Commitment starting to pay off for Ward
IF anyone is struggling to understand the level of commitment needed to be an inter-county footballer at the top level, look no further than what Caolan Ward did in his first 18 months on the Donegal panel.
A student at Carlow IT, he didn't have a car. Rory Gallagher gave him the leeway to stay down and do his own training during the week, but he'd be up every Friday for the weekend sessions.
Lectures finished around 4.30pm and it'd be 90 minutes on the bus to Dublin. Then wait around for an hour or more on a connecting bus back up to Letterkenny. Days it was a seven-hour journey one way.
“I counted it one day and I travelled through eight counties.
“I did that for a year and a half for the 2016 season and then I went on placement for the first part of 2017.”
If there were times when it weighed on him to the point of reconsidering the whole idea, he doesn't let on.
And the persistence paid off two weeks ago when he was stood up at the deep end and pushed in. His first championship game in Croke Park, one-on-one with Paul Geaney.
It wasn't always easy, but that's the nature of a more expansive Donegal taking on a fluid Kerry on the Jones' Road.
The running from Carlow, where he spent four years studying, has stopped now. He did another two years working in Monaghan, but the 26-year-old personal trainer is now back in Letterkenny full-time.
Such driving can take its toll physically, but his high metabolism (he says without breaking stride as he scoffs a Custard Cream) and athletic background have stood to him.
While he always played football with St Eunan's, up until he was 17 his mind was on athletics first.
In his late primary school and early secondary school days, he'd have won the 60metres and long jump at the National Indoors.
“I also won in the Community Games five or six times, 100 and 200 metres but that was when I was 10 or 12. I peaked quite early,” he laughed.
“It wasn't until I reached minor that I started to take Gaelic football serious. I would have been big into athletics at the time. I was very good at that when I was under age but I never then gave it the commitment required.”
His father, Anthony, was one of the coaches in Letterkenny Athletic Club, of which the most high-profile export has been 2014 European 800m bronze medallist, Mark English, with whom he'd have occasionally been part of relay teams.
Ward's head was turned by the call-up to the Donegal minor squad when he was 17, but the grounding hasn't left him.
“You look at my strength as a footballer, it would probably be my ability in getting up and down the field. That goes back to my upbringing in athletics and my dad would have been a big part of that as a coach.
“He would have travelled all over the country, and we would have gone to England and Scotland for competitions.”
The family were all located in the Hogan Stand to see him make his Croke Park championship bow against Kerry, but he stopped himself from finding out where exactly they were sitting. Anything to avoid distraction.
“I take [the tickets] out of the bag when I get home and leave them in the press and leave it at that.
“It's surreal, looking around at the size of [Croke Park] and the colour, being on the turf for such a big, big game. As soon as you get into the warm-up, your focus totally changes and you just blank everything.”
A minor in 2010, he was coming up the ranks just as Donegal football hit the richest period in its history. His seat in the upper tier of the Canal End for the All-Ireland final in 2012 offered him the perfect view of the McGees' performances that day.
While Donegal's defensive structure was lauded that year, the Gaoth Dobhair brothers did their fair share of one-on-one work that day.
This was the life Ward wanted now.
“The Monday in Donegal town for the homecoming was unreal. I was there … in spirit,” he laughs.
“There were so many battles going on that day of the final. As a defender, I remember the two boys (Eamon and Neil) didn't give their forwards a minute.”
For a while, that Donegal team was the death of defenders being left one-on-one. But it's come back into vogue, as he found out two weeks ago. Not that it was anything new.
The rigours of going to one-to-one at training with Michael Murphy, Patrick McBrearty, Jamie Brennan and Oisin Langan? That'd get you ready for most challenges.
“Everything has moved on massively. At a lot of the training you just work (with Karl Lacey) on defensive marking and defensive covering. One v one.
“Karl takes a lot of it and he's the big voice then. It could be three forwards versus three backs and it's just play after play.
“Man to man defending is coming back now and you've just got to do your best in training. You can't be relying on a mass defence.”