Friday 22 September 2017

Making the most of a gift for the game

Stephen Ward tells Seán Ryan why he is ready to take the step up to full international level

IT'S hard to imagine a more grounded Premier League footballer than Wolves' left-back Stephen Ward, and for that he can thank -- and he does -- his parents, Seán and Sandra.

"They always believed in me," he explained, "and they gave me confidence when I needed it. Their best decision was to keep me back to do my Leaving Cert, so that when I moved over to England I was ready for it."

Ward was only nine or ten when his special 'gift', as John Giles describes it, was recognised, but not by himself. "The people around me told me that I had something special, but at that age you can never tell if it will develop. It got me a lot of attention, but I just loved the game and wanted to play it all the time."

He dreamt about being a footballer, but a reality check set in when he was 14. "I saw other kids going away, and I thought 'hopefully the next one will be me'. But I went down a different route."

He had chances to go, but his parents insisted on him finishing his education first. "I was devastated when they said we'd like you to stay and finish your Leaving Cert, but it helped me mature and in turn that helped me progress a lot quicker than people expected."

Camillus Glover, his coach at Portmarnock FC, was a big help, and then Gino Brazil brought him to Bohemians -- "without him I wouldn't have the career I have. Him and Mick McCarthy."

In three and a half years with Bohs, he didn't win anything -- losing to Longford Town in the League Cup final after extra-time was as close as he came -- but his career as a striker developed nicely. He was capped at under 19 and under 21 level and he was rated as a prospect.

Eventually, Wolves' boss Mick McCarthy took a chance on him. "It was a record fee at the time for a League of Ireland player -- £250,000 -- and when we got promotion 18 months later, Bohs got a further fee, which helped them at the time."

In terms of impact, Ward couldn't have made a better start at Molineux. In his first six matches he scored three goals, and was named Player of the Month in the Championship. "That helped me establish myself and made people aware of me."

Signed in January 2007, he went straight into the first team and Wolves had a great run, but just missed out on the play-offs. Promotion to the Premier League came the following season, and last season they worked hard to stay there, a struggle they are repeating this season.

"I'm enjoying every minute of it," he says, with his characteristic enthusiasm. "I'm in the spotlight more and I feel I have made real progress with my career. As a player and a person I have matured to being a very good footballer and hopefully I have many more years at this club."

With the pleasure, comes the pressure, especially in the Premier League, but Ward takes it all in his stride. "First and foremost it's a pleasure to be playing, but massive pressure comes with it. Every game, every ball, every pass, every tackle is scrutinised and you have to be able to deal with that.

"It's part and parcel of being a pro. Some days you don't win and then there's more pressure the following week, but at this level you have to be able to face these pressures. In our case, we need to turn performances into points. We don't want to be termed the team that's a joy to watch but went down."

Apart from his initial goal-burst, Ward hasn't hit the target in his 100-plus games since. From being a promising striker, he has been shunted back to tighten up the defence.

"The first couple of months here I played up front, then I was moved to left-midfield and now left-back. It can happen and you have to be prepared to move position. If there are a couple of jobs you are capable of doing then there are more opportunities of being in the team.

"I now see myself as a left-back first and have played most of my football at Wolves there. I had to change my mentality from that of an attacker to that of a defender."

It was Ward's experience in the League of Ireland which prompted Mick McCarthy to switch him. "He said 'I've watched you and you always wanted to defend from the front, you didn't mind putting in a tackle'," the Dubliner recalled.

He used to think that defenders had it easy, but his mindset has changed with his move to the back four. The importance of an understanding with your three defensive colleagues and the goalkeeper, and the need to adjust with the constant changes in personnel for disciplinary or tactical reasons, make defending an art form in itself.

"Nowadays if the back four keeps a clean sheet, or someone makes a goal-saving tackle or header, it gives me as much pleasure as a goal at the other end," he enthused. "Then there are the assists, when it's nice to get forward and support the winger, get on an overlap and cross the ball for someone to head it in. I've only had one so far this season.

"There are always aspects of your game that can be improved on," he added, "unless you are one of the top five players in the world."

In this respect, he has found McCarthy a great help. "He has new ideas for us every week. In training he'll note little things and he'll have little pointers, like how to tuck in a bit more or where to be when the ball breaks and these can improve your game by five to ten per cent."

Asked about his own attributes as a player, he responded: "I've got good energy and work hard, while my enjoyment and enthusiasm have benefited me. I always want to improve my game, because it can be the difference in moving on to the next level of my career.

"You can never rest on your laurels. You always have to be at your best, because you could be here one day and if you don't work hard enough you mightn't be at a club like Wolves the next day."

Football by its nature is an insecure profession, and injuries are part of the reason for that. "Being injured is the hardest part of the game," said Ward, who missed three and a half months with a badly torn cartilage.

"It's not nice going in every day and not being able to play with the lads. Some days you feel you're making progress and others it seems like a step back, so it's all about being patient and making sure you come back when you're right.

"Mick (McCarthy) is fantastic with the injured players. He goes down to the treatment room every morning, always has a few words for you, so that you know he's keeping an eye on you, and that's good because you can feel out of the loop a bit. However, if you have the right attitude, you'll come back a stronger person."

When you look at Ward's CV, there is one glaring omission -- no international cap -- so what are his ambitions?

"I have every belief in myself as a footballer. I'm established in the Premier League, and I want to play for my country and I want to stay in the Premier League for many years.

"I've underage and B caps, and I was named in the full squad, but had to pull out through injury. It was a little bit unfortunate as I could have got in. It's something I want to do and I might get the chance. The greatest honour is to play for your country. I was in the B team under Trapattoni, playing left-back against Nottingham Forest. It was a good experience to work with him for a few days and I could see how good a manager he is."

However, when it comes to praise, Ward reserves most of it for former Republic of Ireland boss McCarthy. "He is a pleasure to work for, to train under him every day is a real joy. He's as honest as they come and wants us to play attractive football -- score goals, create chances and defend well.

"If you ask anyone at Wolves they wouldn't swap him for anyone -- they all love working for him."

At 25, life is good for the man from Portmarnock. Last week, his partner, India, gave birth to their first child, Jackson, a brother for India's five-year-old daughter Tallulah. Settled in the Black Country, the best is yet to come from Ward -- and, given the chance, he could well produce it in the green jersey.

Sunday Independent

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