By Ciaran O’Donnell
Memory lane is a place Liam Doherty enjoys going down. Last week, the first ever winner of the Donegal Sports Star Overall Award award back in 1978 caught up with some old and familiar faces at the launch of the 2018 awards’ night which takes place on Friday next, January 25th.
“The Donegal Sports Star Committee are so thoughtful and they never forget to include me,” Liam says.
“Even though you might lose touch with people over the years, anniversaries such as last week’s always bring people together. Unfortunately my wife, Carole, and myself are away next weekend and won’t make the function. I have no doubt it will be another brilliant night,” he adds.
Four decades is a long time looking forward. Looking back, perhaps not so long.
“It’s hard to believe that 40 years have passed. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since.”
Liam was a tall, rangy teenager and a student at Raphoe Tech in 1975 when the late Lifford AC coach, Ben O’Donnell, asked him to join the club. Liam had been running the road relays for the school in Raphoe when the approach was made.
“I was six foot plus and was ideal for doing the hurdles,” he comments.
He started out, like most back in the day, trying to cut it in cross country to build up strength for the road season that followed.
“I remember running against Neil Martin, John Cronin, Malcolm McCausland and Sean McLaughlin. Sean got a scholarship around that time and went to America. We also ran together for the county team, Tir Conaill Striders and that’s where I started off with the hurdles. Ben O’Donnell was manager of that team.
“They were looking for a hurdler for the national league and it was Ben who started me off. As I say, I took them in my stride,” he says with a laugh.
The high hurdles was the discipline in which Liam made his mark. His first win came in the 110 hurdles in the national juniors in 1977 in Belfield.
“I just ran a race and didn’t know who I was running against,” he remembers of the occasion.
Liam was 20 when he became national junior champion. He was working in the shirt factory in Lifford – he stayed there until he joined the army in his mid-twenties.
“The sporting side of the army was one of the main things that I liked about the army,” he adds.
Liam gained selection for Ireland on the back of his junior success and traveled to Newport in Wales to represent his country for the first time.
“I was young and didn’t really realise how big a deal it was until later years. It’s a great time to look back on. I have a scrapbook in the house. My wife and my mother cut out all the newspaper clippings. There are times I look back now and ask ‘is that really me?’.”
Liam’s best year on the track was 1978. He was a regular on the Irish senior team and his times got faster as the year progressed.
“I ran 14.9 in Belfield for the 110 hurdles and I was presented with a medallion by the Ulster Sports Council with the inscription ‘14.9 Belfield’. I got senior internationals as a result.”
Eamon Coghlan, John Treacy, Ray Treacy and Jerry Kiernan were part of the Irish team when Liam made his senior international debut. Race walker, Bernie O’Callaghan from Killybegs was another local international at that time.
Winning the first Donegal Sports Star Overall Award is an honour Liam remains extremely proud of.
“Being the overall sports star in your own county will always mean a lot to me. I was chatting to Danny McDaid at the launch over a cup of tea and he was slagging away at me. He reckons I pipped him at the post that year. When you mention the name of Danny McDaid, you know you’re in good company,” he says.
Liam was plagued with a hamstring injury which hampered his athletics career.
“I competed off and on because of the injury. My hamstring tore badly. In those days there was no such thing as top quality physiotherapists or anywhere I could go to get good help. It came and went and it always seemed to come back any time I was getting into good shape. It was really frustrating. I could probably have got another nine or ten years out of it, but in the end I decided to bow out gracefully,” he recalls.
“I had a fantastic time and I’d recommend the running to every young boy and girl. I know it’s an individual sport and a lot of dedication is needed. But you get out what you put in. I still have a couple of Donegal records. I have the 110 hurdles and the 400 hurdles record which stands at 52.37, so I suppose that just shows how things haven’t progressed in the hurdles in the county. It’s a wee bit disappointing that no one has come along and set new records in that 40 year period. It’s a very technical sport and an extremely difficult discipline to master. I’m sure, though, someone will come around the corner before I go down into the clay.”
Liam found himself back with Lifford Celtic and wore the number nine shirt for the Greenbrae men after calling time on the track. He led the line for Robbie White’s charges when they reached the semi-final of the Junior Cup in 1992 – a certain teenager named Shay Given was in goals.
“Neilstown Rangers beat us 1-0 at Oriel Park. Shay went to Celtic soon after. While I played a bit of gaelic football at school, soccer was the main thing.”
Liam’s grandson, Jake McMenamin (8), is showing good potential on the soccer fields and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by his grandfather.
“I have two daughters, Shelli and Hayley, and Jake is Sheli’s son. He has a good wee left foot on him. He’s with Lifford Celtic and moved up this year to under-10s.
“He said to me the last night ‘Grandad, how many pair of boots did you have when you were playing?’ I said I only had the one pair – that’s all I could afford. He told me ‘I have yellow Predators and black Predators’. He has about four or five pairs of boots in total.”
And still the best of times for Liam Doherty who will forever have the distinction of being the first back in 1978.