Patience, we’re often told, is a virtue.
Caolan Ward last Sunday week answered the call from Declan Bonner to step into the Donegal team for his first championship appearance at Croke Park when Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Neil McGee’s absences through injury were confirmed prior to the epic 1-20 to 1-20 draw with Kerry.
Now 26, Ward was a latecomer to the Donegal senior set-up, making his championship debut in 2017 against Antrim before getting a blast of run-outs under Bonner in winning the Anglo-Celt last year.
The St Eunan’s defender is now in his fourth season with the Donegal seniors; first brought in whilst studying Sport Science at Carlow IT, during Rory Gallagher’s second year in charge in 2016.
The seven-hour bussing-it commutes home via rush-hour traffic in Dublin and “through eight counties” was strenuous. Ward is thankful for his then manager allowing him to make the return journey only for Saturday morning county get-togethers, whilst togging out in midweek training with his college panel.
However, one minute plus injury time on the last day of February in a heavy-legged 1-14 to 1-12 Division 1 success over Mayo was the sum total of the Letterkenny native’s 2016 season.
“Did I consider quitting?,” Ward says. “No. I don’t know what I would do if I did not have it, to be honest. Since you went out at eight or nine to O’Donnell Park, it is what you have always done. It was not until I reached minor that I started to take Gaelic football seriously.
“Then the chance came against Kerry. It’s all about the opportunity. You’ve a short career and you have to make the most of it. It’s surreal, looking around at the size and the colour, being on the turf for such a big game. But as soon as you get into the warm-up, your focus totally changes and you just blank everything.”
Ward’s plight was helped by relocation. First, placement was obtained as personal trainer under Declan Brennan, the former Monaghan selector, at Castleshane, and now employment at Donegal strength and conditioning in Milford, just 20 minutes’ drive from Letterkenny.
Growing up, Ward was trained by his father Anthony at Letterkenny Athletic Club, where he toed the line against and relayed with Mark English, who last weekend won a seventh national senior 800m title, having competed in the 2016 Olympics in Rio and is a three-time European senior medallist.
Ward’s speciality was the long jump and was the best in the country at Under-9 level in 2001 and Under-13 some three years later.
“You look at my strength as a footballer, it would probably be my ability in getting up and down the field,” Ward adds.
That goes back to my upbringing in athletics and my dad would have been a big part of that.
“He would have travelled all over the country and we would have gone to England and Scotland for competitions. I would have been big into athletics at the time. I was very good at that when I was underage but I never then gave it the commitment required.”
If you leap further back, Ward was born two days after Donegal’s first ever championship meeting with Mayo — the drab but coming-of-age 0-13 to 0-9 win in the 1992 All-Ireland semi-final. It was the prelude to Donegal’s first ever All-Ireland final, a title clinched with an 0-18 to 0-14 victory over Dublin.
When the same two sides met for a second time in the championship 20 years later, Ward, who had lined out for Donegal minors the previous summer, sat in the Upper Davin Stand as Jim McGuinness’s team took Sam Maguire to the Hills for the second time. Ward’s club-mate Rory Kavanagh lined up at centre-field.
If Donegal are to have any designs of a third All-Ireland, then they’ll have to get over the hurdle of Mayo again.
The new format and Donegal’s superior scoring average means a draw will do the visitors at Elvery’s MacHale Park in Castlebar, but trying telling that to Michael Murphy or Aidan O’Shea at a minute to six this evening. It’ll have the edge of win-or-bust for both.
Ward might be relatively inexperienced, especially when you consider Patrick McBrearty only turns 26 on Monday and has lined up for Donegal 101 times, but even from training has learned fast being pitted against the likes of Michael Murphy, McBrearty, Jamie Brennan, and Oisín Gallen.
“Man to man defending is coming back and you can’t rely on a mass defence anymore,” Ward says.
The challenges each player brings is obviously different. There are different obstacles to overcome. Every year, at the time, you think ‘training is mad here’ but now nothing stays the same. You have to just stick with it.
The more things change, the more things stay the same. Mayo and Donegal in championship cliffhanger? We’ve seen it before but we’ll eagerly wait to see it again. Caolan Ward, too, is certainly glad he stuck with it.