In-form Stephen Ward eyes up attack options

After helping contain last season’s Premier League top two on their home patches, Stephen Ward might be tempted into thinking today’s assignment in Georgia is a formality.

In-form Stephen Ward eyes up attack options

Shackling players based in Latvia, Kazakhstan and Hungary forms a different proposition to that posed by Chelsea and Tottenham’s world stars but the 32-year-old is seasoned enough to apply the same degree of diligence and respect.

Ward was in the Ireland side that three years ago needed Aiden McGeady’s magic feet to extract them from a problematic situation in Tbilisi. He also recalls the joy he felt at Georgia beating Scotland at the same venue 12 months later — a result which ultimately Ireland required so as to edge Gordon Strachan’s side for their play-off passage into the Euros.

“Georgia caused us problems in our last game there and I think they’ve improved since,” explained the Burnley left-back. “On that long trip back from Tbilisi, we didn’t realise how big a result it was. It was humid then and will be again. What gives us confidence, though, is our own performances in the group. We’re unbeaten and in with a great chance of qualifying so this is a game we see ourselves capable of getting three points from.”

Such an outlook is natural considering Ward arrived into camp on the back of a strong start to the Premier League season, both from personal and collective perspectives. Not only did Burnley defeat champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge but Ward, from left-back, broke forward to notch a sublime volley beyond Tibo Courtois.

While it was the Clarets’ home form last season which guaranteed them safety at an unusually early stage of the season, their record on the road this term was enhanced further by pinching a draw at Wembley against Spurs last week.

That can only bode well for Ireland tonight as, despite Jeff Hendrick’s injury-enforced absence, Ward should start alongside clubmates Robbie Brady and Jonathan Walters. In particular, Ward’s partnership with Brady down the left side is a feature Ireland could benefit from this evening.

“Before Robbie arrived in January, I’d spent most of my Burnley career behind a right-footed player at left-back,” said Ward, now three years at Turf Moor. “It’s nice to have Robbie out wide and we’ve linked quite well, making it an enjoyable time so far.

“Robbie is one of those players in our Ireland team that can make a difference. It took him some time to settle in at Burnley, which can happen when a player joins halfway through the season. Robbie arrived back pre-season flying, though, and it’s brilliant to see him playing with a swagger. Against Spurs last week, he set up our equaliser and might have scored himself with a couple of chances beforehand.”

As for Ward’s own attacking instincts, after taking the advice of Burnley boss Sean Dyche to venture forward, a similar tip from Roy Keane this week should result in him being seen a lot more in the Georgia half today.

“I always tried helping out in attack but Burnley have encouraged me to do it more and it worked well at Chelsea recently,” he said.

“I’ve been let off the reins a bit and that goal, given it came against the champions at Stamford Bridge, was the best of my career.

“With Ireland, the other full-back Seamus Coleman is well-known for getting forward but is out injured, so I’ll help in any way possible. That doesn’t mean my main job of defending is affected. As a full-back, that’s what I’m there for and that is the main priority.”

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