the youth coming through, I, of course, questioned at times whether we had the squad to do it.

“But this was brief. A number of future stars and match winners came out of nowhere who added a youthful exuberance to the squad and perhaps a bit of ‘no fear’ element as they hadn’t been through the disappointments of the past. I think this combination with the experience in the squad was the winning formula.”

All the while, Watt continued to work on his game, signing up with a series of clubs around Europe. He credits his time with Dragons in Belgium as the “biggest jump” for his development before moving to RS Tenis in Spain and SCHC in the Netherlands.

“The standard of these leagues is so high that it forces you raise your game and on a consistent basis. There is no ability to slack off or drop your standards as you will immediately be exposed both in games but also at training.

“My time abroad also coincided with Revs’ reign as coach. I still believe Revs to be undoubtedly the best coach in the world and feel honoured to have worked with him.

“Although all my coaches have helped with my development in many ways I believe he was the most influential. He helped me progress from being a good international player against lower ranked teams to becoming a threat against the top teams in the world and on a more consistent basis.

“It is no coincidence I scored the majority of my international goals during his three years as coach and played some of my best hockey!”

Those experiences all funneled into that golden 2015 and 16, qualifying for Rio in Antwerp with the glorious wins over Pakistan and Malaysia and backing it up with the Euro bronze in London.

“The obvious highlight of my career was lining out at the Olympics in Rio 2016. After 2 failed attempts where we came so close, this agony made it feel even more special to play on the biggest stage of all with a group of guys so deserving. Winning bronze at the Europeans in 2015 was another career highlight and seeing the team climb up the rankings over the years has been a joy”.

As for the retirement, it “just feels like the right time”. He stepped back in the wake of Rio to focus on his job in London where he is now based, playing with Hampstead and Westminster and this forms part of the decision.

“I would like to focus a bit more on my career as my progression is way behind where it should be due to hockey.

“Another two to four years would slow this further and trying to balance is near impossible nowadays with the amount of annual leave required. I have taken a break for 12 months now and probably wouldn’t be back in an Irish shirt until 2018.

“Part of me feels that there are certain guys who have put in the hard work to get themselves into the squad and help the team qualify for the World Cup. I wasn’t part of this and wouldn’t feel too comfortable to be selected ahead of them. It’s a mixture of a lot of reasons that make it feel like the right time.”

As such, he gets to reflect proudly on his Irish career, one at the forefront of a ground-breaking Irish team.

“I am aware how privileged I am to have worked with such a group of talented and driven players as well as some top class coaches. Being involved in such a special era holds some amazing memories and seeing the heights the Irish team have hit while I was there and are continuing to hit now I’m gone is great to see.

“I remember coming to the squad and any test matches against top teams were non-existent but now we see them playing on a regular basis and beating them in major events. I know there’s going to be more exciting times ahead and look forward to watching the lads for years to come.”

Celebrating once again at Belfield. Pic: Adrian Boehm

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