Saturday 24 August 2019

Burnley trio's influence is central to Ireland's World Cup ambitions

Burnley team-mates Jeff Hendrick and Stephen Ward share a joke during training in Abbotstown. Photo: Sportsfile
Burnley team-mates Jeff Hendrick and Stephen Ward share a joke during training in Abbotstown. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The baton for the Premier League outfit of most Irish significance has been passed around a bit over the past decade.

We had Sunderland, or Sundireland as they were temporarily christened when Roy Keane was in charge and signing up an abundance of players with a similar passport.

Then we had Mick McCarthy's Wolves which was heavily flavoured by an Irish contingent, and a spell where Aston Villa had enough on their books to put together a team photo. Stoke and Everton took up the mantle, and they retain an Irish presence, but Burnley has become the new go-to club for top-flight players from these shores.

January recruit Robbie Brady is suspended for tomorrow night's World Cup qualifier with Wales, but Jeff Hendrick and Stephen Ward are certain to start having grown in importance over the past 18 months.

For 25-year-old Hendrick, it has represented a coming of age. For 31-year-old Ward it's a second chance after he was sent into exile by Giovanni Trapattoni and only recalled when Martin O'Neill came into the fold.

It has coincided with an upturn in fortunes in his club career; the restoration of Premier League status after a period of uncertainty when his time at Wolves went south - he literally needed to do that to turn his fortunes around with a loan at Brighton getting his career back on track and convincing Sean Dyche to make a permanent move.

Hendrick is enjoying his first season at the highest level in an environment where the work ethic and pace of life has allowed him to develop and build on his Euro 2016 excellence.

"You don't get a good week of training in the Championship," he explains. "It's more about resting between games when you play on Saturday and Tuesday and Saturday again.

"In the Premier League it's more about the mental side of preparation and eating the right food and getting ready. I have a longer week to build up to games and I'm feeling the benefits. I can work a bit more on certain things."

That includes breaking forward from midfield, with Roy Keane urging the Dubliner to work on the offensive side of his game. He got off the mark for Ireland in Serbia and is conscious of the need to improve his tally; tomorrow would be a good place to start with the absence of Brady and Wes Hoolahan affecting Ireland's options through the middle.

"I am trying to add it to my game but it depends on what sort of formation we are playing and what position I am playing in," cautions Hendrick, who now feels as though he can be vocal about his own thoughts around the camp - something O'Neill has encouraged.

"A lot of players here have played a lot of games as well and we all just sort of bounce off each other really," he continues. " A lot of people take control and that is the sort of group the manager has built where we're all trying to, not lead, but give our input. I think it's working well so far and we have to keep that going.

"Once we're on the pitch, we work each other hard. I'm not one to shy away if I've something to say. I've been vocal, it's just all about getting more vocal and little things I have to keep adding, and being more vocal is one of them."

Communication will be a big part of the Welsh encounter, especially with the movement of Gareth Bale and players being mindful of when he wanders into their zone. Ward has experience of taking on Bale from his time at Spurs and knows he could have his hands full again. But the ex-Bohemians player is in a good place right now.

"I feel great at the minute," says Ward, who has played all but one of Burnley's league games this year and the exception was due to an injury that also ruled him out of Ireland's November win in Austria.

"Last season, we had a fantastic second half to the season and we've taken that into this year. It's been a good year for me playing wise, I'm feeling fitter now than I've ever felt.

"The way we work at Burnley is brilliant, we're a very fit squad and we work really hard and I'm enjoying it.

"You always believe in your ability, it's just about getting back playing. The reason I made the loan move to Brighton was to get playing and that coincided with me getting back in the squad."

Ward smiles when Keane's advice to 'hit' Bale is raised.

"I think what Roy means is that the game is going to be a physical game," he says. "It's going to be very much like an English league game because the majority of players ply their trade there. I don't think he means to go out and intentionally do it, it's just go out and be competitive.

"That's what we need to be, we need to get tight on their players. You can't afford to give a player of his quality his space so we will need to be right in his face on Friday night."

Ireland do have assets of their own and Ward counts Hendrick in that category, now that he works with him daily.

"He brings a presence and he's a very strong boy, a strong runner, an all-round midfielder. He's going to be a massive player for Ireland for many years to come. In the last two years, he's really grown into a man."

They are the attributes that will be required to negotiate a derby with a difference.

Irish Independent

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