Sport Soccer

Thursday 14 December 2017

Ward savouring new lease of life after spell in doldrums

Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

PORTMARNOCK native Stephen Ward is back in familiar surroundings and happy to see his football wheel of fortune on the upturn after a long spell in the doldrums.

Ward, on loan at Brighton from Wolves, was delighted to be part of Martin O'Neill's squad, which had its first day of training under the new management set-up at Malahide yesterday.

Irish U-21 manager Noel King was technically the conduit for Ward's return to the international scene, as the former interim boss selected the squad, but now Ward has the chance to impress O'Neill and Roy Keane.

It's an opportunity he hopes to grasp with both hands after falling out of favour with Giovanni Trapattoni last season.

Ward has not played for Ireland since winning his 18th cap against Greece a year ago – he has not even been picked for squad duty since February's clash with Poland.

After that, nothing – until Trapattoni departed and King decided to include him on behalf of new manager O'Neill.

Ward could be forgiven for holding a grudge against Trapattoni, but he won't hear a word said against the Italian – even though Trap never let him personally know he was being omitted.

"No, I never spoke to him. Obviously that's the way he works and I've got to respect him for that," he said. "I'd never begrudge him for not picking me. He gave me my chance and he's given me every cap I've got.

"It was his decision and it wasn't as if I was singled out. Other people may do things differently but that's the way he did it. It's fine. He did a great job for us and everyone has to remember that as well."

Last season was a disaster for Wolves as they were relegated from the Championship, and Ward reckons that had a knock-on effect for his international status.

"It's not great when your club is having a tough time," he said.

"Listen, it was the toughest time of my career. We were in the Premier League and one year later we were fighting relegation in the Championship. It was a strange time at the club.

"There was a couple of managerial changes. It was hard on the players and it was tough for new managers coming in to change the style of play.

"I'm in a better place at the moment, I'm really enjoying my football. Brighton is a good club and it's on the up. It's nice to be back playing."

Brighton are pushing close to the play-off places in the Championship, although there's a long way to go; Wolves, to whom Ward is contracted until the end of 2014, are in the promotion zone in Division One, and the Dubliner is on duty for the Latvia and Poland matches.

That all adds up to a motivated and happy player, one looking forward to challenging for a place in O'Neill's team when the 2016 European Championship qualifying campaign begins next September.

"It's great to be here. It's all change. Hopefully we can have a successful time," he said. "Training was really good today, really sharp. Everyone enjoyed it."

The reputation of O'Neill and Keane is stellar and, understandably, players were on their mettle for the first day at work under the guidance of the new manager and his assistant.

"The profile that they have in the game is massive, so you come in with excitement and maybe that little bit of nervousness when a new manager comes into a set-up," said Ward.

"Everyone wants to impress and as the manager said himself, it's a new era, a new start for everyone. Everyone is just happy to be here and enjoying the week so far."

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