By Frank Craig
CAOLAN Ward didn’t believe the stakes could get any higher in a Donegal versus Tyrone Ulster SFC tangle.
But with the backdoor rug now pulled out from under the 2020 All-Ireland Championship’s feet, both sides will put their seasons on the line in what remains one of, if not the most heated of provincial conflicts.
Covid-19 means we’re in uncharted waters. And there is still so much that has to be ironed out before the inter-county scene reconvenes in late October/early November.
For one, venues for the all the respective provincial openers have yet to be confirmed. And Declan Bonner’s men won’t want to cough up home advantage, which could be a possibility if pandemic restrictions remain in place.
However, four months out from renewing acquaintances with their Red Hand foes, Ward isn’t too concerned about any of that speculation.
“It’s blockbuster stuff, regardless,” he said. “It is at the best of times. But with no second chance now, it’s all on the line. To start our championship season with such a massive derby is going to be huge.
“It’s winner takes all now. And I do believe it adds so much more to the occasion. It’s what we’ll be putting all our energy into and we desperately want to be the team that’s still standing come the Ulster semi-finals.”
Ward, a PT at Donegal Strength and Conditioning in Milford, is nearing the end of his first week back in the gym. Talking ball with clients and colleagues alike, he says things are once again beginning to feel a little closer to normal.
“We’re back, but not fully just yet,” he said. “We’ve the doors open again so it’s just a matter now of slowly moving forward and in line with the guidelines.
“Monday was our first official day back. We’d been busy behind the scenes getting things ready and in place. It was great to get back up and running. It’s working well so far. You can see people are so glad to get back in an exercising.
“And there is that football chat – club and county. It’s just nice for things to be pointed back that direction once again.”
Ward is already back on the training field with his St Eunan’s team-mates. Donegal are scheduled to get back down to business from September 14.
If both he and his Tir Chonaill teammates can get into a rhythm, the club and county gauntlet laid out in front of them will inevitably have its casualties.
“It’s going to be hectic,” he agreed. “Your panel and the depth of it is going to be massive. There’s the club season, and with the tail end of the league up first with Donegal, every team is going to be stretched.
“There will be teams that pick up injuries. That will be unavoidable. But I look around our panel and I see so many options. We’ve lads coming back into the reckoning now that will be chomping at the bit.
“A lot will come down to who is able to cope with the workload best. Every county player will have been battering away on their own. We’ve all been following our plans and I’ve no concerns about anyone coming back in not prepared.
“The hope is that we all get through with our clubs unscathed. We’re all looking forward to that. Then, when it’s time to go with Donegal we’ll hopefully have a full hand to choose from.”
In Division One of the NFL, prior to lockdown, Donegal had lost clashes at home to Galway and away to Dublin. They also drew with Mayo in Ballybofey. In all three clashes, Declan Bonner’s men had worked themselves into very attractive positions, particularly against the Tribesmen and Mayo.
However, late capitulations were a worrying trend. However, they appeared to turn a real corner against the then high-flying Monaghan in Ballyshannon with a very impressive 2-12 to 0-8 drubbing of the Farney men.
Ward, stationed at corner-back that day, typified Donegal’s sense of adventure as he got up field to hammer in a quite superb goal.
“We were in a very good place,” he said on life pre-lockdown. “We were just finding form and you could see the season beginning to open up in front of you.
“It’s a different level now at inter-county football. You have to be at it every single day. And you have to go right to the wire. The signs were good in some of the other games but we just weren’t closing them out.”
Donegal blazed a trail right through Ulster in 2019 and looked primed for a first All-Ireland semi-final appearance since 2014. However, despite playing their part in one of the games of the season against Kerry in Croke Park in the Super ‘Eights’, they came undone away to Mayo on the final day as they once again fell short of their last-four target.
“Some of the big game experience we got last year, good and bad, will hopefully stand to us. The likes of Kerry and Tyrone… you’ll take stuff from those but you’ll take plenty of learning too from Castlebar.
“Things just didn’t go for us that day. Some of the lads were maybe experiencing that real championship pressure for the first time. It was a miserable afternoon. For whatever reason, we just didn’t perform.
“We needed something from the game and we didn’t get it. We only have ourselves to blame. We prepared as best we could. We felt our game-plan and individual roles were spot on.
“But we just didn’t deliver. Mayo deserved to win and progress. But like I said, it’s all fuel, all motivation. I think it’s building nicely again. It’s exciting.”
There now is a playing roadmap in front of us. And players, management and supporters are excited to see what the season might now throw up.
But Ward readily admits that it had got to a point where motivation was beginning to wane. And it was approaching the stage where hope was finally going to concede its last bit of ground to the reality of the pandemic.
“I think the news that we got last week, it was just relief. There was a stage there where I was thinking we’d see nothing for the remainder of the year at the very least.
“I’m sure people’s motivation was being severely tested. You were training on your own and at the back of your mind, and I’m sure it was the same for everyone; you were wondering if it was all going to be in vain?
“When the news broke that we were going to be playing both club and county, it was just such a huge boost. It’s given everyone a massive lift.
“Now, we’re back on the training field and you know you’re pushing on with end goals in mind.
“It was brilliant to get back out with the club lads. The last time I had set foot in O’Donnell Park was for the National League game against Galway back in February. Little did we all know what was just around the corner.
“It was definitely strange driving past and not seeing a being on it. It took a while to get used to it… that’s if we really got used to it at all.
“But last week, we were all back out together and it was great being back out with the club lads and fellas I mightn’t have seen in a couple of months as everyone was keeping that social distance.
“There was a really good energy and buzz about the place. All the lads were just so delighted to get a size five back in the hands again.”
Ward’s club St Eunan’s, in Letterkenny, certainly took a lead hand in the battle against coronavirus as they made their O’Donnell Park grounds and facilities available as a test centre.
The player said those efforts made him proud and it reiterated the importance and the role that the GAA plays at that level.
“Proud yeah, I suppose that was the main feeling. Definitely. The club do their best to pull together at the best of times but efforts that went in during the Covid testing went above and beyond.
“People were giving up their time to volunteer, direct traffic and just help out in any way they could. The club executive took the decision to offer the grounds and the facilities for testing.
“It was something that could easily have been avoided and looked upon as maybe some kind of hassle. But they stepped up. And I’m sure it was really appreciated by the HSE and everyone involved in the testing.”
The black and amber definitely have things right off the pitch but Ward says it’s about time they once again started to flex their undoubted muscle on it.
Once the kingpins of Donegal club football, Eunan’s haven’t lifted the Dr Maguire now since 2014. That, Ward says, it just too long.
“I’m 27 now. This is my 10th season. I started out in 2010. I’ve been lucky enough to have won two Senior Championships. But you always want more. The fact of the matter is we haven’t even competed in a final since 2015. We lost to Naomh Conaill that day by a point.
“We were close last year – the closest I feel we’ve been for a few seasons. We just came up short in the semi-final.
“But the signs are good. I think we’ve a really good and motivated panel there now.
“We’ve a nice blend. And we’re seeing an influx of underage players from a number of good minor teams making their way up.
“It’s very encouraging. But at the same time we all have to step it up. We’re determined to really push on now that we know we’re getting back up and running.
“But the competition there is immense. So many clubs now have taken it to a whole new level. It’s a fierce battle in Donegal. The likes of Glenswilly, Kilcar, Naomh Conaill, Gaoth Dobhair and ourselves have all won it in the last decade. That’s a right spread.”
He added: “I look back at the times we were winning it. I was a little naive. I maybe took it a little for granted thinking I’d be back every year competing or winning finals. But it doesn’t work like that.
“It’s been that long now that if you were lucky enough to cross the line again you’d savour it that wee bit more. We have a number of lads now that are looking to win it for the first time.
“There is a cluster of us that are aiming for a third. There is a nice mix there. So yeah, we’d love to kick on now again.”
*Caolan Ward was speaking ahead of the Donegal team and management’s hosting of a major charity event in July to raise funds for 10-month old baby Olivia ‘Livie’ Mulhern.
Livie was recently diagnosed with a rare and serious genetic neuromuscular condition called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) and needs urgent surgery in the US, at a cost of over €2,100,000.
For more information, and to make a donation, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/teamdonegal4teamlivie.