Sunday 19 November 2017

'Criticism affects you - but I can deal with it'

Stephen Ward has evolved from whipping boy to reliable old pro

Stephen Ward at Burnley. Credit: Andy Ford/Burnley Football Club
Stephen Ward at Burnley. Credit: Andy Ford/Burnley Football Club
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It's Thursday lunchtime at Burnley's training ground and a relaxed Sean Dyche is shooting the breeze. The press conference attendance is small, composed mainly of familiar faces, due to a clash with a glut of other Premier League briefings.

There are bigger stories than Burnley this week and that's good news for the team sitting 12th ahead of today's date with Everton.

Many pundits expected their top flight return to be a tale of relegation strife. Instead, they are eight points clear of the drop zone with six matches to go, aware they still have a job to do but proud of how they've steered clear of crisis.

"There was a couple of reporters saying 'they'll never win a game until they go back to the Championship,'" says Dyche, sitting back in his chair "I'm pleased to say they were wrong. We were written off by everyone, we were everyone's favourites to go down. But, so far, we've shown what I think is an appropriate level of growth."

He is speaking both in collective and individual terms. And one player he clearly has in mind is his 31-year-old left back Stephen Ward, one of the Irish success stories of the English season.

There have been spells in the Portmarnock man's career where he has been reviled, but at Burnley he is revered. One of the local papers has even mentioned him as an outside candidate for their player of the season gong.

"Inevitably as a manager, you get judged on divisional status and whether you're winning," continued Dyche, an impressive talker.

"But I'm really pleased by some of the stuff you don't get judged on, like helping players develop, helping their growth in the team and helping them grow as individuals and Wardy is definitely one who has. In football, it's not about age, it's about your mentality towards continuing to improve.

"My big improvement as a player came at 30 when a dietician came in. For Wardy, I think it's (developing) a constant inner belief. No matter what you do in life, you might have that weird devil and angel over each shoulder, worrying and hoping that things go alright.

"The more you win that battle with yourself, the sooner you come of age. You become more confident, your levels rise and consistency comes with that. Wardy has been a good example of that; he just keeps edging forward and edging forward. He's bought into our mentality here, and that's important for a footballer of his age. To show that desire."

A couple of hours earlier, the subject of Dyche's praise was equally laid back as he sat down for a chat before training. He has travelled from Manchester, explaining that he splits his weeks between his family home there and a temporary base in Burnley where he spends a couple of nights.

It's a good balance for getting the right amount of sleep in with two kids at home. He also shares his car with two youngsters, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick, who form what team-mates describe as the Irish triangle that moves together everywhere.

Stephen Ward believes he has plenty of football left in him at the top level despite turning 30. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Stephen Ward believes he has plenty of football left in him at the top level despite turning 30. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

Ward is aware of his 'role' in that relationship; he references it when his sporadic stints as a Newstalk co-commentator are raised. The 'old man' still loves absorbing information about the game.

"I get a bit of stick in the car because they call me Statto," he grins. "I'll be talking about football because I might know something by constantly reading about it. And they're like 'give it a rest' because they're on the way home for a sleep.

"When you hit that 30 mark, everyone talks about your future and I've really enjoyed the media stuff. But I still feel fit and healthy and strong, I feel like I've got a lot of football left in me."

And it's possible that the best days remain ahead. January marked the tenth anniversary of his debut in English football, and he doesn't quite disagree with the statement that this campaign has been his best although he points out that Premier League exposure always seems to count for more. His evolution has been steady, but not without its setbacks.

He recalls his early months at Wolves, who initially reckoned they had picked up a promising striker from Bohemians. Ward moved into an apartment block near his team-mates Andy Keogh and Michael Kightly - 'the frat house' - and quickly became a part of Mick McCarthy's plans.

Certain matches stick out from those formative days, like a 6-0 drubbing at home to Southampton where they were applauded off. "They had seven shots and scored six of them," he laughs.

Ward went on to enjoy promotion and was gradually converted into a left back by McCarthy, and that's the position where the one-time U-21 attacker broke into the senior international squad.

Supporters weren't as forgiving as he adjusted to that role and, with both club and country, 2012 was a year where a sizeable number of detractors concluded that limitations had been exposed. Giovanni Trapattoni cut him from the Irish squad and he was tarnished as Wolves went into freefall.

The stints behind the microphone and the increased understanding that comes with maturity have given him perspective on outside voices. They wash off easily these days.

"Of course everyone wants to be liked and told they're going to be this or that," he says, "The best players in the world get criticism so you just have to get on with it.

"I've always had confidence to do the best I can with the ability I have. Obviously you can see criticism; it affects you but I can deal with it now. As you get experienced, you deal with it better.

"These people might only see you for 90 minutes on a Saturday. The manager sees you every day and knows if you're being a good professional or not. As long as he's happy with that, you can go home and think you've done a good day's work."

The key turning point was a decision to take a pay cut and go on loan to Brighton for the 2013/14 season when things turned sour at Wolves, with the authorities indicating to Ward that they wanted to get rid of him but making it hard to cut a deal.

Burnley then came in with a permanent offer - he chose them ahead of Brighton at the last minute with the advice of his old pal Kightly a factor - and while a broken foot meant his first year at Turf Moor was a write-off as the Clarets suffered relegation, he eventually got a run in the side midway through last term's successful attempt to bounce back at the first time of asking.

He owns the shirt now, and has started 31 of their 32 Premier League outings, missing the other through injury.

The platform for that was a summer in France that was much happier one than his first crack at a major finals in Poland.

Ward was on the pitch when Brady scored in Lille, a moment that will live with him forever, yet he will also cherish the memory of the anthems beforehand. After sitting out the first two matches, he benefited from Martin O'Neill's raft of changes.

"I've watched them back on YouTube," he says, "I remember the roof being closed, the unbelievable atmosphere. Their anthem is a great one and ours was too. We probably knew it was a team that nobody at home would have picked, but we were pumped by that challenge. So we went into the huddle with Seamus (Coleman) after and I was thinking 'yes, we're ready for this'. He was saying unbelievable words that you wouldn't expect from him. And from that moment the whistle went, everybody was ready to go."

The rest, as they say, is history. O'Neill's simple message when the squad next met up was to try and recreate that feeling in Russia.

They will have to make it the rest of the way without Coleman who is still recuperating from his devastating leg break and will be absent from Goodison Park today. Ward was far away from the horrible incident in the bruiser with Wales yet the minute he saw the oxygen mask come out, the penny dropped. He was part of a contingent that dropped in to visit the popular skipper in hospital.

"We tried to keep him smiling," he says, "But I'm sure everyone is saying the same things. I am sure he will come back stronger but you're just gutted for him because things were going so well for him. I wouldn't have been surprised if clubs had come knocking on the door this summer.

"Most importantly, what we all want to do now is make sure we qualify for him. The doc (Alan Byrne) said to Seamus afterwards 'As hard as it's going to be, you have to set yourself a goal and that's to make sure you are ready to lead us out in Russia.'

"So that's something we can do to keep him smiling and give him that target."

He describes the atmosphere in O'Neill's camp as familial and the vibe around Burnley is similar.

The security guard at the Barnfield Training Centre proudly tells of how everyone at the club - from top to bottom - addresses each other on first name terms.

Despite that, the scenery is changing with Premier League security beckoning. The hierarchy have just spent £10.5m on the complex to elevate it to a higher standard and the players moved into the new wing after the recent international break.

"It shows the way the club is going, and it's something that can attract players," says Ward, who can see similarities between Dyche and McCarthy in terms of the characters they recruit, "But I think that we might always be little old Burnley, a small family club from a lovely town with lovely people.

"And it's great for us to have that mentality because we know how much it means to the people. The manager does his homework on who he signs. And the one thing we've got is lads who've worked hard to get to where they are."

In Ward, they have Exhibit A.

Irish Independent

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