Liam Doherty has fond memories of the time he took his first tentative steps into the sport of athletics.
A pupil at the old Raphoe Tech (now Deele College), he was taking part in a relay event around the Diamond in Raphoe, when he caught the eye of local athletics coach, the late Ben O’Donnell.
“Ben came up to have a look at us that evening,” Liam said. “That’s where he first spotted me and asked me to join the club.”
At over 6”, it wasn’t difficult for the young Porthall teenager to stand out from the crowd. But what Ben spotted was a running talent that he could coach and nurture at Lifford AC. Doherty would soon be making his name on the national stage.
In 1978, Liam, at just 19-years-old, became the first ever overall winner of the Donegal Sports Star of the Year award. The awards had actually started in 1976, but in the first two years, awards were only presented in the individual categories.
Liam was honoured for his achievements that year, the high point of which was a gold medal for 110m hurdles in the Irish Junior Championships.
“I’d started out doing some road running and cross country,” Liam said of his time with Lifford AC
“The Donegal team were looking for a hurdler for the national league. They had a team called Tír Chonaill Striders and Ben said to me, ‘What do ya think?’.
“Ben thought I had all the attributes of a hurdler - I was 6”3’ with long legs. So I tried it out and I suppose I was just a natural. I was only 19 then, which was relatively late to be starting out in athletics but it went well for me.”
Liam’s times were really good and were perhaps all the more impressive when you consider that when he took part in races on the national stage, events were held on synthetic tracks.
“Lifford had an all weather track, and it was really good,” he said.
“But then when you went to a tartan track, they were faster. You were getting closer to the hurdles because your stride patterns were completely different. But I could hurdle with both legs which was a big advantage.”
Liam ran in the 110m and 400m hurdles and after his Irish Juniors success in ‘77, got his first junior international vest and then six senior internationals.
“The 400m would have probably been my best event because to be honest, I didn’t have the burst of speed for the 110m,” he added.
Injuries however, soon began to take their toll and a hamstring problem prompted Liam to take a break from the sport. Now working in the Army, he began playing a bit of football and while he tried to make a return to athletics, an achilles tendon injury was another blow to his track and field plans.
Interestingly, his times of 14.9 seconds for the 110m hurdles and 57.3 seconds for the 400m hurdles remain Donegal records.
A strapping centre forward, Liam concentrated his efforts on playing with Lifford Celtic in the Donegal League when he hung up his running spikes. He was part of the side that famously went all the way to the semi-final in the FAI Junior Cup in 1992 with a certain Shay Given catching the eye in goal.
Another player on the team was Seamus ‘Kipper’ Lynch who was a good friend of Liam’s and a colleague from Lifford Army Barracks where the two friends were based. Seamus passed away last November and his death, Liam adds, came as an awful shock to the local community.
“I joined the Army in 1981, but before that I used to run with Kipper down at the track,” he added.
“He was a fantastic athlete, a great 100m and 200m man. Ben O’Donnell used to put Kipper out in front, give him 5 yards on me and make me try and catch him.”
The two would have competed at the Army sports every year in Tullamore. Liam won six or seven army titles over the years.
Towards the end of his Army career, Liam was based in Finner Camp following the closure of the Lifford barracks. He retired last September and reckons he’ll play a bit more golf when the weather gets better this year.
He’s also got his grandson Jake to keep him busy. Now living in Ballindrait, Liam is married to Carole and they have two daughters, Shelley and Hayley.
Liam was special guest at last week’s Donegal Sports Star Awards press conference at which more details were announced ahead of the January 29th event.
“I was only 19 or 20 when I won back in 1978,” he said.
“I remember when they announced my name for the athletics award, thinking this is fantastic. But then I got the overall award as well.
“When you look back, you probably think more of the award now. It’s a fantastic event and the people that are getting these awards these days, some of them are superstars.”
The Donegal Sports Star Awards will be held in the Mount Errigal Hotel in Letterkenny on Friday, January 29th.
Special guest at the awards night will be Olympic Gold Medal winner, Ronnie Delany. This year's event marks the 40th anniversary of the awards.
Tickets for the forthcoming event are now on sale and can be purchased through the Mount Errigal Hotel, the sole booking outlet. Tickets cost €25 for adults and €15 for children.