Ward's sights set on ending great season with victory
Stephen Ward's tenth year as a full-time professional in English football has arguably been his best for club and country.
Ward has played at the highest level with promoted Burnley and the Clarets survived in the cut-throat Premier League, finishing 16th in the table.
That was a huge achievement for a club with modest resources compared with the mega-rich giants such as Chelsea, Arsenal, and the two Manchester clubs.
At international level, the 31-year-old Portmarnock native has played all but one of the World Cup qualifiers, missing the away match in Austria because of injury.
"Brilliant," was his verdict on the 2016-17 campaign. "I've taken a lot of confidence from it. Obviously, being in the Premier League again next year is great."
An Irish victory over Austria at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday will end the season on a hugely positive note for a player who left the domestic league in January 2007 after Mick McCarthy signed him as a striker for Wolves.
Credit to McCarthy as he backed his judgement and gave Ward a debut as a second-half sub against Cardiff City on January 20, just days after the transfer deal had been done with Bohemians.
Ironically, another Dubliner stole the headlines that afternoon at Molineux.
Jason Byrne, then 29, had joined Cardiff City from Shelbourne the same week as Ward went to Wolves. And Byrne also made his Championship debut, coming on as a late sub and scoring the winner in a 2-1 victory.
From then on, their paths diverged.
Ward dug in and forged a career that has taken him to Wolves, Brighton on loan, and to Burnley.
Byrne returned to the League of Ireland after a year at Cardiff and continued his remarkable goal-scoring exploits in the home league.
Ward's graft and dedication has been rewarded with a regular slot in Martin O'Neill's side.
Now it's all about preparation for the Austria game.
"I just want to make sure I keep myself right, and hopefully get a positive result Sunday, and then get a rest and kick on next year," he said.
"To get to the World Cup, it's what we all want, it's the be-all and end-all. It would probably be the biggest achievement of everyone's career if we can qualify."
The 3-1 win over Uruguay lifted the spirits of players and fans, but Ward warned against complacency about Austria.
"They are a good side with a lot of quality. It's a really, really tight group, so the home games are going to be vital," he added.