Stephen Ward looks to give boss selection headache

For someone who has struggled with serious injury, seen his club relegated and his place in the Irish team occupied by Robbie Brady, you could understand if Stephen Ward was a less-than-happy camper on his return to the international squad. 

Stephen Ward looks to give boss selection headache

So it’s entirely to the Burnley full-back’s credit that when he chooses to emphasise the importance of the collective over the individual, he comes across as wholly sincere.

“I’m happy to be here and if I can get a run-out, I can give the manager a headache,” he says.

“We’ve got a good squad here and the best thing about it is everyone is in it together, no matter who plays. Everyone wants to work hard and push each other. Whoever goes out there on the day, everyone will be behind them. Obviously Brady is a great option for us there as well.

“It’s not one where people get too downhearted if they are not playing — we are all in here together. You see the way we train out there, we push ourselves and we train with a really high intensity. That can only benefit the starting XI that goes out there on Saturday week.”

Of course, when the Dubliner says he’s “happy to be here”, it’s more than the familiar diplomatic cliche; after a season disfigured by the serious ankle injury he incurred back in December — compounded by complications following surgery — he is genuinely pleased to be fighting fit again.

“It’s been a tough year with the injury,” he concedes. “The break was healed but there was a bit of complication with the screws. I still had a bit of pain in the ankle and there was bone regrowing over the screws in my leg so I just needed a couple of injections to break the bone up and it seems to have done the job. I had them when I came over the last time and I went back to my club and I felt a lot better and played a few more games to get myself back up to speed but, in saying that, it was probably only in the last four or five weeks of the season that I felt right back up at it. And it’s nice to have these extra few weeks to keep training because I had a season that was cut short, obviously.”

The former Bohemians man says he found it hugely frustrating to look on helplessly as Burnley battled unsuccessfully to beat the drop.

“When I signed for Burnley, it was a chance to go there and have a crack at the Premier League again. The injuries killed my season really. It was disappointing but the club’s in a good position now and, from all the talks we’ve had, they’re looking to go straight back up, which is maybe something they weren’t thinking about the last time they went back down. But it’s in a real strong position and I believe we’ll have a right good push again.”

Of much more immediate concern for Ward, however, is Sunday’s meeting with England and its relevance as a key warm-up game for the Euro qualifier against Scotland on Saturday week.

“Sunday is massive, in terms of playing against our rivals and it’s going to be a great one for the crowd and us but we’ve also got to remember it’s a dress rehearsal for what’s an even bigger game,” he points out.

“We want to win and put on a good performance to make sure everyone is in good health and fitness for the following game. And I also think this is a good dress rehearsal because the Scotland game will be very similar. It’s a team from the British Isles and it will have that sort of derby atmosphere.

“One important thing is that we don’t get too carried away with the occasion. It’s a big game but at the end of the day, we won’t get three points if we win. We want to win every game and that is the mentality that the management staff has instilled into us over the time we have been here. So we want to win, put on a performance and do our best to get one over on England. But it is also one eye on next week, which is a huge game.”

Is there a sense in the camp that you want to set the record straight after that defeat in Glasgow? “Of course we owe them one. It was a bit of a nothing game, in terms of clear-cut chances. They got a break from a corner where we switched off a little bit. The manager was disappointed with that and has spoken about that numerous times. Hopefully that won’t happen again. We feel we owe them one and hopefully with the crowd behind us, we can do that.”

The 29-year-old was a schoolboy back in February 1995 when rioting England fans forced the abandonment of the friendly between the two nations at Lansdowne Road.

“I remember watching at home with my mum — my dad was working — and it was a weird night,” he recalls.

“I didn’t really understand it at the time, I was quite young. But looking back, it was a night that people want to forget, and I think it’s going to be a lot different this time.

“Football has moved on and I’m sure we have moved on in the country here. Hopefully it will be a good game of football with a good atmosphere, a nice derby atmosphere — but obviously a peaceful one this time.”

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