THE BIG INTERVIEW: Andy Waterworth talks Cruyff, Owens, lessons and longevity

Andy Waterworth’s goal a step or so inside the Shamrock Park six-yard box on a crisp November afternoon may offer no obvious connection to Holland, Ajax and Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff.

By Patrick Van Dort
Sunday, 7th February 2021, 7:00 am

It was the finish expected of a penalty-box predator who can boast hundreds of goals across an Irish League career that continues to place the Linfield striker among the rarified air of our game’s finest forwards at the age of 34 years.

An exercise in simplicity.

A goal many may even consider routine in its execution.

Andy Waterworth up against Portadown at Shamrock Park in November. Pic by PressEye Ltd.

But that finish - against Portadown across the early stages of a season which has his club, the defending Danske Bank Premiership champions, as league leaders and the player leading the individual goalscorer charts - could be seen as sharing one of the key qualities Waterworth associates with his football hero Cruyff.

Waterworth’s admiration for the late Dutch maverick extends across the singular vision, creativity and innovation of Cruyff.

But, above all, his passion for the purity of the game.

And, in that regard, Waterworth’s decisive strike against Portadown was a perfect example of a goal both effective and efficient.

“I loved that goal,” said Waterworth. “I was really finding it tough to get anything out of the two Portadown centre-backs, Paddy McNally and Paul Finnegan, all day then finally got one moment towards the end.

“I knew my only chance would be if Kirk Millar played it early from the wing and he understood completely what he needed to do in that situation, so a first-time cross allowed me to find the space to meet it and score.

“It was the type of goal I just absolutely love - it may not look that spectacular but it was all about making the right choices in exactly the right moment.

“As a striker you could make 10 runs in as many minutes and know it’s not even about you getting the ball but instead helping the team.

“I look around at other strikers all the time to try and pick up tips or learn what I can add to my game.

“I’ll never be as strong in the air as Jordan Owens but can watch how he or Eoin Bradley use body position.

“Jordan, for example, is someone I really admire for so many reasons - he is so unselfish and brings a real desire and professionalism to everything.

“Outside the Irish League, Harry Kane has become almost the complete centre-forward.

“I look at something like his body language or how he takes on the pressure of the captain’s armband and try to learn.

“That extra factor can come from any player, for example, Jimmy Callacher has an amazing ability to back himself no matter what in any situation or I recall when Roy Carroll was at Linfield and he had such strong focus for every single fixture.”

The lifespan of elite-level competitors can be seen as a constant battle of younger players proving they deserve a shot at the top and older players proving they deserve to stay.

“You should never, ever feel comfortable and I think I’m the type of person and player who thrives on the competitive aspect,” said Waterworth. “It’s about using that fear as positive motivation.

“When young I would really take criticism on board and use that to motivate me.

“At my lowest points, like when I felt a letdown at Glentoran, I would use any negative comments to keep me going.

“I got a lot of stick after leaving Glentoran for Linfield and then suffered a broken leg on my debut, so everything going on around then would also push me on.

“People would say I was done or had lost it, even after scoring goals to win trophies for Linfield.

“Those opinions came from people who didn’t know me of course but any time I would be written off I would turn around and use it to help me.

“After we lost to Queen’s in the Irish Cup one ex-player came out and said Linfield needed to bring in a 20-goal-a-season striker...but I had been that since signing for the club.

“Then over the years you realise you cannot keep going back to that same negativity for motivation as it’s been used up, so you need something else.

“Plus, you naturally become much more comfortable in your own skin and secure in yourself, so any outside criticism has less impact.

“All teams must evolve and managers and clubs have to think in both the short-term and long-term, so it’s a process you cannot and should not take personally.

“I don’t fear anyone coming in or think of another player as a rival...that’s not doing anyone good, me or the team.

“It’s not about arrogance but belief and I think I have values and morals which have stood by me in life and football that stop me from looking on another person as a direct rival but instead I look towards what can I do to keep on improving and contributing.

“No-one should ever take a spot in the side for granted, especially at a club like Linfield with the expectations and standards in place.

“I find now it’s more about that fear of letting down your club or team-mates - or yourself - as behind the drive to be successful.”

Waterworth’s career is one covering two Irish League periods split by a spell in Scotland and shot at professional football with Hamilton Academical.

It was an eight-month exit from the Irish League which provided Waterworth with lessons measured in value far beyond the 10 appearances made for the Scottish club.

“When I was over in Scotland and they would discuss tactics during Hamilton meetings often I was embarrassed as I simply did not understand it,” he said. “I played football from morning to night as a kid growing up with everyone and anyone, then started to work but would train and practice every day around a nine-to-five job.

“I took that attitude into my Irish League career...not thinking but just reacting to situations and playing off instinct.

“I enjoyed sports like tennis or badminton but struggled with golf or pool, anything that involved planning or thinking.

“I hated getting instructions or being given defensive responsibility, again, that just confused me as I didn’t get how it all fell into place.

“I’m sure most of us reflect back on what went right or wrong and choices we made in certain situations but I always remember that feeling of not understanding and the drive to then put that right.

“I went away and became fascinated with areas like coaching, sports psychology, politics, history and economics to gain a broader understanding of life in and out of football.

“After I left Hamilton and analysed what didn’t work and why I didn’t have that long-term professional career, it became an incentive to educate myself and grow.

“I’ve a far better perspective on how to control everything now at 34 years old than when a teenager or in my 20s.

“Sports science will prove that physically there’s a drop-off as you get older and so much of the modern game seems built around pace.

“But the challenge is to draw on my experience and understanding of the game to deliver.

“It’s about using that added knowledge to draw on my skillset in the most effective way that can help me and the team.

“I look after myself, I don’t drink alcohol during the week and adopt a sensible diet, plus there’s a gym in my garage at home.

“But it’s about more than the work you can do physically, I’ve spent a number of years growing my education of the game and that increased awareness is massive for me now.

“Now when I coach young players I try to set tasks and challenge them to think about solving problems on the pitch or dealing with certain situations...all areas I wish I had a better understanding of when I was younger and went across to Scotland.

“Coaching and even doing television commentary both help me develp that broader understanding as well as I’m watching other players and looking at situations in a different way.

“And I do a lot of reading and looking at ways I can continue to educate myself and gain an edge...but also aware if I cannot fit my 10-minute yoga session or something else in around my day job then that’s okay and no reason to beat myself up.

“I’m open to trying new things but don’t like simply following the latest fads so take what works for me and it’s a trial-and-error process.

“It’s important to get the balance right and education is power - so I gain confidence from the knowledge I’m doing everything I can physically and also in terms of working hard on understanding what’s required on the pitch.”

If Waterworth’s longevity is an end product of lessons both cultivated and carved out of hard yards, he is keen to continue those team gains from individual growth.

“You can get wrapped up in yourself, especially as a striker will always be judged on how many goals he can score over everything else,” he said. “When I was younger in the Irish League I scored a lot of goals by using my pace, running and dribbling.

“But over the years the Irish League has changed and a striker’s role is much more about being that lone man instead of in a 4-4-2 partnership.

“That means you are expected to be in the box to put chances away and it can come down to one moment to score off one chance.

“But that’s why your appreciation of your team-mates grows and you develop that understandng of each other and how it all fits together.

“The fundamentals are still there from when I started to now of course - but, for example, you do see defenders judged on more than the basics and there’s an expectation to be comfortable with the ball.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations about this with Mark Stafford as he was admired for playing in a certain way then, over the years, suddenly the expectation was for centre-backs to bring the ball out.

“To his credit, Mark worked really hard to improve and adapt and that’s a constant I think now for players, we have to be open to making those adjustments as part of a conversation between the player and manager on why you are doing something and how it helps everyone.

“Over the years I’ve worked hard on that sense of the bigger picture and it has made me a better team-mate.

“When younger I was counting far more on pace, plus things like desire and honesty.

“But I realised I had to study to grow and develop and you learn to pause and think more about the choices.

“Decision-making is a massive part of football and one of the reasons I love playing with my Linfield team-mates is that understanding of everyone working together to get results.

“It’s not about individuals or looking good, it’s about making the right call in the right moment.

“Even when at Glentoran with Stephen Carson I struggled initially to realise the level of maturity he had in his game to make the right choice and the value of setting me up for a tap-in over trying to grab the glory for himself.

“It can come down to the smallest thing and in recent seasons I’ve become better at knowing when to make it stick and what that can mean for my team-mates.

“In the past I would have possibly attempted to flick it on thinking that was the best thing to try, when instead my team-mates needed a breather so the better choice was to make it stick or even take the hit and give them those few precious seconds to regroup.

“I never want any complacency to come into my game but do make a point of enjoying moments more now I’m older, from trophy wins to just being around my team-mates or things like European trips.

“In the past after something like the four goals against Warrenpoint I may have been reluctant to pose for photographs...but now I’m much more comfortable embracing that stuff.

“But any satsifaction will only come after I retire, I would never want to - or be allowed to - sit back and use my age as a reason to slack off in any way.

“I keep my focus on the work but also make sure I enjoy the moments around it all.

“With age and experience I’ve also become more rounded and try to bring some perspective to everything.

“After scoring four in the Warrenpoint match it was never about thinking that meant I didn’t need to put everything into the next training session or game.

“It’s never enough...and cannot ever be enough, so I’m always analysing and reviewing if I let my standards drop for any reason.”

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