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'For it to go again, it was devastating. I've been through every emotion possible'

It’s been a whirlwind period of highs and lows for Galway star Nicola Ward, whose twin sister Louise will captain the Tribe in 2020.

Galway star Nicola Ward.
Galway star Nicola Ward.
Image: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

AN EMOTIONAL ROLLER coaster is an understatement for the past few months of Nicola Ward’s life. Both on and off the field. 

Two consecutive Saturday evenings in November couldn’t have been more contrasting. 

The first of the two, the Galway star and her twin sister, Louise, landed their first-ever TG4 All-Star awards. It was a night to remember for the Kilkerrin-Clonberne duo as their stunning exploits in the maroon jersey were recognised. 

Both had suffered gut-wrenching injuries in the previous season and while Nicola only returned to action in late June, the Wards played key parts as Galway reached their first All-Ireland final since 2005.

That one ultimately ended in disappointment in Croke Park, but that night in the City West Hotel, they had another national decider in mind: the small matter of a first-ever All-Ireland club final.

Undoubtedly still on a high from the week previous, Nicola’s contribution against Cork kingpins Mourneabbey was suddenly cut devastatingly short.

Her knee again. 

And she knew straight away that was that. 

“The fact that I went through it once, you nearly have the same feel for it,” Ward told The42 at yesterday’s Lidl National League launch, recalling the incident. “I remember Noelle Healy was chasing me but she didn’t even put any pressure on me.

It was just a twisting motion, and I heard a crunch. I looked up and I saw Louise in front of me and I was just like, ‘I’m gone.’ It was a massive match and I tried to run it off, but you could see I was struggling. There was obviously someone on the bench that would have done a better job.”

The TV camera showed Ward just after she was substituted, and the tears and pain on her face said it all. Her rotten injury luck was only compounded by the narrow loss Kilkerrin-Clonberne suffered at Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds. 

Surgery followed the week after — “the second one in the space of a year, which isn’t ideal” — as she set out on another long, and often lonely, road back. 

“The cruciate got a bit damaged again but somehow it managed to stay intact, I don’t know how,” she explains, “It’s my cartilage so it was just blocked in the middle of my knee. The surgeon pinned it back and stitched it down, so hopefully it won’t move again.

nicola-ward-and-siobhan-mcgrath Nicola (and Louise) facing Dublin in the 2019 All-Ireland final. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“With the intensity of all the matches and that, you’re bound to go through some wear and tear. When there’s a niggle there before it’s always in the back of your mind that it might happen again. It’s just another challenge.”

The recovery timeline she’s been given is six months, so she’s hoping for a championship return, while Louise is also rehabbing after her own surgery.  

One week at a time, 23-year-old Nicola nods. Though it is extremely difficult.

“For any GAA player, I think it’s the most mentally, physically, emotionally challenging time of your career,” she concedes. “But when you’re playing at such a high level for such a long time, you’re bound to get them struggles.

I got back six months after the first one, and I was really happy with my performances. But for it to go again, it was devastating. I’ve been through every emotion possible all the time; going through MRIs, consultations, surgeries and everything. It is really hard.

“Not even just for football, it’s hard on your life. You can’t work, you can’t drive and stuff like that. It is a tough time, but thankfully I’m over the worst of it now and the rehab is going well so I can’t complain.” 

She’s done it before, she can do it again.

Work, as she mentioned, is a tough one. A nursing student in UCD, she had seven weeks left of her final internship in Crumlin Hospital when she was struck down. While all of her class have since finished up and gone travelling, Ward picks up where she left off on Monday.

She has a job in Dublin tied down for when she completes it, so she’ll continue travelling up and down three times a week for football: “It was so hard, and I could count on one hand the amount of sessions I missed. It is exhausting, it does catch up on you but still, we got our rewards at the end. It’s all worth it.” 

launch-of-the-lidl-one-good-club-programme Ward launching the One Good Club programme alongside Dublin's Carla Rowe and Waterford's Caoimhe McGrath. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The mental and emotional impacts of her injury struggles — and football commitments in general — certainly tie in with the new programme the LGFA and Lidl launched yesterday in conjunction with Jigsaw, the national centre for youth mental health.

One Good Club is a five-step mental health awareness programme that encourages local ladies football clubs to provide activities that promote good health and well-being.

And Ward is pleased to be an ambassador for the programme, in a time where mental health issues are often still swept under the carpet on these shores.

“Lidl are coming up with some amazing initiatives,” she smiles. “They think of stuff that we wouldn’t even think about.

It’s great that they are channelling this programme, because mental health is a massive thing in anyone’s life. Everyone does go through struggles.

“Hopefully it will help younger girls. Our role is to try and promote that as well as we can as well. They’re trying to hit the grassroots of where it all starts because it’s not only when you get to your teenage years, it can build from when you’re younger.”

Speaking of younger years, Nicola and Louise have climbed the ranks together and having established themselves as of two of the country’s top players of late, the latter has been handed the Galway captaincy for 2020.

Nicola couldn’t be prouder of her twin sister, and is over the moon that the news is out in the open now.

“We’re delighted for her,” she beams. “It was on the cards for a few weeks, and we’re just massively proud of her. She’s been our club captain for the last three years and she’s a massive leader.

niclou The Ward sisters with their All-Star accolades. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE.

Not only does she do the talking but she can back it up with the performance on the pitch as well. That’s what you want; you want someone to lead you into battle.

“Annette Clarke from our club was the [2004 All-Ireland winning] captain, we would have always wanted to follow in her footsteps. Louise is doing exactly that. To be captain of Galway, it’s the dream and we’re massively proud of her. Hopefully we can do the business,” she grins. 

2019 was a long and fruitful one, with the Tribe reaching two national finals and winning the Connacht showpiece.

It’s a short break for some of her clubmates, Ward acknowledges, but everyone is ready to go again and build on the progress they have made under Tim Rabbitt.

2020 is surely about going a step further again. 

That’s it, exactly,” she agrees. “Those finals will stand to us and you have to learn from the mistakes, and try and minimise them as best as you can. We are catching the big teams like Dublin and Cork, we are trying to decrease the distance that is between us

“The All-Ireland semi-final even, none of us — not even the older girls — had played in Croke Park. We were all going into that together with the same nerves and excitement, we have all been through that together. You have to park 2019, but 2020 is trying to build on that and see some improvement.”

And it’s the same with her beloved Kilkerrin-Clonberne.

“The two of them nearly compliment each other, because we had been struggling with semi-finals for ages with the club too,” she concedes. “To get past that was huge.

lidl-ladies-national-football-league-launch-2020 Waterford star Caoimhe McGrath and Ward of Galway. Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

“On the day, we could have had it if we wanted but different things didn’t go our way, and we didn’t get the rub of the green. Mourneabbey are a massive side and were well-prepared and really hard to break down.

“At least have that monkey off our back now in that we can go again. We know we can do it, it’s just a matter of when really.”

The focus is on the now, though, and it’s all steam ahead to their Division 1 league opener against newly-promoted Waterford on Sunday. 

Although Ward won’t be togging out herself, she’ll be watching closely and hoping Galway can start on the right foot.

“It will be a massive test,” she concludes. “Waterford are always so organised and well-drilled. They have a massive work-rate and they’re always hard to break down. We’ll see how it goes.”

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Emma Duffy

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