Jamie Ward: Sport's on the up in Northern Ireland
Published 28/06/2016 | 00:16
The Northern Irish football team returned home from Euro 2016 having helped alter perceptions of the country's sporting pedigree, according to forward Jamie Ward.
Saturday's 1-0 loss to Wales in Paris ensured their maiden Euros adventure ended at the round-of-16 phase, but they were still afforded a homecoming welcome in front of thousands in Belfast on Monday night from a nation proud of their efforts in France.
Following the recent success of four-time major-winning golfer Rory McIlroy and ex-world champion boxer Carl Frampton, Ward believes Northern Ireland deserve more recognition for their sporting achievements.
"Pundits said we wouldn't score a goal, we wouldn't win a game - it's great to shut them up and prove people wrong," he said.
"Hopefully now going into the World Cup campaign we'll do the whole country proud again.
"Sport's on the up in Northern Ireland - golf, boxing, football. I think people just write it off because it's a little country and we've come to bite people on the backside.
"Obviously Rory McIlroy is doing well in golf, Carl Frampton's doing well in boxing so it's great to see."
It will be three months before Michael O'Neill's team return to competitive action for a World Cup qualifier in the Czech Republic.
Between now and then the fear will be that they will lose senior players, and perhaps even their manager, who will have won even more admirers at the Euros.
Gareth McAuley, whose own goal sent Wales through, and Aaron Hughes are both 36, Chris Baird is 34 and goalkeeper Roy Carroll is four years older than him.
"Potentially, we'll lose a couple of players due to age and people retiring, but I'm sure we can go again," Ward added. "We have enough team spirit in there to keep running.
"You saw in the Wales game how we tried to run through brick walls for each other and make it happen, but unfortunately it didn't."
One player whose career is certainly not winding down is Jonny Evans, who was arguably Northern Ireland's best player in France.
The 28-year-old shackled some of the continent's best players out in Robert Lewandowski, Andriy Yarmolenko and Gareth Bale, and he believes his career reached a new peak, though the ex-Manchester United defender insists he can get better still.
"I think on a personal level I had a really good season for West Brom and I feel I have been playing probably the best football in my career to date," he said.
"I feel like I am still getting better and there is a lot more to come from me. I am enjoying my football and that makes a big difference."