Craig Cathcart went on holiday to try and forget about the heartache of the last 16 exit to Wales but ended up watching the final and rooting for his former teammate Cristiano Ronaldo. It would have difficult for him to cheer for anyone else as he was holidaying in Albufeira.
“I went to Portugal, with my wife and kids,” he told us. “We had a great time. I got my legs recovered and head recovered. We ended up watching the final [against France] and it was packed. I found myself supporting Portugal. It ended up being a good story for Ronaldo and really puts him up there as one of the best.”
Did Cathcart find himself curiously checking the latest Watford news while he was away, finding out the latest on Leicester City’s pursuit of Troy Deeney and who the Hornets were looking to bring in?
“I switched off quite easily and try not to speak about football when I’m with the family,” said Cathcart. “I saw little bits on social media.”
Social media? Has Cathcart got a secret Twitter account we are not aware of?
“My wife is on social media,” he says. “I’m just on Instagram.”
Cathcart didn’t while away the time by getting stuck into a good book either, although he says he has listened to the audio autobiographies of Sir Alex Ferguson, Roy Keane and Steven Gerrard when in the car from time to time.
Northern Ireland’s run to the tournament itself was storybook stuff, let alone the fact they recorded their first ever win in the European Championships, made it out of the group and reached the knockout phase.
“I was really happy [with how it went],” Cathcart says. “Tournament football was unknown to myself and it was an amazing experience. I enjoyed every minute of it. I was disappointed to lose to Wales. We probably deserved at least a draw but it wasn’t to be. We can’t can’t complain. We tried to enjoy every moment and hopefully we can carry it on in our next campaign. All the games were pretty close and some could have gone either way.”
Cathcart and his defensive cohorts had to be on their mettle in every game as they were pitted against the cream of Europe’s forwards in Robert Lewandowski, Yevhen Konoplyanka, Mario Gomez and Gareth Bale. There was just no respite yet Northern Ireland only conceded two goals in normal time.
“We worked on it [stopping Lewandowski] quite a lot as he was their main player,” Cathcart said. “We worked defensively on our shape and snuffed him out. [new Napoli forward Arkadiusz] Milik had a good game against us. I think we’ll see a lot of him. It was great to test yourself against players like that.”
Did Cathcart get any shirts as souvenirs?
“I never usually swap unless someone asks for mine,” he said. “I like to keep my shirts for my family.”
Cathcart should treasure the Watford one he wore against Arsenal in the quarter-final of the FA Cup last season. It would be easy to say it was soaked with sweat but Cathcart’s positioning and timing against the Gunners was so immaculate he probably barely broke sweat. We felt it was one of the great Watford defensive performances and should have pipped Heurelho Gomes at West Bromwich Albion to the Individual Display of the Season gong. There was little chance of us getting Cathcart to describe just how well he played on that memorable day the Emirates stadium. He was, he says, just doing his job. One source told us the players got £20,000 a man for that win.
“I can’t remember too much about it,” he said. “It’s about getting in the right position and on that day I did it more often than not. What I do remember is going back there a couple of weeks later. I seem to remember the bad games rather than the good ones but it was one of the best days we had of the season.”
It was hard to imagine Cathcart ever producing a commanding performance of such maturity, resolve and intelligence during his first forgettable loan spell in the last third of 2009. He was only 19 and looked very much like he had a lot of developing to do.
“I was still young and pretty lightweight,” said Cathcart. “I was 75kg back then. I was a young player, still growing and still developing. I’ve put a lot of weight and muscle on since. The most important thing is to learn from mistakes. That probably just comes with experience. I had the ability to play but some lads develop a bit later. I went and had a lot of games at Blackpool and [when I came back to Watford on a free transfer] I knew what I could bring to the squad. I wanted to come here and knuckle down. It’s been non-stop since and very successful.”
Hasn’t it just. Promotion to the Premier League and a run to the semi-final of the FA Cup were made all the more sweeter because of those challenging years, when a callow defender who dominated the youth scene (he won the coveted Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award at Old Trafford) found the jump to senior football a bigger gap to bridge than others. He had to go back, to Plymouth, to Watford and to Blackpool, before going forward. There was also a character-building spell on loan at Antwerp.
“I was 18, in a foreign country where they drive on the other side of the road,” he said. “It was a different culture and a great learning experience. We were playing against grown men every week and we learnt quickly.”
Cathcart went to Belgium with then United teammate Michael Lee, a left-back who spent the second half of last season at Warrington Town, showing you how a youth career at United doesn’t necessarily translate to fame and fortune in the professional ranks. Cathcart certainly made sacrifices to get his big break, leaving Ireland as a schoolboy to move to Manchester.
“It was pretty easy,” he said when asked about treading the same path as George Best and Keith Gillespie. “I grew up as a United fan, all my family were Man United fans and the chance to play for my boyhood club was a dream come true. I’d been going back and forward since I was 11 or 12 before I lived in digs.”
Sharing digs with him? Danny Welbeck. He’s not done too bad either, has he?