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Stephen Ward on homesickness, beating Germany & the frustration of not playing

The Irish international also discusses Burnley’s upcoming FA Cup tie with Arsenal and his grounding in the League of Ireland.

Stephen Ward has featured in Burnley's last five consecutive games, having previously made just one substitute appearance in the league all season.
Stephen Ward has featured in Burnley's last five consecutive games, having previously made just one substitute appearance in the league all season.
Image: EMPICS Sport

“I DIDN’T SEE it coming,” says Stephen Ward, who was as surprised as pretty much everyone else at the Aviva Stadium on the night of 8 October.

Robbie Brady had been widely expected to start at left-back, but not for the first time, Martin O’Neill sprung a surprise in his team selection for Ireland’s crucial Euro 2016 encounter with Germany, naming Ward as part of the side’s four-man defence.

Before that match, Ward had played just once for Burnley all season — a 1-0 Capital One Cup loss to Port Vale just under two months previously.

The Dubliner had not played a league match for Burnley since coming on as a 76th minute substitute in their 1-0 win over Hull the previous May.

It had been almost a year since Ward had started a league game for his club — the 1-1 draw with Newcastle on 2 December 2014.

Injuries had not helped Ward’s cause, but it was clear too that manager Sean Dyche was reluctant to play the defender on a regular basis, as he had started just seven league games in total since joining Burnley back in August.

Martin O’Neill will no doubt have been aware of Ward’s struggles in club football, but the Ireland boss believes in players rather than stats. And Ward initially seemed to epitomise the Irish team’s ostensibly hopeless situation on the night. Not many people were tipping a player who could not get a game at Championship level to come up trumps against world-class stars such as Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller.

Yet, against all the odds, Ireland and Ward prevailed. The former League of Ireland player, who had been part of an Irish defence who had conceded six against Germany at the same venue almost exactly three years previously, looked as solid as the rest of the team as they kept the world champions at bay to gain one of the Boys in Green’s best-ever victories.

Until cramp got the better of him and he was forced to leave the field on 69 minutes, Ward epitomised the team’s unlikely defiance, giving his heart and soul to the Irish cause as the packed crowd grew louder and expectations increasingly rose.

Ireland Germany Soccer Euro Germany's Thomas Müller, left, and Ireland's Stephen Ward challenge for the ball during the Euro 2016 group D qualifying match. Source: Peter Morrison

“It was brilliant,” Ward tells The42. “It was a difficult game for us and one that I don’t think any of us will ever forget — to beat the world champions the way we did. It was obviously a surprise to play with the lack of football I had. But I was very grateful that the manager had that faith in me. To be involved in a game of that magnitude and get the result was a real honour.”

Martin O’Neill’s policy of only telling his players the starting XI shortly before kick-off has been discussed at length. Some critics have complained that it gives players a lack of time to adequately prepare for the game and absorb key tactical information. However, Ward says O’Neill’s methods suited him, as he had barely had any time to think or worry about starting in one of the biggest matches of his career to date — a particularly daunting prospect given the player’s aforementioned lack of game time at club level.

I didn’t really have too long to think about it,” he recalls. “Sometimes, these things can bring on the nerves so it probably worked out in my favour (that the team was announced late on). I just literally had to turn up (to the ground) and get ready for the game.”

The German victory consequently served as the catalyst for Ireland’s subsequent qualification for the European Championships amid the defeat of Bosnia in the playoffs — a scenario that had looked unlikely following the team’s disappointing 1-1 home draw with Scotland back in June.

And given the team’s lack of alternative options at left-back, Ward now seems almost assured of a place in Martin O’Neill’s 23-man Euro 2016 squad provided he can stay injury-free.

Moreover, Ward was one of those that played every minute of action in Ireland’s disastrous Euro 2012 campaign. After they were drawn in a tough group with Italy, Spain and Croatia, the Irish side ultimately went out with a whimper, losing all three games and exiting the tournament at the earliest possible stage. Ward and all the other current players who were involved at that tournament are therefore particularly eager to produce an improved display in France this summer.

“We want to do better than the last one. We had a very tough group but we were still disappointed — it shows how much we wanted to go and do well. But we’ll go there and try and make a better show of ourselves and hopefully make it a summer to remember.”

Source: ShivDes357/YouTube

Many have tipped Ireland to struggle again after being drawn in a tough-looking Euro 2016 group with Belgium, Sweden and Italy, but Ward and many of his teammates have spent their careers defying doubters and overachieving.

The 30-year-old left-back is one of a number of players in the Irish squad who began their footballing life in the League of Ireland.

While Ward impressed in the early stages of his career at Bohemians, scoring 26 goals in 93 appearances as a striker, not many would have confidently touted the former Portmarnock and Home Farm youngster as a future Premier League player and a soon-to-be Ireland international with more than 30 caps to his name.

And reflecting on the early stages of his career, Ward has nothing but positive memories of the League of Ireland, admitting that he may not have had as successful a career if he had gone to England at a younger age.

I did well over there, whereas I may not have had the chances to do well (earlier in my career) over in England,” he says. “It was something that helped me and you look at the players still going over there like Richie Towell — he’s done really well this season and has got a good move to Brighton.

“So it’s definitely something that players can do, especially younger lads who don’t go to England earlier. It gives you a great grounding and it’s something I’m always grateful to have done. I know a lot of players in the Ireland squad that have been there and done that as well, so I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Ward initially admits he found it difficult to adjust to life in England after signing for Wolves as a 21-year-old. Having been more recognised as a striker with Bohs, he developed into a utility player, occupying both the left wing and left-back slots at Molineux, before gradually solidifying his place in the latter role.

As well as taking his time to adjust to different positions and the higher standard of football, outside of the game, getting used to living away from his hometown for a sustained period was not always easy.

“The first year or so is difficult, you are homesick,” he explains. “But it does get better and at the end of the day, it was always something that I wanted to do, so that made the transition a little bit easier.”

Source: AEKHD/YouTube

Ward ultimately spent seven years at Wolves, making over 200 appearances for the club. The highlight was arguably scoring the winner in a 1-0 Premier League victory over Liverpool at Anfield during the 2009-10 season, after being handed a rare opportunity to play as a striker.

After the game, then-manager Mick McCarthy took the time to highlight how undervalued he felt the player was, pointing to his consistent professionalism and willingness to adapt.

“I’m so pleased for him,” McCarthy told BBC Sport. “If ever the cliche ‘Unsung Hero’ applied to anyone it’s Wardy.

He came here as a centre-forward, went to left wing, then played at left-back, he’s played in midfield. Now he’s gone back up front and got us the winner.”

Ward’s time at Wolves ultimately ended in disappointment, however. He was part of a side that suffered back-to-back relegations, going from the Premier League to League One in the space of two years.

As a result of these disappointments, Ward was transfer-listed. He returned to the Championship for a season-long loan with Brighton, making 47 appearances for the Seagulls, before signing permanently with Burnley — who were beginning a season in the Premier League — in August 2014.

Since then, injuries and indifferent form has seen Ward’s career stagnate to an extent up until recently.

Yet after the confidence boost that his involvement with Ireland would undoubtedly have provided, all the hard work in training appears to have paid off for Ward. The Dubliner has started Burnley’s last five consecutive matches, scoring the winning goal against current Championship leaders Middlesbrough, having made just one substitute in the league all season prior to his recent run.

While Ward admits the long wait to get into the first team was frustrating, showing the same patience and professionalism he has demonstrated throughout his career ultimately paid off.

You don’t really try to change anything,” he says of being out of the starting XI. “You just try to work as hard as you can and be as good as you can every day and make the decision for the manager as difficult as possible. Most footballers will tell you it’s a very frustrating situation to be in.

“You train every week to play on the Saturday and when that’s not happening, it’s tough. But you keep your head and hope you get a chance. I’ve obviously got a bit of a chance at the minute and I have to keep going to stay in the team.”

Brentford v Burnley - Sky Bet Championship - Griffin Park Burnley's Stephen Ward and Brentford's Alan Judge (right) battle for the ball. The fellow Ireland squad members came up against each other last week in the Championship. Source: EMPICS Sport

And with Burnley currently fighting for promotion in fourth, Ward is optimistic the Clarets can regain their top-flight status at the first time of asking.

“We were in the Premier League last year and gave it a good go, so a lot of the lads have the experience of playing there.

A lot of the squad are still there from the team that got promoted (two seasons ago). It’s been our aim since day one in pre-season, and if you don’t have that belief in yourself, it’s going to be very difficult to get promoted, so we’re very confident that we can do it.”

In the shorter term, Ward and Burnley have two big upcoming games. On Monday, they host promotion rivals Derby and a victory would see them displace the Rams in third spot. The following Saturday, meanwhile, they travel to the Emirates to face Arsenal.

To be going to the Emirates is a bonus,” he says. “Obviously, we were there last year, but between the two, the Derby game is the one that takes priority. It’s our main aim to get promoted and to be going to places like Arsenal on a weekly basis.”

Consequently, not many people will give Ward and Burnley much of a chance against the Gunners, but that said, the Dubliner’s already kept Özil quiet once already this season.

Ireland’s forgotten man Foley earns short-term contract with Ipswich>

Aaron Ramsey explains why ‘silver fox’ ex-Ireland midfielder was his boyhood idol>

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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