'B' Championship 'not in Leitrim's dictionary'
Ward 'project' progressing well ahead of Roscommon clash
Published 19/05/2016 | 02:30
They are the quintessential little guys, the poster boys for the minnows who are asked to operate in a hopelessly deep pool.
But on Sunday, Leitrim will happily saddle up again. Put whatever obstacles you want in their way but they'll never shy away from the chance to bloody anyone's nose in Carrick-on-Shannon. Especially Roscommon.
Manager Shane Ward cuts an enthusiastic figure but he's grounded by realism and acutely aware of the inequities his side face in just about every area. They are making the best of things however. Ward praises his county board for supplying just about everything he's asked for but he's firm on getting Leitrim's house in order and maximising their own potential before asking for a dig-out from Croke Park or anywhere else to help narrow the divide.
"I speak about it with the players a lot," Ward says, "that we need to show that we are a competitive force doing everything we need to do and ticking all our own boxes in order to be an inter-county squad.
"And when that happens and when you work hard enough at something genuinely, you get rewarded. You can't ask people to give you resources when you're not actually competing properly and the way you should be as an inter-county team. So that's the guys' ambitions, to get to that point and when we get to that point then I'm sure resources will come."
A Donegal native who is based in Manorhamilton, Ward accepts he is in the midst of a "project". There are some encouraging signs. As far as Leitrim underage teams go, some of the recent crops have been hugely successful.
An U-21 side reached the Connacht final in 2014, beating then reigning All-Ireland champions Galway along the way. The county also picked up a Connacht minor league title.
Those teams remain the exception, however, and Ward points out that by the time young players graduate to the senior team, they are hopelessly underexposed to championship football.
"These (other) teams play more games in one season that we play in five. So their exposure to higher-level games, higher-level thinking, higher-level opposition is minimal, which means it really takes time to get them up through the ranks."
Slowly, though, Ward says, that is changing.
"Together we're looking at building that consistency and looking about everything to do with that consistency.
"Off-field activity, on-field activity, how they conduct themselves and how they actually approach games and training sessions and so on. So they have a lot to learn.
"They have gone way ahead of where I thought they would be in two years' time so it's a credit to them.
"They're a really committed bunch and we're blessed within the county that we have nobody that should be playing that isn't playing.
"That shows their level of commitment to the project as well. Our underage teams have become very competitive in the last number of years which also bodes well."
They still look well behind Roscommon. Even allowing for their near miss in New York, Roscommon are priced at 1/10 to progress past a team that won just two games in the basement division.
Still, Ward believes his team can be competitive.
"They really want to play Roscommon and they really feel they can compete against them every single day they go out.
"Division 1 and Division 4 to these guys is irrelevant. So the motivating factor for us has been really, really easy and really straightforward."
The championship structure remains imperfect but Leitrim against Roscommon is one of the games that underlines the value of the provincial format.
Any sort of tiered championship simply wouldn't hold the same romance for Leitrim.
"It really is something that has to be really thought out - the other dark side is a 'B' Championship. Motivating my players at training for a 'B' Championship wouldn't exist in their dictionary.
"It would be just like a National League game or it would be just like any other game for them.
"But playing in the Connacht Championship against Roscommon where they're not expected to win is exactly where they want to be.
"Otherwise you wouldn't have those 30 players training night in, night out from October."
When it comes to Roscommon, Leitrim's minnows are happy to swim against the tide.