Pride and belief key to Leitrim progress, says Shane Ward

Shane Ward routinely mentions pride, belief and swimming against the odds throughout our conversation.

The latter is a given so far as a Leitrim footballer is concerned. Pride and belief, on the other hand, are rarely attributed to men donning the green and gold.

Tomorrow afternoon they’ll attempt to stand toe-to-toe with a county they have not had the better of in championship football since 1994.

It was the summer they last captured a piece of championship silverware, their only other Connacht title arriving back in 1927.

Their 4-18 to 0-9 qualifier mauling at the hands of Down was the second biggest defeat in both league and championship in 2014.

The year previous they came out second best to London in the Connacht semi-final before shipping the heaviest beating of the summer — 8-13 to 0-10 they fell to Armagh.

New York and London aside, they haven’t secured a meaningful victory in Connacht since 2011.

Not much there to spawn belief, not a whole pile to be proud about.

Ballyshannon native Ward sought the position of Leitrim football manager last September, sought the position in the full knowledge of recent results, in the full knowledge that ace marksman Emlyn Mulligan would not be hanging around for this season.

Was he mad?

“A lot of people would see it as a poisoned chalice,” says Ward, a secondary school teacher at St Clare’s Comprehensive, Manorhamilton.

“I have been living in Leitrim for 10 years and if you didn’t have a grá for the county itself, a grá for the people and respect for its players, you wouldn’t take on this job.

“It is one of those jobs you have to have those things to do it because it is about being a lot more than a manager to these guys, you have to look at the bigger and overall picture and put the structures in place to try and help Leitrim football improve.”

Ward had taken the reins at U21 level in 2014, steering the county to a first Connacht championship victory and final appearance at the grade since 1998.

“I was delighted with their response for the year I had them and I knew their response would emulate the response I would get from the seniors.

“My immediate goal was to build a squad of players who actually wanted to play for the county, especially young players who always held the aspiration of playing for Leitrim but never got the chance.

“I wanted to work with those players and put in place a game-structure that would suit Leitrim and that could be carried on into the future.”

The manager insists he did not try to persuade Mulligan to stick around for 2015, but added “we look forward to when Emlyn does return, but he’ll find a young and ambitious forward line”.

He called his first squad meeting in early October at the Bush Hotel in Carrick-on-Shannon. One voice dominated the gathering, his own.

Ward told the players what he believed needed to be done in moving Leitrim football forward, in moving Leitrim football out of the black hole it currently resides in.

If they agreed with his vision they were to return to the Bush Hotel the following weekend.

“We got a very positive response from the players in that they are very proud of the county they come from. They highlighted the idea that they are always against the odds, always the underdogs. Irrespective, they were willing to represent their county, be proud to do so and do it with the ambition of always trying to succeed in going against the odds.

“We had a lot of discussion about recent years. We had a lot of discussion about the heavy beatings Leitrim had taken and why those things were the way they were and how we were going to change those.”

Emotions flowed that afternoon in Carrick-on-Shannon, every player honest in their assessment of Leitrim football.

Alongside pride, discovered Ward, lay disappointment.

No disillusionment as Emlyn Mulligan had hinted at last summer, simply disappointment at why and how such a significant gap had opened up between Leitrim football and the rest.

“They were looking for reasons as to why things were the way they were and they were trying to understand how and why there was such a big gap between them and the opposition in qualifier and championship games.

“The players aired their opinions which were healthy and positive. They would have highlighted the fact that they aspired to compete with those teams who were giving them heavy beatings, but they didn’t know how. They were just looking for guidance. Once we were willing to provide that guidance and give them time to gel as a unit, then they were prepared to work hard to answer their own questions.”

This spring’s league campaign concluded with Leitrim sitting in fourth place. They drew with both promoted counties, Offaly and Longford, and claimed victory over an Antrim side who would finish a place above them in third.

Ward quips that Offaly and Longford were two victories let slide.

He didn’t mind.

The seven U21’s called up from the 2014 panel had stepped up to the mark, as had the returning James McGrail and Ronan Kennedy, as had Jonathon Connolly and Conor Farrell, two lads plucked from the local club scene.

Above everything else, Ward gleaned positivity from the belief exhumed by his players.

“Belief is a massive part of their psyche because they are always against the odds. They’ve had to have massive belief in themselves and their own ability given the defeats suffered. It is something we have worked on quite a lot on.

“Belief is built in these players. It is part of their make-up. It is part of their DNA. Coming from such a small county, they are very proud. It is very much part of their culture, even in their normal working lives, that they would back themselves quite a lot.

“They are very successful guys away from the field so that makes it easy to build belief on it.”

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