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'Being honest, I don't know how I would have fared going over at 14, 15 or 16'

Ireland international Stephen Ward is grateful for the grounding he received in the League of Ireland.

OVER ELEVEN YEARS have passed since he left Bohemians, but Stephen Ward still has fond memories of his time playing in the League of Ireland.

“It was a great grounding for me coming over [to England],” Ward told host Con Murphy and St Patrick’s Athletic winger Conan Byrne on the latest episode of the Greatest League In The World podcast. “I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone.”

Stephen Ward Stephen Ward in possession for the Republic of Ireland in last October's World Cup qualifier against Moldova. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

At the age of 21, Ward departed his native Dublin to join Wolverhampton Wanderers in January 2007, having spent four seasons involved with the Bohs first team.

Now playing in the English Premier League with Burnley, Ward has 49 senior Republic of Ireland caps to his name. As well as representing his country at two European Championships, he has become Ireland’s first-choice left-back in recent years.

The 32-year-old Portmarnock native explained that he had opportunities to move to England in his teens, but remained at home as his parents were keen for him to complete his secondary education. Initially he believed it would be detrimental to his prospects of becoming a footballer, but in hindsight Ward feels it was the right decision.

“I was on trial [in England] and got offered a few contracts somewhere, but my mum and dad always had the belief that they wanted me to finish my education and do my Leaving Cert. You hear about so many lads going over and coming back, and it’s like starting again.

“At the time I was gutted not to go away, but the minute I signed for Bohs it was like going straight into the biggest league in the world, for me. It was full-time football and there were players in that team who were greats in the league at the time.

“As a 17-year-old, going in there to learn off them and be around these types of lads who had been in England, came back and were now at the top of the game in Ireland, it was great for me. It definitely gave me the grounding and it matured me as a man.”

Ward, who referenced Kevin Hunt as one of the best players he worked with at Bohs, was generally regarded as a striker at Dalymount Park. However, he was eventually converted to a left-winger and left-back by Mick McCarthy at Wolves.

Ward acknowledged that every player thrives in different circumstances and a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work when it comes to nurturing youngsters. But he admitted that heding to England at a young age may not have culminated in success for him, as is the case for many Irish players who make a cross-channel move as soon as an opportunity arises.

Stephen Ward 22/4/2004 Ward in action for Bohs in 2004. Source: INPHO

In the League of Ireland, Ward garnered significant experience of regular first-team football, which made the transition more straightforward when he was signed by Wolves.

“If I’m being completely honest, I don’t know how I would have fared going over at 14, 15 or 16. I don’t know whether that would have been the right path for me,” Ward said.

“As a difference between Ireland and England, obviously the league was great for me but it’s a different scale over there. I don’t know how I would have handled the whole hype of it. It definitely made me a lot stronger for when I did eventually make the move over.”

He added: “I’ve obviously played with players who went over [to England] when they were 15. Jeff [Hendrick] and Robbie [Brady] both went over at a young age from St Kevin’s and they’ve gone on to do great things. Everyone has a different path, but for me, the one thing I always said — and I say it to young players now back in Ireland — is that it doesn’t matter what path you go on.

“But for me as a young lad, I maybe thought that was my chance gone. Getting that grounding in the league and playing first-team football where you can’t beat playing for points, you’ve got to realise when you’re playing in these leagues that people are playing for bonuses to pay mortgages and bills. There’s a real appetite for success.

“When I did eventually go over, the main difference for me was that you’re equipped to go into a first team. You’re not going over as a young lad and going into a reserve team, U18 or U23 side. You’re straight into it and you already have that capability.”

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Paul Dollery

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