Sport Soccer

Wednesday 13 December 2017

'You need to have a thick skin to play this game' - Ireland's Stephen Ward on answering his critics

Stephen Ward has revived his club fortunes at Burnley
Stephen Ward has revived his club fortunes at Burnley
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

Living the dream has occasionally been something akin to a nightmare experience for Burnley’s Stephen Ward over the last decade - but his legacy is finally falling into place.

It was back in January 2007 that a fresh faced Ward travelled to Wolves for a trial that opened the door to his dream of making it big for club and country.

The free-scoring striker caught the eye of Wolves boss Mick McCarthy while he was playing for Bohemians and marked his first month in England with three goals in the Championship as he made an instant impression.

Inevitably, Ward was tagged ‘the new Robbie Keane’ as he followed in the footsteps of Ireland’s leading marksman by starting his career in England with Wolves.

We all feel a little older when we reflect that a decade has passed since those formative days in Ward’s story and as he looks back on his journey in an interview with Independent.ie, the 31-year-old admits there have been times when he has hit rock bottom.

All too often, Ward has been an easy target for the snipers eager nominate a scapegoat for failure when Wolves or Ireland failed to live up to unrealistically inflated expectations and he admits the criticism has cut deep at times.

Yet while the barbs that have been fired in his direction have stung at times, this affable Dubliner reflects on his journey in England with an attitude that will ensure he is remembered as one of the great success stories in this era of Irish soccer.

“People have written me off plenty of times and while you say you ignore the criticism, it can get to you at times,” begins Ward.

“I’m lucky to have a great family behind me and they have been so important to me when things have not gone my way, but the most important factor in my career so far has been my own belief in my ability.

“Every career is a story of ups and downs and I have had more than my fair share, but to be here now ten years after I got my chance to come to England for the first time and to be playing regular Premier League football suggests I have done something right.

“Playing for Ireland and in the Premier League is probably more than I would have expected when I was starting out, but you have to make the most of the opportunities that come your way.

“My Dad always tells me that you can only look back on your career when you retire and reflect on whether you have accomplished everything you have wanted. Hopefully when I get to that point, I will have no regrets.

“I’m just a humble lad who had a dream to play football for a job and to go as far as I could in the game.

“One day, I might appreciate what I have done, but right now, I’m engrossed in what we are trying to do at Burnley this season and with Ireland when the World Cup qualifiers come around.

“All I have every tried to do is give everything I can to every challenge in front of me and if you look back and say you have done that throughout your career, you can’t ask for any more.”

Too many critics have been guilty of highlighting the weak spots in Ward’s talent locker down the years, but he has a typically polite response to those who have questioned him.

“You need to have a thick skin if you want to play this game because opinions will be aired about you and they might not always be positive,” he continues.

“Maybe the critics help you at times because I have been written on a few occasions and it’s a challenge to try and come back and prove a few people wrong.

“There is a need to sell papers and at times things are written that may not be fair, but the one person whose opinion has always mattered to me has been my manager and if I am on the pitch every weekend, then that’s all that matters.”

A father of two, Ward took his kids on the school run before sitting down for an open chat with Independent.ie and the maturity he exudes in our conversation replicating his performances on the pitch over the last couple of seasons.

After emerging a key figure in Burnley’s promotion push last season, Ward went on to play a key role for Ireland at the Euro 2016 finals and now he is an established Premier League performer.

Sitting tenth in the table with an impressive total of 26 points to their credit already, Burnley are on course to defy the odds and maintain their status in the English top flight this season and Ward puts their progress down to experience.

“We all learned so much from our last experience in the Premier League,” he adds, reflecting on a 2014/15 season that ended in relegation.

“The manager has taken a lot from that campaign and the same goes for the players, with many of us still here from a season that was close to being successful in so many ways.

“There was a different feeling around the club this season and from the start, we have been competing against all the top teams much better this time.

“It’s great to be in the position we are in right now, but we cannot get carried away and believe the job is done because we still need plenty of points to make sure we stay in the Premier League.

“Staying up would be an even better achievement than getting into this league when you consider the size of our stadium and the budget we are working with, but we feel like we belong in this league now.”

Instead of looking for negatives in Ward’s story, maybe we should start to hold him aloft as a poster boy for the next generation of Irish soccer hopefuls to emulate.

Breaking out of the Irish soccer set-up and succeeding in securing fame and fortune in the richest league in world football is tougher than ever, but Ward has cracked that code in impression fashion.

One day, this over-achiever will get the credit he deserves.

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