AFTER A LONG few months, Galway All-Star Nicola Ward is looking forward to getting back on the pitch and representing her county.

“A very different league” lies ahead, but it’s one she’s relishing under the watchful eye of new manager Gerry Fahy, as a new chapter begins out West.

Having been involved in the backroom team last year, experienced and renowned coach Fahy — he steered the Tribe’s U21s to Connacht glory and the 2017 All-Ireland final, managed the Offaly footballers and guided NUIG to a Sigerson title in ’03 to sum up his impressive CV — takes the reins for 2021.

By his side is Galway’s 2004 All-Ireland-winning captain Annette Clarke, a legend around Ward’s home club of Kilkerrin-Clonberne.

So far, so good; all is going to plan ahead of Saturday night’s mouth-watering league opener against neighbours Mayo.

“It’s really positive from both a management perspective and a players’ perspective,” Ward, who works as a nurse in the Children’s Hospital in Crumlin, says.

“Gerry opened up trials to the county at the start of the year so we had over 100 girls in which is very positive from a Galway perspective to see the amount of people that are interested.

“It’s been so enjoyable so far. When you get new management it’s a fresh start, and he’s brought in Annette Clarke, who we all know, has won an All-Ireland with Galway herself and walked up the steps of the Hogan Stand, so she’s definitely brought a lot already to the team.

“Her husband, Kieran Collins, is also involved. They have been involved in U16 and minor Galway teams so they know all the talent coming through from underage.

“We have a good few minors in with us as well, and they’re just bringing loads of youth and are so enthusiastic. They are challenging the older girls, it’s been so positive and great so far and hopefully that will continue through the year.”

It’s a welcome return to normality after last December’s All-Ireland semi-final fiasco.

Ward, like everyone else involved, would rather not dwell on it, with a line drawn in the sand at this stage after their last-four defeat to Cork was overshadowed by off-field matters, which have been well-documented at this stage.

“Look it was really disappointing at the time, and I suppose we felt we didn’t really get a fair chance at the match. Whether we would have won is a different story, had circumstances been different.

Ward after that All-Ireland semi-final defeat.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“But to be honest, it hasn’t really been brought up this year, it’s been parked and a lot of lessons have been learned from our perspective and a LGFA perspective. We’ve seen a lot of positives coming from the LGFA, and the GPA joining together, and hopefully those situations won’t arise again. But it hasn’t really been brought up this year and we are just looking forward. We can’t do anything about what happened in the past.

“I suppose it would make you more determined, you might have felt that you could have missed out on a chance to play in an All-Ireland. But like I said, had circumstances been different, were we were good enough to beat Cork on the day? I don’t know. But definitely more hungry and looking forward to this year.”

Ward epitomises that hunger, splitting her life between her job in Dublin and football in Galway.

In terms of work, the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t affected it just as much as it has the general hospitals, but she has seen improvements in that regard of late.

The recent cyber attack has made things busier, but that’s the nature of the job. “We are still very apprehensive about Covid, but everything is positive at the minute in our hospital,” she nods.

Juggling it all is tricky, Ward concedes, but it’s something she’s gotten a handle on.

“I get my roster a month ahead, we can self-roster so I have to work two weekends a month and I suppose, you have to really plan the days for training. Between days and nights, it can be tough.

“I find myself driving down to Galway two or three times a week so there is definitely a lot of planning involved. But I’m juggling it well so far, and I suppose with the shortened season this year it is a bit easier that I don’t have nine months to work with.”

She laughs at one point, when she’s asked if she has ever calculated how much it has cost her to play for Galway — “No, never, and to be honest, it didn’t ever bother me either” — but, understandably, welcomes recent good news for ladies football in terms of expenses for players, Government grants, the GPA merger, and increased TV coverage.

“It’s all very positive,” Ward, whose twin sister Louise is also a key player for the team, nods, and all come as steps in the right direction in “improving the standards in ladies Gaelic football” and “levelling the playing field”.

What about the Associations potentially amalgamating one day?

“At the minute, I’m really happy with the way everything’s going, and the coming together of the GPA and the WGPA has been very positive, so I’m sure the next step is they would be all under the one umbrella. Hopefully it will be soon enough.”

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That said, she’ll happily focus on herself, and on Galway as she gears up for a big, and hopefully injury-free, 2021, having put recent knee struggles behind her.

It’s all eyes on Mayo this weekend, and the trip to MacHale Park on Saturday night where they’ll hope to hit the ground running and “treat every league game as serious as the next”.

Ward facing Cork.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Ourselves and Mayo have a great rivalry down through the years,” she smiles. “No better match to start off. We’ll be coming all guns blazing with a big challenge ahead of us.

“Like ourselves, they have a new management, a new set-up, I’ve heard they have new players in and old players back. We’re very excited and relishing the challenge. It’s always a good battle between the two of us.”

One big name Galway will be without, however, is two-time All-Star Sinéad Burke, who retired earlier this year. While she’s left a notable void, it’s also brought opportunity.

Ward is always one to take the positives.

“Burkey is going to be a massive loss to the team,” she concludes. “But people do come and go, and at 24 years of age I’m finding myself as one of the more experienced players having been there for the last seven years.

“I do feel that I have to stand up and lead from the front, and as I said we have a lot of underage girls coming so it’s great to guide them in the right direction as well. There’s a great mix between youth and experience, despite us not being too old.

“Hopefully that will all work together and do the business.”

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