Ward returns to theatre of his dreams
Daniel Mcdonnell talks to Wolves' left-back as he heads back to Old Trafford in 'work clothes'
TOMORROW evening, Stephen Ward will make a familiar journey in an unfamiliar costume.
The Dubliner is no stranger to Old Trafford, but this will not be a recreational trip. This time, he'll be travelling down the M6 in work clothes rather than casual wear. Promotion with Wolverhampton Wanderers has opened the door to a whole new world.
His dad brought the boyhood Manchester United fan to the Theatre of Dreams in his youth and, since his move to England three years ago, he's been a regular visitor, with Darron Gibson organising tickets for his ex-Irish U-21 team-mates Ward and Andy Keogh when the big Champions League nights come around.
So, he was there for the 7-1 drubbing of Roma and the 3-2 conquering of AC Milan to name just two memorable nights, suitably enchanted by the magnitude of the occasions and the history of the venue.
"I've been blown away by the place," he admits. "So to play there would be brilliant. A dream come true."
It will be extra special considering that, back in September, Ward was sitting in a hospital bed wondering if his dream season was about to be shattered.
He remembers it vividly. Waking groggily from what was supposed to be a routine operation on a cartilage tear, a tad perturbed by a comment from a nurse which suggested it had been harder work than the hospital staff had anticipated. It was when he checked his voice-mail that the alarm bells started ringing.
"Sorry to hear it was a lot worse than expected," started the message delivered by the unmistakable Barnsley tones of his manager Mick McCarthy. "Keep the chin up and you'll be back before you know it." Not good.
"I just remember looking at my phone, listening to the message again and again," recalls Ward. "I was still under the influence of the anaesthetic and wasn't quite sure what was happening."
A call to the club doctor clarified the situation. The tear was in a complicated position, so rather than ripping it off, as is the usual procedure, they had to stitch it back together. And the trouble didn't end there.
He went home with a brace on his knee, but throbbing pain remained. After three sleepless nights, with the final one pushing him over the edge, Ward went back in search of an explanation. Further inspection revealed that he had incurred a blood infection during the initial procedure. Another week of hospital food beckoned.
"I was getting blood tests every day," sighs Ward. "And I was constantly on a drip and a high dose of medication so it was making me quite depressed. It was a hard time, but I got through it."
Certainly, the timing couldn't have been worse. The 24-year-old had arrived in the Premier League, and three games had whetted the appetite. Now, he was helpless, confined to the role of spectator when he wanted to be involved more than ever.
His girlfriend rallied around, but, with her little girl to look after, she couldn't be there all the time. Therefore, his parents packed the car in the family home in Portmarnock and headed for the ferry before driving across England to spend some time with their son.
"That helped a lot," he admits. "It's the same old story. When you're in a hospital bed you can't see yourself running on the pitch for a long time, it does get you down."
The good news for Ward is that his powers of recovery were unaffected by the setback. While his colleagues took their baby steps in the top flight and learned some harsh lessons along the way, he eventually got out of hospital and into the gym to focus on recuperation.
He was back ahead of schedule with a substitute appearance three weeks ago before a return to the starting XI which has encouragingly coincided with the club's first back-to-back wins in top flight football for 26 years, against Bolton and Tottenham.
Winter may have drawn in, but the sun is shining in the world of the likeable Ward who has undergone a remarkable transformation since leaving Bohemians for the UK as a raw attacking talent.
Strong displays as an out-and-out front man in the U-21s helped to alert Wolves to his ability; they didn't realise that acquisition would provide them with a regular left-back. Indeed, as the only Irishman playing that role on a regular basis in the Premier League, Ward is now on the radar of Giovanni Trapattoni.
It's not in his nature to make bold, rash statements yet deep down he knows there is an opportunity there if he can build on the promise of his recent displays at club level.
"I got my head around the left back thing from the start really," says Ward, who, after a prolonged stint as a left-sided midfielder, was moved even further back by McCarthy three games into last year's promotion winning season.
"Every day in training I was learning something new, I enjoyed seeing a new part of the game.
"I was never quite an out-and-out striker at Bohs, I was left side or behind the front two and it was probably only for the Irish U-21s that I was in that role. To move back was obviously a bit of a culture shock, but I liked the challenge.
"I ended up watching a lot of football and tended to look at how full-backs play rather than be interested in who was winning. You'd look at the people at the top of the game, a lot of Patrice Evra and Ashley Cole and just watch how they went about things.
"The centre-halves at Wolves were a big help as well because there's some good talkers at the club and I needed that.
"And with the gaffer being a defender himself, then it helped. If he wants to show you something he'll take you outside on your own and coach you through it and all those factors really helped. To be honest, I probably feel more comfortable playing there now than any other position."
The Molineux regulars would appear to agree. Ward has won acclaim for the consistency of his performances in his new brief.
He was less popular during his stint as a winger, although he was just one of a number of individuals that were rounded on during the turbulent 2007/08 campaign where McCarthy was accused of favouring the large Irish contingent that he recruited.
It was Stephen Elliott that suffered the most, but Ward and his good pal Keogh didn't escape flak either.
"To be fair, it was difficult for Stephen then because it didn't help that we'd bought Freddy Eastwood whom the fans were calling for.
"I think the whole team got the brunt of it at that time, it wasn't just the Irish players and the core of the Irish players that he brought in are still there. One or two have moved on, but I think we've done well and the fans appreciate it.
"I think I have improved. Obviously, I'm sure that last season when I went in at left-back, a lot of fans would have preferred to see a natural in that position.
"But I hope now that I've done well enough to win them over; that they see me as left-back rather than someone who is filling in."
The comfort on the pitch mirrors the settled nature of his life in the Midlands now. He's matured as a player and person during his stay, and is currently in the process of moving to a new home outside Birmingham, around half an hour away from Wolverhampton.
It's a bit of change from his early days in the UK when he joined the club at the same time as Keogh and Michael Kightly, with the trio inseparable.
"We might as well have lived together, " he smiles. "Our apartments were close together and we spent all our time in Kites. We ate together every night and there were times we'd come home from training and Kites would go to bed and myself and Andy would sleep on the couch instead of going home because we knew that's where we'd be sleeping that night. When I first came over, that was a big help, it settled me."
Now, they're all living with their girlfriends, although they remain in close proximity to each other. They're keen to stay at Wolves for the long haul, with a lot riding on the relegation 'dogfight' they realistically expect to be immersed in as this season progresses.
Nevertheless, Ward has never lost touch with his roots. He's not that kind of guy. It suits that his new abode is close to the airport, meaning easy access when his parents, aunts, uncles or friends come to visit.
Frequently, he catches up with ex-Bohs colleagues Kevin Hunt and Fergal Harkin, who both work behind the scenes with Manchester City. Trips home to Dublin are accommodated wherever possible, with the Wolves Christmas party taking him back last weekend.
But perhaps the best evidence of his connection with home can be found on the pitches of the AUL every weekend where those who come across Seaview Celtic encounter jerseys bearing the Premier League footballer's name.
"My mates set up that team themselves," he laughed. "They asked me at the end of last season would I sponsor them. They brought me out for a few drinks and the next day I woke up with around five texts saying 'you better not let us down'."
True to form, Ward made good on his promise. Reliability is what he's about right now. The next step is to win the trust of a 70-year-old Italian.