By Katrina Brennan
IF it ain’t broke, why fix it? And for over five years, Derrygonnelly was banging out Senior Championship’s like they were going out of fashion. Then, Ederney halted the Harps’ attempt for six in-a-row, and the team, management and club were forced to take stock.
In Spring of this year, a major change in direction occurred at the club, they went outside for a trainer. Never before had the club looked for anyone on the outside to coach the lads. Shane Ward, a former Leitrim senior intercounty manager was approached and his contribution has been invaluable by all accounts, since he linked up with the team.
Ward is a native of Ballyshannon but living and working as a Secondary School teacher in Manorhamilton admits he gave much thought to the Derrygonnelly job, given that he would be the first ‘outsider’ to be brought on board.
“I was very much aware of that before I went in and I genuinely had thought a lot about it before I went to start with them. I thought about the fact they had never experienced anyone (from outside), players or management. I had to be very mindful and respectful of that, that it was going to take time to get to know each other and I had to be cool for a while to make sure the relationship got off to a good start.”
It was a different role for Ward too, in his previous stints with Leitrim, Donegal minors and Glencar-Manorhamilton he was always the manager and the coach, this time around he was coming into a set-up where the management team was in place, so it was a different dynamic altogether.
“I trusted the management team that was with Derrygonnelly and I felt I could work with them at being just a coach only. I think being just a coach, you can influence the players by being hands on, on the pitch, whereas if you’re a manager, you’re influencing the players in the dressing room too.
“It’s a very hard combination because you obviously have to trust the management team you’re with and if you don’t get that ‘sandwich’ right, it’s a very difficult place to be as a coach because you’re influencing the on-field play but you’re not influencing them in the dressing room. So, everyone has to work together to make sure that recipe is right.”
So far so good, and last weekend Ward, who has experienced many highs in his managerial career, most noteably bringing Leitrim under 21s to the 2014 Connacht final, beating the reigning All Ireland champions Galway enroute and winning a senior championship with Glencar
Manorhamilton in 2019, as well as an under 21 county title with his own club Aodh Ruadh, saw what winning meant to Derrygonnelly.
“I got a good insight into what Derrygonnelly are about. I saw the intensity of the game but what it meant to them was phenomenal. The feeling of everyone pushing in the one direction was huge.
“The intensity on the sideline, on the subs bench, the intensity in the field and the one thing that was distinct between Derrygonnelly and Dromore was the Derrygonnelly crowd were encouraging their players on from the stand whereas the Dromore supporters were giving out about their players on the field and that’s a very powerful thing.
“Afterwards, the emotion that ran through after winning such a big game, it was phenomenal. I had never seen that in a community before.”
Ward had planned at the start of the year to take a well earned breaking from coaching, after 15 consecutive years and three young boys under the age of six at home, you could forgive him for stepping away but the draw to Derrygonnelly was enough to put that idea on the back burner for another while.
“It was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up on. I knew the group wanted to improve and progress.”
That progression will be largely judged on the outcome of Saturday’s game against Armagh champions Clann Éireann and if the Harps can shrug the metaphorical monkey off their back and reach an Ulster final?
“I think they can,” says Ward confidently. “I think their attitude is very good and I think they have evolved this year again. They have brought different elements to their game that allows them to turn the screw on big games, that maybe they hadn’t before.
“They can adapt very quickly to an opposition and they have all the right pillars in place to push on. They have done all the work but I do think that community base and togetherness will really spur them on. It’s very unique and it’s strong. They are very, very focused on moving forward.”
Clann Éireann challenge
The Ballyshannon man knows that it won’t be easy though, having watched the Lurgan men overcome Antrim champions Creggan in extra time, just over a week ago.
“They’re a young fit team coming out of a difficult Armagh championship, having beaten Crossmaglen on their way. There’s a danger in that, there’s a danger in that innocence. A team like that can play really direct and really off the cuff whereas a more seasoned team could be more cagey and might allow you to stay in the game longer.
“So, we have to be careful of that; they’re a team that don’t have a wild lot of experience in Ulster but they’re a team that could do a lot of damage if they’re allowed to play. They have a couple of sharp shooters up front and a couple of ball carriers at the back, so they’re going to prove a different type of opposition to Dromore.”
The Harps have been tested this year, two replays in the Fermanagh championship at the quarter and semi final stage and extra time in the Dromore game. Their bench has been a real mark of the team and it’s obvious when chatting to Shane, there is huge importance laid on the bench.
“The thing that I have learned over time, it has to be a real team effort and a lot of my training is driven towards making the players understand each other, to play as a group, rather than play as individuals. I suppose, one of the key things in Derrygonnelly’s change of approach might be that we’re not looking for talismen any more, we’re looking for a spread of people to influence the game, rather than one or two.”
On Saturday evening, Ward will invest all his know-how and bring with him 15 years of experience in coaching as he patrols the sidelines at Breffni Park. He’ll be vocal, he always is.
“I’m always vocal on the sideline and my main job is to encourage the players and to reinforce what we did in training ,so that they know and are comfortable in what they’re saying and what they’re doing. My job is not really to motivate them but to keep them focused on what the task is ahead and what they have planned to do in the game and carry out the game plan.”
If they do that, Ward believes he’ll be making the journey back down the road from Cavan to Manorhamilton with his three kids and wife Grainne, a very happy man.