Tyrone People Reflections: Loughmacrory’s Ronan Ward on U21 G1 Success of 2003 & hopes for Club
The 2017 Tyrone Under 21 Grade 1 Football Championship Final, which is the curtain-raiser to this year’s Senior Final in Healy Park, may well be the last in this particular grade.
It has been very much a grade which has provided the stepping stone to many teams at Senior Club level and the decision to amend the age-groupings at county level from U18 and U21 to U17 and U20 at county level may well yet be replicated in the domestic club scene.
This Sunday will see two clubs, Galbally and Loughmacrory, put the importance of winning this title to the forefront of their club ambitions now in 2017 with the Pearses bidding for a first-ever success and Loughmacrory hoping to add to their only ever win in the competition, back in 2003.
That was unquestionably a glory-year for Tyrone GAA at every level and in that Under 21 campaign, Loughmacrory St. Teresa’s impressed through the series with an eye-catching series of results to secure a first, and only, Grade 1 Championship triumph.+
In our newly expanded “People in Focus” series we will be ringing “Tyrone People Reflections” and with that in mind we caught up with a player from that club who really starred in that campaign and success.
Loughmacrory’s Ronan Ward was on fire all through that championship in the winning side’s attack, hitting an incredible 4-32 in four Under 21 championship games for his team.
In an exciting final in Fintona, Ward rattled up 2-7 (2-5 from play) while also seeing a penalty saved against Errigal Ciaran. This is our People in focus chat on “Tyrone Reflections” with Loughmacrory’s Ronan Ward.
Tyrone Reflections & People in Focus with
Loughmacrory’s Ronan Ward
Loughmacrory secured their first, and only, Grade 1 Under 21 Football Championship title in 2003. Can you tell us your reflections of that campaign, how the team prepared, and memories of winning that historic title?
I have a vivid memory at the start of that year of a large group of us on holiday in Santa Ponza. Most of the team was there and we had made a decision that we were going to win the Under 21 championship and do whatever we had to, to make that happen. We knew that Errigal was going to be the team to beat from everything we knew in the build-up to that season.
Outside of them, we had lost a Grade 1 Minor League Final to Coalisland 3 years earlier by four points up in Galbally. That was our first grade 1 final and we didn’t probably believe we could win it and looking back after the game felt it was one that got away. We then had to play the championship semi-final just 3 days after that league final loss, and we were defeated by just a point to Dromore, who then went on to lose the championship final to Coalisland. There was a feeling amongst us all that if we maybe had of had a week after the league final we might have won the championship as our belief had lifted. So going into the 2003 season we were all committed to doing everything we had to do to win that Under 21 grade 1 championship.
Looking back to the Minor Grade 1 final, we had surpassed most expectations by getting to the final. But looking back the work that John O’Brien had done with us was massive. There is no doubt he was the making of that team, training us 3-4 times a week and I have to say at that stage he was ahead of his time. I think that work and belief that came from John was what spurred us on to win the Under 21 grade 1 title. Damian Cassidy had come in as manager and was a great manager and tactician but the work we had done with John going into that season was the major reason we were in a position to win that title.
This was a good example of how a club can win a major Grade 1 title and how it can impact down the line. Tell us about the team itself and the players involved in the success?
From we were under 21 this group of players were extremely competitive and didn’t like to lose. I remember playing Kilyclogher in an Under 21 game in Mountfield and Aidan Meenan was refereeing it. We won by two points and Aidan said it was a draw and we went mad, there was near war. We just wanted to win every time we went out. That sounds mad but you need that. All the way through we would have played above ourselves most of the time, even that minor year getting to the league final we were winning games we might not have been expected to.
Donal Ward was our goalkeeper and was the Tyrone minor keeper the year before. Niall Kelly was full-back and I would still say he was one of the best full-backs our club has ever had. Noel Kelly was in the corner and he went on to play there for maybe ten years in senior club football. Paddy McCullagh, John Gallagher, Paul Kelly and Brian McCrystall completed the defence – all great players. John was a main man in the senior team for years and I would say Paul Kelly was definitely one of the best players I have ever seen in a Loughmacrory jersey. A great reader of the game, very fast, hard as nails.
In midfield, we had Mark McCullagh and Damian McAleer and we know them only too well in the club, both still playing senior football. Our half-forward line was Enda (Ward) at centre-forward and Shane Coyle and Karl Logue on the wings with myself at full forward and Eoin Mullan and Ciaran Ward in the corners. All players who played for years for our senior club team. On the day of the final, we all performed. Even Gerard Donaghy cam on as a sub in the game and played a key part.
Football has changed quite a bit since 2003 but what was the style of play or plan which the team would have adhered to in 2003?
Really our gameplan was just to move the ball fast and get it in. The game, in general, is more defensive now and you could go through a lot of work just to get the ball in but at that time we moved the ball very fast and played it in fast. If you made 10 runs you were sure to be getting the ball many of them whereas now you could make 10 runs and might not get one ball today. Then you moved it fast and get it in whereas now you might be playing a team who have a lot of defenders back there and it may not work as well. But I still think the game is crying out for teams to move it fast and play it long into the forward line.
For a club how would such a success impact a club and how did 2003 Under 21 title help Loughmacrory Club?
It’s the belief that it provides. As a club, we might be small compared to all the top clubs in Tyrone and they might win plenty and not affect them as much. But for us in winning a Grade 1 Under 21 championship then it was vital in keeping us all as a group together and continuing to push and challenge the best we could at senior level. But even then as Under 21 grade 1 champions, very few of us broke into the senior team immediately. Loughmacrory had the likes of Stephen Conway, Gary Conway, Mickey McGee and Ciaran Meenagh in the senior team at the time and I can guarantee you they were as good as any senior club players in Tyrone at that time. Breaking into our senior team at that time was tough and you really had to work extremely hard to earn your place.
What about this current Loughmacrory Under 21 team and their challenge for a Grade 1 championship success?
“We have a very good side right now at Under 21 and many are already playing at senior level. They are very similar to what way we were thinking back in 2003 and because it is so long since we won this title it almost feels like a first for this group. They are actually quite a young side and many of them actually played in the curtain raiser to the Tyrone Senior final two years ago but that was at Under 16. Although they are young, that experience could stand to them on County final day. They are a very competitive group and have a winning mentality too. Five of them were on the county minor team this year, Antoin Fox also won an All Ireland with the Under 17s and played very well and Cathal Donaghy was with the Tyrone Under 21s.”
“This is a good group. They played Stewartstown last year and just lost out and many felt that last year’s title got away and they rectified that this year with a big win over Stewartstown in the semi-final. but they will still go in as underdogs on Sunday. Galbally looks very strong and have shown the best form in the under 21 grade this year. I have heard from many people that they are warm enough favourites to win it but our lads are a confident bunch and won’t be overawed by the occasion.”
How does Loughmacrory Club look at this Under 1 final and to be featuring on County Finals day?
“When your club is playing in big games it is massive for a club. I remember going to see a Junior final in 1993 which the club won. On that day I looked up to the boys, the likes of Stevie and Gary Conway, Sean Fox and it does a lot for the belief of the younger players coming through. It was the same in 2003 and it is the same now. As a club, Loughmacrory always has big support and they will be out in massive numbers again on Sunday. It will be packed with young people in our Club colours and they will be very vocal on the day. A win for the club would be huge in putting more belief in our younger players out in Healy Park on Sunday and can definitely help the future of our club. It will be the same for Galbally. But I think even if we weren’t to win on Sunday, just being part of that County final day puts great belief in a club and is a massive boost.”
“I just hope that the lads can bring that Under 21 Cup back to Loughmacrory for the second time. It is 14 years since we done it and that’s a big gap. Players put in a huge effort and I know the feeling and the relief of what it means to come back to your village with a Cup and celebrating a major championship success. I hope they get the chance to feel that on Sunday. For a small club like Loughmacrory, big finals don’t come around too often, as we’ve seen. We have a good underage structure in the club at the minute and our young players need to be inspired by this, win or lose, and push themselves too so that we don’t have a 14-year gap until we’re back in another one. I’m looking forward to Sunday and have no doubt watching it that the memories of 2003 will come flooding back again too”
Name some of the Club Players you would have seen when you were younger playing for your Club Senior team who you would love to have played with but never got the chance to?
Eugene O’Kane, Sean Donaghy, Conal Curran and Mickey McCullagh would stand out for me as players I never got to play with and Danny Donnelly is another name who I would have heard so much about growing up.
Name some of the Club Players you who you would have played with that stand out as the best you’ve seen?
Stephen Conway: One of the most gifted players I ever seen, at any level. He had a great brain on the field, very intelligent, super fielder of the ball and scored massive scores off both feet. He was one of those few players who had everything.
Mickey McGee: The only player I ever played with who won an All Ireland senior medal. Best man marker I would say I’ve seen. He marked me in training and, not being funny, I found it easy then when I went into games after having McGee mark me in training.
Aaron Kelly: A great athlete, always attacked the ball, amazing work-rate and always popped up to support players, a real winner.
Gary Conway: Might not have had the skill-set of other players but the best leader you could get on a field. Top class fielder of the ball, never-say-die attitude and outstanding engine. Any man, including the best in Tyrone senior club midfielders, knew they were in a battle when they saw Gary coming.
Ciaran Meenagh: A player who could have played fullback, midfield or full forward, very versatile, a massive competitor.
Best players you played against:
Peter Canavan, Gerard Cavlan and Sean Cavanagh were the best players I played against but Paul McGurk (Cookstown) was the best player I ever was up against in terms of marking me. I got very little out of him anytime we met Cookstown.
Favourite score or moment in a game:
I scored a point against Rock in 2000 that got us a draw in a relegation playoff. It was up in Dungannon, we were awarded a free with time up and there was a lot going on to put me off. I remember the Rock manager coming up to the referee, Sean Quinn, beside me and asking how much time was left and Sean saying this one kick would finish it. We were a point down and if we lost we were relegated. We were playing into a very strong wind, it was about 40 metres out and I got it over and we won after extra time. We went on to win the division 1B league title a year later.
Best game you were involved in:
We were up in Senior Division 1 football for the first time and travelled to play Moortown and I was being marked by Chris Lawn. It was a very tight field and a tight game overall and it probably was the best game I played for the club. (Ronan scored 1-8 in this match).
Put the players you played with in your career to the words below:
Craic: Barry McNally – mad. Always told you what he was going to score and who he would bust before he went out on the field.
Serious: Gary Conway. Seriously no messing!
Trainer: John Gallagher
Skilful: Stephen Conway
Trendsetter/Stylish: Pearse Grimes
Party animal: Enda (Ward)
Hard hitting: Pearse Gallagher
Toughest/Hardest: Raymond Ward
Fastest: Mickey McGee
Smartest: Ryan “Brick” O’Brien
Players on this Loughmacrory Under 21 team who you see having big future in Senior Club football?
Antoin Fox, Shane Dobbs, Conall Grimes, Cathaoir Gallagher
Young Players in the Club who you think have a big future?
Dara Curran, Gareth Donaghy, Eoin McElholm
Favourite TV Show(s): Power, Match of the Day, The Sunday Game
Laugh Out Loud Comedy: Mrs Brown’s Boys
Pub: Loughmacrory Clubrooms or Tiffy’s
Nightclub: Sally O’s
Singer: Jimmy Buckley
Other Sports: Handball, Golf, Darts and Pool
Sportstars: Lionel Messi, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Phil Taylor
Photographic #throwback to the 2003 Under 21 Grade 1 Football Championship Final…