Longford Slashers hurlers revel in famine-ending victory
By John Harrington
Niall Ward says he still hasn’t quite come back down to earth since Longford Slashers won the Longford SHC title on Sunday, and you couldn’t really blame him.
Their win over Wolfe Tones ended a long 20-year wait for the Cup, and washed away all the lingering disappointment of losing three other finals in the previous four years.
Ward has put in countless hours to raise the standard of hurling in the club over a significant period of time, so it was fitting that he should play his own part in this success as senior team manager, even if it’s not a role he would have envisaged for himself.
“I sort of ended up caretaker manager and it was more accident than design,” he told GAA.ie. "I was always involved with the management but it was more the underage in the club that I was driving. I ended up as manager because there was nobody else, really, to be honest about it.
“We had a manager from Westmeath the last two years. A really good lad who got us to the final the last two years. I think the lads wanted something a bit different. I tried to get somebody in, but he couldn’t do it because of work commitments.
“I just said, look lads, we'll drive on ourselves and keep it going that way. Some of the players decided they were going to take training and all of that. So, I just sort of facilitated that. Pitches and challenge matches and what not, all that sort of stuff. Training times. Everything that goes on behind the scenes, I was kind of looking after.”
When you ask him to put his finger on why Slashers were finally able to end their long wait for a county title this year, it’s that sense of collective that stands out for Ward.
The players themselves had to really drive the thing on, and that meant there was a great buy-in from everyone that helped foster a vibrant team spirit.
“This year was a smaller panel,” says Ward. “Some of the older lads dropped off after last year so it was time for the young lads to drive the team on and maybe they had less baggage, lets say, than some of the previous teams.
“Cian Kavananagh, the captain, was away last year and only came back the week of the final last year. He couldn't play with the Covid regulations and all of that.
“He's on the senior football team as well previously and wasn't involved this year and I went to him and told him that he could be the man to drive on this team, how would he fancy the captaincy. So he took it on and drove it on.
“Rueben Murray was the vice-captain and he planned a lot of the training sessions. These are young fellas who ten years ago were U-14s.
“That U-14 team ten years ago were playing in Division 4 of the Féile in Galway and had a man sent off after 10 minutes and were only beaten by a point by Abbeyknockmoy who would be a serious hurling club. We could have beaten them, should have beaten them nearly with 14 men in the semi-final of the National Féile.
“There were five or six of those boys on the team. Them boys have grown up playing hurling and it's a huge advantage in that regard.”
Winning a Longford senior title for the first time in so long is a huge boost for those working at all levels in the club because it gives the younger players coming through the underage structures something to really aspire for themselves.
In recent years the club have won two national Féile titles and two Táin Óg titles as well, but the challenge for hurling clubs in developing counties has always been to transfer playing numbers and success at underage into the same in the senior grade.
“Yeah, it’s great, because for a long time we're kind of coming with these underage teams,” says Ward.
“The underage only really started to come through this year to the senior. It's probably only really from next year on we'll see a lot of young players come through, and there's something for those lads to step on to now.
“We won the U-15 County Final on Sunday as well, it was the curtain-raiser. We've a good U-17 team and a good U-13 team as well. So there's a structure there now. You can build from the bottom up all the time, but at some point you do need something from the top down as well and yesterday was finally that day.
“There were two or three lads on the panel who were only in their first year as seniors this year as well. A lad started corner-forward, Micheál Mulcahy, and he scored two points and set up one goal anyway, maybe two.
“It was his first ever start for the senior team. He was absolutely flying in training, so we said we'd start him. Wolfe Tones wouldn't have seen that coming, and he had a great game. I think he took a bit of confidence from getting the start.”
When you see talented young players like Mulcahy make an instant impact and consider that the club have never been stronger at underage level, it’s easy to assume that Slashers won’t have to wait another 20 years for their next Longford SHC title.
Ward is optimistic himself, but not the type to rest on any laurels either.
“Definitely, when you have the underage coming through that we have, you'd have to hope that more success will come,” he says. "In the next two or three years we should have 15 lads to come through.
“The underage coming through is only just starting. We had one or two lads last year, two or three this year, but next year it could be five or six and the year after that another five or six.
“So the future is definitely bright in that regard, but that doesn't guarantee anything. You have to stick with it and work at it. There are no guarantees in life and there are no guarantees in sport.”