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Opinion: Stephen Ward Gets Nowhere Near Enough Credit For His Resurgence

Mikey Traynor
By Mikey Traynor
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There was a time when the sight of Stephen Ward in an Irish side provoked feelings of nervousness in fans of the Boys in Green.

It sounds harsh, but he offered little in attack and was prone to errors as he was targeted by opposition sides on numerous occasions. Ward was picked apart in post-match analysis and slaughtered by fans on social media, and there were few around to defend him. While nobody performed well at Euro 2012, it was Ward to took the brunt of the stick.

During his time at Wolves, he struggled to hold down a place and when the club dropped down to League One following back to back relegations, Ward was made available for transfer. Nobody wanted to give him a permanent deal, but when Brighton & Hove Albion offered him a get-out in the form of a loan, something clicked. He would go on to play 47 times that season as the seaside club fell short in the Championship Playoffs, and suddenly there was Premier League interest.

Although the idea of returning to the top-flight would fall through at that stage, Burnley came in with an offer that would see the former Bohs man put pen-to-paper on a three-year deal, but nobody seemed to care. Ward had already been written off, Ireland needed to focus on playing Robbie Brady at left-back while Greg Cunningham was seen as a more promising alternative.

Ward lost his place with Ireland, and the left-back problem remained unsolved. It seems crazy to think now that he is Ireland's #10 and first name on the teamsheet for many, but Robbie Brady was someone who split opinion between fans. He was only good for set-pieces, and even then some of them were wild, that was was the trope.

Playing him at left back was shoehorning him into the side for his attacking benefits, and the consequences were plain to see when he had that shocking half against Poland, but now the side is adjusted to get the best out of Brady, and justifiably so.

But it was the increasing importance of Brady that saw Ward given another chance. If Robbie couldn't play left-back, then who could? Ward was re-inserted, and the fans who hadn't noticed what Ward had been up to at club level were moaning about it. Thankfully, Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane had been keeping tabs on his form for Burnley as they achieved promotion to the Premier League, but even then it wasn't all plain sailing for Ward under Sean Dyche.


When Ireland travelled to Zenica, there was uproar that a player who "couldn't get his game for a Championship side" was in the team... Because Ward couldn't get into the Burnley side. He had played very, very few minutes of first-team football when tasked with starting in Ireland's crucial playoff away to Bosnia & Herzegovina, and it showed as again he did not have his finest performance. Dropped for the return leg with Brady again at left-back, it looked as though Ward's days in an Ireland shirt were numbered.

But as the Christmas period approached, Ward finally earned a starting birth in the Burnley side, and he has never been out of the team since. He was heavily praised for his performances as Burnley managed to clinch promotion to the Premier League with a great second half of the season, and Ward's confidence was at an all-time high. Playing his best football in a winning side, the sad reality was that few noticed this upturn in form.


That's why when Ward was picked to come in at left-back after Ireland's 1-1 draw with Sweden (where Brady operated at left-back again) for the Belgium game, the selection was met with sighs and rolled eyes, even after his outstanding goal against Belarus. The fact that every Irish player, including Ward, had an absolute shocker, did nothing to ease fears when he was picked for Italy, but that famous night in Lille was Ward's turning point in a green jersey.


Ward was outstanding that night. With James McClean on the warpath ahead of him, Ward was absolutely faultless. He was first to every ball, tenacious in the tackle, tracked every runner as Italy's attack interchanged positions, and overlapped McClean with a desire to create going forward.

All of those things can be said about his performance against Georgia last night as well. Were it not for Ronnie Whelan lazily (and comically, by not realising he could be heard on RTÉ) selecting Seamus Coleman, who had a poor night apart from the excellent surge that produced his first international goal, then Stephen Ward would have been the best choice for man of the match.

The Ward we have seen over the past 12 months is unrecognisable to the one we had seen before. Now, he attacks with purpose, he backs himself, he dribbles with the ball instead of turning and passing it back to the nearest defender, and he whips crosses into the box. Defensively, his timing of a challenge is noticeably sharper, he started several counter-attacks against Georgia by being quicker to react than anyone else. Basically, Stephen Ward is a far better player right now than he has been at any point in his career.


And that's something you don't hear a lot of people talk about. That doesn't seem fair.

I've picked out one clip from the Georgia match, and while it the most astounding highlight you'll ever see, I vividly remember clenching my fist and shouting "Get the f**k in Stephen Ward!" when it happened. The second half shift in mentality was exemplified by Ward who pressured high, and created space for McClean by venturing forward.


It's understandable, perhaps, considering the strides that Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady have taken over the past year, but at 24 years of age their improvement was far more predictable, even expected. Ward on the other hand, at 31, has developed into a fine player.

And we needed it. Ward is our starting left-back, as well as Burnley's in the Premier League, but while we can have full faith in his ability to hold that place down for this qualifying campaign, he's not getting any younger and will soon reach a point where he has to consider his international future. Hopefully a viable replacement will emerge by then, but for now we can rest easy knowing that the problem position which has been a problem ever since Ian Harte lost all interest in defending sometime after the 2002 World Cup is in capable hands.

Fair play to you, Stephen Ward. Keep up the good work.



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