Published 24th October 2008
There is a photograph of Liam Watson, taken at Victoria Park in the spring of 2007, which acquires further poignancy each month for Southport’s young manager.
He is standing, smiling boyishly, shoulder to shoulder with chairman Chris Lloyd and a clutch of silverware proof of the most successful season in Burscough’s history.
Twelve months after leaving Haig Avenue, Watson had guided the tiny West Lancashire outfit to the UniBond Premier League title, the Lancashire Trophy and the Peter Swailes Trophy.
A remarkable achievement for a village club, who were members of the North West Counties League a decade before.
“That was a special moment, but at the same time it was a desperately hard decision to leave Southport behind,” said Watson.
“I still had massive feelings for Southport when I went to Burscough, it always felt like my club.
“I had a special relationship with Southport’s chairman and supporters.
“But Chris Lloyd was the only reason I went to Burscough. We are great friends, always will be.
“That’s why Chris’s illness hit me so hard and shocked everyone who knew him.
“We’d always send daft texts to each other, jokes and stuff.
“I was on holiday, sat by the swimming pool, enjoying a cold beer when my phone bleeped.
“It read: ‘Liam. In Walton Hospital with a brain tumour’.
“He’d gone out for a pint on Friday night and woke up the next day with a terrible headache and blurred vision.
“He drove himself to hospital and a few days later had a 10-hour operation to save his life.
“I just couldn’t believe it had happened to Chris.
“He is recovering well, but I still can’t comprehend how some people at Burscough reacted to his illness.
“He was treated horrifically by some Burscough directors and I’ll never forget that.
“He was seriously ill, but some of the things that were said during Chris’ illness was a disgrace and it showed what a sad and narrow-minded group of people they are.
“They were meant to look out for him, but they didn’t. If it
wasn’t for Chris Lloyd’s investment, and his desire to fuel the dream and take them forward they wouldn’t have got any further than the UniBond League.
“I thought the whole episode was terribly sad, and I left Burscough with a bitter taste in my mouth.
“It was a lovely moment when I went back to Southport.”
Watson returned to Haig Avenue in July after agreeing to step down as Burscough boss in the face of enforced financial restrictions, and the clubs appear to be going in opposite directions.
He took the majority of Burscough’s first team squad with him, including Blue Square North’s leading goalscorer Ciaran Kilheeney.
“I didn’t leave Burscough in the lurch, there was no asset-stripping.
“Burscough had to get rid of the players to cut the wage bill.
“I did them a huge favour by taking the bulk of the squad to Southport, who acted very honourably indeed.
“If I hadn’t done that, I’m certain Burscough would have gone out of existence because they were in so much financial trouble.
“There wasn’t a penny in the pot. What was done had to be done to keep Burscough in business.
“I went back to Burscough at the start of the season to watch a game.
“Maybe I was a bit naive, I don’t know, but the reaction from some supporters was shocking.
“There was a lot of abuse aimed at me. Horrible stuff.”
Of course, Watson is naturally excited about his second spell in charge at Haig Avenue.
He replaced Gary Brabin, days after Brabin had taken charge at Cambridge.
Southport’s 5-2 cruise against Vauxhall Motors in midweek took them back to the summit of the Conference North.
The Sandgrounders, pre-season title favourites, look primed for a promotion tilt.
Port have won nine of their 13 league starts, scoring 24 goals and leaking just seven – boasting the best defensive record in the league.
“Haig Avenue just feels right, it is the environment I feel most comfortable in,” said Watson.
“The only reason I left was that I couldn’t commit to managing Southport on a full-time basis.
“I have a busy job at Ashworth Hospital, and it was just too much of a risk.
“You couldn’t have a full-time club with a part-time manager.”
The 38-year-old had a productive spell at Haig Avenue between 2003 and 2006, winning the Conference North title and ensuring survival the following season.
He is knowledgeable about the game without being self-assertive or boastful, and he could have had the pick of most non-league jobs when he guided Burscough to the UniBond title.
It is not hard to see why he has enjoyed so much success over the last eight years.
“I’m certainly mentally stronger as a person from the Burscough experience,” he added.
“What I’ve learned most about management is that you’ve got to keep looking ahead.
“I got it massively wrong after Southport were promoted to the Conference National.
“I was too loyal to the players who had taken us up.
“But the flip side of that was when we were in the mire and six points adrift in January, I was glad I’d shown that loyalty because the ones I kept at Haig Avenue played the biggest part in us staying in the Conference.
“They had that affinity, they were part of the beating heart of the club and they gave their all for the cause.
“My biggest achievement as a manager was keeping Southport in the Conference.
“A few months before we’d enjoyed an incredible day at Harrogate, winning 5-2 and lifting the title.
“There were hundreds of Southport fans there, they took over the stadium and we were 5-0 up.
“We were the best team in the league by a mile, and I always knew we would win.
“Sometimes you just have that incredible belief in your players.
“Suddenly, though, we were losing every week in the Conference and when you have to come out and speak to the press then it’s not easy.
“It made me a better manager and a stronger person.”
His unexpected return to Haig Avenue just wasn’t in the script last term, when he had guided Burscough to an impressive eighth-place finish last April.
“That strong bond with Southport meant it was easy to walk back in,” he said.
“I’d never lost that friendship with the chairman Charlie Clapham. We have our moments, like any chairman and manager do, but he is very loyal and I think he trusts me.”
We talk amid the productive clutter of his office at Haig Avenue.
It is half-past nine in the morning and Watson has had two hours’ sleep.
He is due at work later that morning and was back in the dug-out for Port’s home game against Vauxhall Motors that evening.
“I went to watch a player at Worcester and I was stuck on the M6 for five hours on the way home,” he sighs.
“I’ve a young family too. My wife is an air hostess and she probably thinks I’m a lunatic.
“But if you don’t put the hours in, then football doesn’t look after you.
“Management is my great passion. Going to work is hard graft, but football’s never a chore.”
Watson’s football ideals are enshrined in vivid memories from John Beck’s Deepdale days.
Beck signed Watson from Warrington Town for 20,000, and he made a sensational start to life at North End.
Replacing the injured Micky Norbury, he scored in a 5-2 win over Rotherham and then netted in each of his next two appearances against Port Vale and Huddersfield Town.
Injury cut short his progress after that, but Beck was the catalyst for Watson’s career in management, which began with Runcorn in September, 2000.
“John Beck was a massive influence, the best manager I ever worked under,” says Watson. “I signed my Preston contract at the Tickled Trout Hotel and John’s enthusiasm was uplifting.
“I walked into the manager’s office the next day and there was John, Gary Peters and the chief scout Harry McNally.
“I don’t think Gary ever rated me, but John gave me my
opportunity to be a professional and I’ll never forget that.
“John got a lot of stick for using the long ball but he was 10 years ahead of his time, with his ideas on diet and preparation.
“Most clubs today use the same preparation methods John Beck devised 15 years ago.
“But you have to deal with every experience as a manager and learn from them.
“The day Burscough won the UniBond Premier League title at Telford was an incredible experience and I certainly learned a lot about people.
“It was a 6,000 full-house at Telford, a very intimidating and daunting environment for young players.
“The UniBond League had docked us a point for an infringement, a real nonsense, but we still had a chance of winning the title on the last day, despite forcing us to play in the Lancashire Cup final 48 hours earlier.
“Everybody said it was a scrap between Telford and Witton, no mention of Burscough.
“I had that inner confidence in the squad, though. They were immense, Farrell Kilbane, Chris Price, Gary Brabin, real leaders.
“Telford’s fans rushed on to the pitch and started throwing punches at Ciaran Kilheeney when he scored Burscough’s second goal.<