Monday 22 January 2018

Ward well-prepared for biggest test yet in fledgling international career

Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

STEPHEN Ward has received some flattering comparisons with Wolves legend Steve Bull and Ireland stalwart Kevin Kilbane, but he's very much his own man.

Ward (26) was somewhat bemused when his name was bracketed alongside Bull after some noteworthy goals he scored in his first season at Molineux back in 2007, and politely deflected the praise, saying: "If I achieve half of what Steve Bull achieved here, I think I'd be a massive success."

And now, just seven caps into a burgeoning senior international career which began only in May against Northern Ireland in the Carling Nations Cup, he is first-choice left-back for Friday's Euro 2012 qualifier against Estonia in Tallinn.

Out with the old, in with the new. Such is the way of football, but Kevin Kilbane would be a great role model for the Wolves utility man.

'Killer', omitted from the squad for the play-offs, has been a wonderful servant in the green jersey.

He played 110 times for the Republic, including a fantastic 66 successive appearances in World Cup and European Championship matches, until a back injury kept him out of the Euro qualifier against Slovakia last September.

Whatever about comparisons with Bull, it wouldn't be a bad ambition to match Kilbane's dedication, commitment to the jersey and his reliability as a left-back.


Asked if he viewed Kilbane's absence as a vote of confidence by Trapattoni in Ward, the ex-Bohs player replied: "I was surprised that he wasn't in given his wealth of experience.

"I suppose it's a vote of confidence for me, but there's plenty more football left in Kevin and I'm sure we'll see him in the squad again."

Ward arrived in Dublin boosted by his club's first win in nine Premier League games and by his goal in their 3-1 victory over Wigan.

What a good way to enter an international break that requires two sterling performances from Trapattoni's men if they are to be part of the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine next summer.

"It's nice to come in on the back of a good result," Ward said. "There was a massive sense of relief around the club. It's been a long time coming that result, but I do feel our performances have been heading in that direction."

The Dubliner has been a consistent choice for Mick McCarthy's Wolves, with 11 league appearances and one in the League Cup. It may be a struggle down in the lower end of the division, but Ward's form has been good.

"I'm probably playing as well as I have ever been since I moved to left-back. I've been really happy with how the season has started for me and hopefully I can keep going that way."

As the week progresses the tension among the supporters and players will intensify, and a calm, measured approach to the matches is required.

Ward has experience of playing in Tallinn, as he was on the Bohemians team which drew 0-0 against Levadia Tallinn in the UEFA Cup, as it was, back in 2004. Levadia were managed by current Estonia manager Tarmo Ruutli.

Bohs lost the second leg 3-1 in Dublin, but it gave Ward a flavour of Estonian football.

"I remember them (Levadia) as being very physically strong.

"Like any European team, they were technically very good, but the one thing that stood out for me was that physical strength.

"I'm sure the national team will be the same. I felt at the time we should have beaten them, because I do remember we were very disappointed to lose that tie.

"Estonia are in the play-offs for a reason. They've come through a tough group and to finish ahead of Serbia is no mean feat.

"But with the manager we have and the set-up we have, we'll never go into a game underestimating the opposition. It's tough no matter who you play these days.

"We just have to make sure we prepare right. We feel if we're on the top of our game, then we've got the chance of getting two positive results," he said.

Every step now at the top level is a challenge for any player making his way in the national side. Jack Charlton used say that it took 10 games to adjust to international football, but with the stakes so high this week, Ward has to put the lessons of his seven games under Trapattoni to good use.

Speaking about the differences between club and international football, he highlighted the mental factor as the key issue.

"Just playing in the Premier League definitely helps. You're playing against top quality opposition every week.

"The pace of the game in the internationals is different. It's a little bit more technical, where the Premier League is a lot more gung-ho and you don't get a second to relax. Teams at international level tend to be a bit more patient and try and pick you off at the right time, so concentration has to be at the maximum all the time.

"Everyone can improve. I would never say I've reached the pinnacle at club or international level. I want to improve and I feel I am improving every time I play. I've really enjoyed the start to the season I've had and it's been great for me being in the international set-up.

"That has brought me on as a player, even though we play one way at Wolves and it's different with the international side. I just try to combine both sides of the game and that's definitely helping me come on as a player."

The attacking instincts that brought him a goal for Wolves on Sunday will be curbed tomorrow and that's not a problem for Ward.

"As a full-back I do like to get forward. At club level sometimes it can be more open and you can get forward more.

"I wouldn't say I have to hold myself back (in international games), but I have to be more cautious. We have to be solid this week. We've got the players in our team to score goals, so it's important that the back four sit in and make sure we keep the opposition out of the danger area."

Irish Independent

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