For the first time this millennium, Monkstown took the field last Saturday without Gareth Watkins donning the number nine jersey for the first day of the season.
During the summer, he decided to bring down the curtain on a spectacular career, leading the sky-blue line through their most successful spell in a century. He can reflect on two Irish Senior Cups, two Leinster senior leagues, Mills and Neville Cup wins, culminating in the incredible three Irish Hockey League crown between 2012 and 2015.
Now 35, he has been mulling over the decision to hang up his stick for a couple of years and knew from February 2019/20 would be his last before putting full focus on the coaching side with the club.
Lockdown took away the chance to finish on an epic high with Town looking set for a Champions Trophy playoff spot but the fiery striker knows it is time and has no regrets about the timing nor thoughts to hang on one more year.
“You would prefer to go out playing matches and knowing when it’s the end,” he told The Hook. “Few people get to do it that way so you just have to roll with it. I had confided in the family about it but told the team around May about my plans. I kept it to myself and didn’t want any distractions for the lads.”
There is a potential epilogue with the Mills Cup final on October 18th against Three Rock Rovers which his contemporaries are trying to coax him into, saying: “We have to look at registration and might if needed. I don’t know how the body would take it; it would definitely be a shock to the system.
“I wouldn’t rule it out and a lot of the lads said it to me – ‘you need a final game!’ Maybe! We will be missing a few from last year so we might be a bit thin on the ground!”
It will close the book on a special career for one of the Rathdown club’s favourite sons from a family steeped in local history, banging in countless goals along the way.
He grew up on the sidelines with father Gordon and uncle Trevor central figures. Indeed, that was how he got his first team debut as a callow 15-year-old a month or two after reaching an eligible age.
“I had just turned 15 in February and it was a nice day so I went up to watch against Avoca. Somebody got injured in the warm-up and it was in the days you only brought 12 or 13 guys.
“Gerry McCabe and Shay Hammond were trying to figure out what they would do. Soon, Tommy Allen was coming up the bank and asking did I have any gear. Sure enough, somebody like my dad had some in the car and I was warming up with the lads.
“I got five or 10 minutes of a cameo. I remember thinking the pace of the game! I was wrecked after about 90 seconds and maybe touched the ball once or twice!”
Following a decent preseason, he was assimilated in for the 2000/01 season, forming a classy forward line with Ian Allen and Cliff Bailey. For those early days, though, Monkstown were considered the ‘next big thing’ with many youth internationals in their midst but success was a long time coming.
“It’s easy just to look back and think of 2008 onwards but there was a lot of midtable, being frustrated. Away from matches, you would be the eternal optimist, ‘next year will be better when those young guys come through’.
“There was always someone coming up and you think that could make an instant impact… it was only when Stephen Cole’s generation came through in 2007/08 w and another three or four were just behind them.
“That’s when things started to really change, getting into semi-finals and finals and knocking on the door. The mindset shifted and getting our name on a trophy didn’t seem so far away.
“At the time it was heartbreak. Now, it is part of the journey and the story. It made getting across the line that bit more emotional and bigger. We lost three Irish Senior Cup finals, a few Nevilles, a few Mills finals and semis.
“The Irish Senior Cup semi-final in 2008 in Garvey was a game-changer. We had never been that far and arrived there; next thing two coach loads of support are climbing down and are as loud as anything we had played in front of. That changed a lot around the club, the atmosphere changed that day. We did get well-beaten by a great Pembroke side in the final but, in retrospect, it was all part of the story.”
Things started to shift a gear; Watkins was named IHA club player of the year for 2009/10 and the 23-year trophy seal was broken on St Patrick’s Day in the Mills Cup with Watkins captaining the side to a 2-1 win over Glenanne.
From nearly men, it changed the narrative – The Hook’s match report from the game pondered whether this could be “the opening chapter of a new era”? It proved so with Town going on to scoop the Irish Senior Cup for the first time in 99 years in 2012 before sweeping to those three IHL wins.
“It was special. You sometimes pinch yourselves – it was three years but felt like a flash. It was a great bunch of guys who had a calmness and a confidence. Days that weren’t going so well, you knew someone would pull something out of the bag. It’s rare enough to play in a team like that, having that calmness and belief week-in, week-out. It will stick with me forever and those guys will always be a bond.
“From all the heartbreak, that was the biggest difference without it ever being spoken about. You do it once or twice, you dig something out of nowhere and it’s in the bank – you know you can draw on it. You don’t get hung up on scoreboard and you play away, someone will put a corner away or produce a bit of magic.”
He hails Graham Shaw’s massive influence during his three-year tenure but also paid tribute to the late Richard Mason for laying the groundwork alongside Didi Cole.
“[Mason] would always come over and have a quiet chat about how you were getting on. It was probably the first time a coach talked to me about what was going on off the pitch.
“In my early 20s, when I was trying to have the same impact as I did when I was a kid – which is the big challenge at that stage – he was a great coach and club man. Himself and Didi really helped build it.”
Internationally, he ended up with 40 caps with Champions Challenge II gold in Lille in 2011 the obvious highlight in two distinct spells in green. Both times, it was something which sought him out but he is hugely grateful for the opportunities.
The first took in the 2012 Olympic qualifying process, a three-year stint under Paul Revington, someone Watkins says still has an impact across the game in Ireland.
“At 23, playing for Ireland wasn’t something front and centre of my mind. I wanted to be fit and healthy and play good hockey. When I got the nod, it was brilliant and I loved those three years.
“It was an exciting time and a phenomenal team to be part of. Revs was one of the guys who helped break down the game for me technically and introduced me to so many new aspects to think of in my game and then in my coaching. It was a time of huge learning and most of the guys would say the same thing.
“At 27, I decided to crack on with the career and life but Neddy [Craig Fulton] gave me that call in December 2015 about Rio and asked if I would train with them.
“You couldn’t say no! You have to put life on pause but the opportunity to go and play in an Olympics – I would have regretted it even though it didn’t work out and didn’t quite get there. I was never not going to try it!”
All the while, he was earning his coaching spurs, helping his family club, winning titles with the Under-16 boys and Leinster league Division 4 and 3 titles with the reformed women’s section. He was part of the coaching setup under Rudi Wortmann that won the IHL in 2016/17. Last term, he started with the men’s team in a player-coach role.
“It’s a passion rather than a career. I just enjoy it and it’s a lovely way to stay involved. I grew up watching my dad and uncle coaching and it has always been a natural step and something I thought I would go on and do.”
And it is dovetailing with a strong group coming together after a couple of years off the pace.
“The last 18 months, we have that energy back into the group and a feel-good factor. Performances have started to show that. We are finally seeing a group who went off to college coming back in which really helps.
“Obviously Lee [Cole] and Jeremy [Duncan] back from professional setups in Belgium, their mindset and how they go about things is at a whole other level. On paper, it’s a great group and, in the club, we have 22 or 23 guys aiming to play first team hockey and achieve.
“But this is a really great league this year; everyone has added a couple of faces. With Covid, it will be difficult but it is an exciting prospect with the guys and this competitive league.”
A league that is vastly different from the one he started in 20 years ago, the Leinster league replaced by the national competition and a marked ramp up in commitment.
“It has changed. Even at first team level, it was a real social thing – something lads did on a Saturday. Numbers at training were up and down all the time and it was down the list of priorities with holidays and that sort of stuff.
“Now, it’s like the level of everything. The international team consider themselves as full-time athletes and the sports science that comes with that has trickled down into first team mindsets.
“It makes hockey a bigger factor in their lives and they give a lot more time to physical conditioning. The tactical level has moved on, certainly how we press and how we organise ourselves without the ball. There’s a lot more detail than whether you were playing 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 this week.”
The week means Annadale away and day two of the latest chapter.