O'Neill and Keane share Ward's focus on top spot
As Ireland gear up for a potentially historic six-week period, Stephen Ward insists the front rather than back door is the channel they intend routing to the World Cup.
Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane assemble their squad on Monday for the penultimate double-header against Georgia and Serbia having put themselves in a commanding position to secure at least a play-off shot at reaching Russia next year.
Goal difference is the only variable separating them from table-toppers Serbia and, with their co-leaders visiting Dublin on September 5, the opportunity presents itself to push for an automatic passage into the finals.
Should Ireland complete the mission after the concluding fixtures against Moldova and Wales in October, they'll break new ground as the first squad to clinch World Cup qualification as group victors.
Ward, occupier of the left-back role in five of the six matches during the unbeaten campaign so far, is adamant the roulette of tackling a play-off in November doesn't figure in the mindset. As was the case in 2009, that scenario is likely to pit them against a higher-seeded nation.
Still, unlike his only other manager at international level, Giovanni Trapattoni, the current regime don't see reason to temper ambitions by settling for second place.
"Different cultures came together under the previous manager and getting the messages across in terms of getting that winning mentality wasn't easy," explained the Burnley defender.
"With Martin and Roy, though, they've had unbelievable careers at the highest level. Their attitude every day is - 'Win, qualify, do your job and everyone's in it together'. They want us qualifying by winning the group and we've got a great opportunity of doing it.
"There's an underdog mentality there. We've proved that in a lot of big games, by putting it up to the top teams, that we're capable of beating them. Serbia come to Dublin in a few weeks but we've been very successful in home games since Martin and Roy came in."