NEIL BOOTH - LAWN BOWLS
Bowls provided Northern Ireland with one of its first ever Commonwealth Games medals.
Percy Watson, Charlie Clawson, George Watson and Cecil Curran won a silver medal at the 1934 London Games in the fours, while the boxers secured two bronze medals.
It was also one of the first sports to bring a gold medal home from the Commonwealth Games.
Percy Watson and Willian Rosbotham won gold at the 1954 games in Vancouver beating home pair Sam Gardiner and Dick Williams in the final.
Neil Booth has won four Commonwealth Games medals. He struck gold in the fours at Kuala Lumpur with Ian McClure, Gary McCloy and Martin McHugh. Booth then won a bronze four years later in Manchester, he won a silver in Melbourne in 2006 and it was the same colour of medal again in Glasgow 2014.
“We have always done fairly well at Commonwealth Games levels and it has created the tradition. We are a competitive nation in the sport and we punch well above our weight and let’s hope that continues for many games to come,” said Booth.
“We have a good competitive set up here at home, we have a good tight knit set of players here which is a big bonus. You go to a country like Australia its so vast people don’t see each other as often and it is hard to build up the team spirit or camaraderie. We all know each other extremely well and we travel together to all the events and I think that stands by us.”
“Northern Ireland loves to be the underdog, a wee small country punching above it’s weight is always good.”
Booth has fond memories of his trips to the Commonwealth Games.
“It’s a long time ago now it was 23 years ago (since winning a gold medal), I was 29 at that stage and I was the oldest of the four of us, we won all nine round robin games then played Australia in the final. The final was a further comfortable victory which was good as we were able to relax and enjoy the last wee bit of the game.”
“I was lucky enough to go on and win a bronze in Manchester, a silver in Melbourne and then another silver in Scotland in 2014 which was my last ever international event as I retired immediately after that.”
“I hoping to retire with a gold to finish of the same way as I started but unfortunately we just fell short losing to South Africa.”
Booth started playing locally before coming under the tutelage of world champion Jim Baker.
“Like so many people in this wee part of the world I would have a start at short mat clubs.”
“Short mats are about 40 ft long and you would have them in church halls. There was a club in our local church and I joined it when I was 12 or 13 years old which was young at the time but now days they are playing a lot younger than that.”
“I got absolutely hooked from the moment I started, and it was a lot better than rugby getting beat up ever time you went onto the pitch.”
“I played short mat for four or five years then moved to the Jim Baker indoor stadium. Jimmy helped me a lot and coached me a lot and I made the international team and took it from there.”
Since retiring from playing Booth has taken up the role of High Performance Coach with the Irish Bowls Federation and one of the key roles is identifying emerging talent.
“We have a few different ways of doing it, for the young ones coming through we have set up regional academies a couple of years ago.”
“We have eight academies, seven in the north and one in Dublin. Anybody else that comes through the clubs goes on to represent their association teams and we’ll pick them up at that level and if they are good enough we’ll put them into a development squad or an elite squad and we’ll work with them with a lot of input from Sport NI and the Sports Institute at the very top tier.”
“There are very different ways of picking up the players. I’d work with seven selectors on the men’s side and five selectors on the ladies’ side. We work close together to identify the talent coming through.”
“Bowls is very competitive, if you win an Irish or national title here you have certainly earned it. We have had high performance coaching for the last three years, so we have tried to professionalise that top tier.”
“I work with the elite and emerging squads all year round.”
Like all sports bowls have suffered during the pandemic.
“Our world championships were due to be held this year, our European championships were due to be held this year and the have be cancelled so there has been frantic organising of events.”
“We have managed to secure some four nation events and test matches against the other home countries, we have a pretty full calendar albeit it looks nothing like it did six months but it will be competitive and it should be good preparation for the Commonwealth Games next year.”
Booth is hoping Team NI can send 10 bowlers to next summer’s games in Birmingham.
“The final decision goes to the Commonwealth Games Council if they deem us good enough to get the full complement of players. We hope to take a five player team for both the ladies and the men that will cover four disciplines for each of them.”
“Hopefully our past record will stand by us and the work we have been doing over the last year.”
There are four different disciplines at the Commonwealth Games - singles, pairs, triples and fours, but the basics are the same in each.
“Every coach in bowls will tell you the most important thing is getting as close to the wee white thing at the end of the green, it’s the same as snooker putting the ball in the pocket.”
“Once you get down into the finer details singles is a specialist position, depending where you are playing in a three or a four it is a specialist position as well, we give people individual training programmes based on those positions, it’s different skills and attributes.”
“You may not be a great driver or possess a great weight shot you could be world class and play at the front end of a triple or a four.”
“The all-rounders that would play at the back end would be skips or single players. It’s different skills put in different positions, you do need basic skills to get close to the jack but there are a few subtle differences.
The team for Birmingham will be a mixture of youth and experience.
“We have worked very hard especially on the ladies side. We have picked a squad that is very youthful and it is probably the youngest ladies squad we have ever had.”
“The flip side of that is it is a little inexperienced but we are investing in the future, but the girls are more than capable of making a push for the medals.”
“The guys are maybe a couple of years ahead of the girls and are very experienced. It is still a young squad on the men’s side and I’d be very hopefully that we could push very hard.”
“People are getting fitter and stronger and there is more stamina involved in the game now even from when I started. You could be out there on the green for maybe six to eight hours a day and on a baking hot day that can be hard work so you have to be physically and mentally fit.”
“Youth seems to be the way forward and that is what we are investing or time and effort into at the minute.”
Bowls has been working hard to attract youth to the game.
“The year before the pandemic we set up the regional academies, we bought them all individual shirts and give them individual names like the Rattlesnakes or the Panthers and the Eagles.”
“We brought in ex and current internationals to help coach them and we brought in a bit of a fun aspect to the game and we had towards 200 people involved in that and already we are seeing the fruits of the labour there are few people coming through the academics that are showing real promise.”
“We are trying to get to the stage where we have a conveyor belt of talent coming through so when an experienced player drops of at one end we have got somebody else ready and
able to move forward into that place.”
Booth’s aspirations for Birmingham are simple.
“I’d like to say eight gold medals. We want to medal in some shape or form across the eight events, basically what I want is for the team to go across physically and mentally in the best shape they can be.”
“I don’t want any stone left unturned as far as preparation is concerned and I’ll make sure that happens and then at that point in time it is up to what happens on the day.”
“If we can get that right beforehand then we give ourselves the best possible opportunity to challenge for gold but we have to get all the preparation right before hand. If we do that there is nothing more we can ask.”
Booth’s day to day role as High Performance coach has changed due to lockdown.
“I’ve been in the role of high performance coach for the last three years. At the minute I’m trying to plan the calendar for the coming season and there is a lot of working going on with England, Scotland and Wales. We are trying to get a united front to try and fight against the southern hemisphere countries who are real giants of the sport - South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.”
“We are trying a few ideas and we are going to play against each other as often as we can to try and get ourselves up to that level.”
“It is the first time in a while for us that a major games has been in held in the northern hemisphere. The last couple of major events have been in the southern hemisphere and that really favours the southern hemisphere teams as it is a different surface down there.”
“This is effectively a home games so we’ll pool all our home countries resources. In the past we would have steered clear of playing those countries before a major competition but we are making the most of it now and helping each other.”
The multi Commonwealth Games medallist would encourage anyone thinking of taking up bowls to give it a try.
“It is just a matter of going down to your local club and saying you’re interested. Check the Irish Bowls Association website, Irish Bowls Federation or the Women’s Bowls Association website and you will see the local club and a contact name and you will be made extremely welcome as all clubs are looking members.”
“The good thing about bowls is you can play it from you are five years old to 105, you can play it really competitively or socially.”
“From a mental health perspective you can go out have a chat get fresh air and it can be nice and relaxed or if you have that competitive edge it can be great for that too.”
Men's Irish Bowling Association
Irish Women's Bowling Association (IWBA)