Monday 20 November 2017

High-flying Ward aims to bring attacking spark to the international stage

Stephen Ward (left) chats with John O’Shea during training ahead of this evening’s game against Georgia Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Ward (left) chats with John O’Shea during training ahead of this evening’s game against Georgia Photo: Sportsfile
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Stephen Ward is set to earn his 26th cap under Martin O'Neill's management and his 44th in total when he steps into the stiflingly hot and hostile atmosphere at the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi, Georgia tonight.

Ward made the trip knowing in his heart that he is O'Neill's first-choice left back, although he dare not admit that publicly.

The wily Republic manager has been known to spring a selection surprise, but surely he will not dare to disrupt the left side of his defence, particularly as Ward has started the season in style at Burnley.

What better way to begin a Premier League campaign than to snatch three precious away points against the reigning champions, as the Clarets did at Chelsea on the opening day of the season?

To make it more memorable, Ward blasted home a 'goal of the season' contender with a sublime left-foot blast past Chelsea 'keeper Thibaut Courtois.

It was the second goal of a game that unfancied Burnley held on to win 3-2.

A dream start for the club and for their Dublin-born left back.

Just three weeks later Ward prepares for a contest in Tbilisi in which the Irish team will have to produce a 'dogs of war' performance against opponents grimly determined to end their tally of eight defeats in eight games against the Irish.

Ward is up for the battle and knows how much Georgia want to put one over on the Boys in Green, especially when he recalls the last time the Irish played in Tblisi.

The date was September 7, 2014, the game was a Euro 2016 qualifier, and a piece of Aiden McGeady brilliance produced the winning goal almost at the death for a 2-1 Irish victory.

Performed

"It's obviously a tough place to go. I think we performed quite well in the game, but it took a bit of magic from Aiden in the last minute to win it," said Ward.

"When we were on the way back, I don't think we realised how big a result that would turn out to be going over there.

"The one thing you look at it is the location, the logistics of getting there and it was quite humid last time. Listen, we've been there before. I think it helps we've had them in our group before and we know what to expect, so we'll be fully prepared."

The experienced defender, a native of Portmarnock in County Dublin, turned 32 on August 20, and has proven his resilience and determination for more than a decade since he left Bohemians to join Mick McCarthy's Wolves in January, 2007.

The journey from Dalymount Park to the Dinamo Arena has been a long and winding road for a player who originally was signed as a striker, but ended up as a left back.

He spent seven-and-a-half years as a Wolves player, eventually falling out of favour with manager Kenny Jackett.

A year on loan at Brighton in 2013-14 looked sure to become a permanent move until Sean Dyche, the manager of then newly-promoted Burnley, made a decisive intervention and brought Ward to Turf Moor in the summer of 2014.

The player and the club endured a long, hard season at the top level which ended in relegation.

Credit to the Burnley board, they refused to panic and kept Dyche. Just as well, because he bounced the club back to the Premier League in 2015-16, and they comfortably retained their status last season.

Ward has been given the opportunity to raid forward more often, which suits him and can be an asset to the Irish cause.

"It's always been in me to want to attack," he said.

"Going back to left back, I've had to rein that in and make sure that first and foremost my job is to defend.

"There's no better feeling as defender than coming off the pitch when you've kept a clean sheet. It gives you a great feeling of achievement.

"Obviously it's nothing like scoring a goal, but it gives you that sense of achievement and that's one of the first things we as defenders need to do.

"But yeah, if I can add that to my game and get forward and get crosses in, which I feel like I've been doing throughout pre-season and in the first few games, it's a big plus for myself."

For Ward, the presence of fellow Irishmen Robbie Brady, Kevin Long, Jeff Hendrick and the recently-signed Jon Walters at Burnley adds to the quality of the squad and enhances the camaraderie that they bring to the Ireland cause.

Ward dubbed Walters "the signing of the summer" and hailed his determination to get over an ankle problem to be available for this match.

"The signing of the summer, probably, Jonny," he said.

"To get a player like that with his experience and drive has been brilliant.

"From day one, he's been brilliant on the pitch but particularly in the dressing-room.

"What a big character he is - he's a winner and you feed off Jonny's energy and his determination."

Irish Independent

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