CHANGED times for Irish football.
When Ireland first took part in a European Championship finals, in 1988, the squad had a backbone of players who travelled to West Germany with a league medal in their back pocket, as Liverpool's Irish contingent of Aldridge, Whelan and Houghton had won the title in England that season and the former was the league's top scorer.
In contrast, four of Ireland's likely 23-man squad for the finals in Poland and Ukraine next summer have already suffered the ignominy of relegation, as Kevin Doyle, Stephen Ward, Stephen Hunt and Kevin Foley will be playing Championship football when the new season starts, unless they can find new employers in the meantime.
Ward is one of the club's longest-serving players and also one of the busiest -- the former Bohemians man has been an ever-present in the league this season -- and while he admits that he still feels the bruises since relegation was confirmed on Sunday, he hopes that the Euro 2012 finals will offer the chance of a rehabilitation of morale for the club's Irish players.
"I think the Euros will be a nice break from the troubles we've had. It was a hard season with the club so getting away with the Ireland squad was always a release and the summer will be the same," Ward told the Evening Herald.
"It's tough on us that we have gone down a division but we also have an opportunity to do something big in the summer and getting to the finals will be a boost to morale for us.
"I think the Wolves lads can really enjoy the Euros now that the pressure of the club situation is off.
"It's been hard over the last while, you do interviews or talk to people and they want to ask about the Euros while we have been focused on keeping Wolves in the division.
"Being honest, it was hard to think clearly about the Euros as the focus has been on avoiding relegation.
"It's unfortunate we have gone down but the writing has been on the wall for a few weeks now.
"We needed some big results in the last while, we needed a miracle really, and didn't get them and now we are relegated.
"But relegation is confirmed now, since we lost to City. It can clear the head and allow us think about Ireland now. Hopefully we can go with our heads held high," added Ward.
He makes it clear that he's not desperate to quit the club because he can't be bothered to 'slum it' in the Championship, saying that he won't seek a move away and will only leave Molineux if the club decide to sell him.
But Ward also knows that the eyes of the world will be focused on Poland and Ukraine in June, especially the eagerly-awaited clash with Spain in Gdansk, and that offers the relegated players a platform to impress.
"It's a shop window for us as well," Ward admitted. "I'm not chomping at the bit to get away from the club but if I happened to have a good tournament with Ireland and something was to materialise, you never know.
"I want to play at the highest level possible and I know that players at our club will attract interest. So the Euros is a window of opportunity for us.
"At the moment, I have no idea what will happen. I have enjoyed playing in the Premier League and I want to play there again, but this club needs players who are committed to getting Wolves back into the Premier.
"Wolves have been good to me and I've had great times there, and if nothing happens in the summer fingers crossed we'll have a squad strong enough to get promoted back into the Premier.
"I really enjoyed my time here. I was captain a few times last season and that means a lot to me, to be captain of a club like Wolves. I have no clauses in my contract about leaving in the event of relegation.
"It would be hard to turn down Premier League football if an offer came in and the club wanted to accept it, that will be the case for a lot of players in our squad as they are good players and I'm sure Premier League teams will want them.
"Everyone wants to play at the top level but we have to make sure that if we are at the club next season that we're in the right frame of mind to get promoted again.
"People may have to leave, the club won't want to have a massive wage bill in the Championship, and they might find it hard to keep the likes of Kevin Doyle on board, especially if a Premier League club comes in."
Relegation is hard for anyone to accept but even more so for Ward, who helped Wolves win promotion and then stay there, as he's grown accustomed to all those tasty games at Anfield, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge.
"It's hard, this is the first time I have been relegated in my career," he admits. "It will be hard to keep the squad together and that's one of the most disappointing aspects for me. I have a lot of close friends there in the squad. No one knows who will be there when we report back for pre-season training in the summer.
"We didn't do enough as players and the managerial change -- more so the timing of it than anything else -- didn't help either."