Four years on, Stephen Ward and Ireland are in a better place

Forget the geographical distance or the four years that separate the side’s final appearances at two consecutive European Championships, the boys in green have travelled much further metaphorically.

One of the many heavily criticised for his displays in Poland in 2012, Stephen Ward sat out the opener this time against Sweden, had an iffy afternoon against Belgium in Bordeaux but ended the tournament in credit after fine displays against Italy and France.

In that, his experiences here in France mirror the team’s in many ways in that he was impressive at times and rocky at others, but both player and squad find themselves in much better places than four years ago.

“Look at the four games we’ve had,” said Ward. “We’ve played four really top quality sides. And the manner of the performance, with the exception of the half against Belgium, we’ve absolutely given everything.

“We could have knocked them out today but it wasn’t to be.”

Some similarities remain from last time.

Talk of retirements will filter through the remainder of the summer, for instance, and yet the Republic have managed to emerge from this latest celebration of international football engulfed by the optimism of youth despite having the oldest squad of all.

Martin O’Neill’s penchant for changing his line-ups has been a constant feature of his tenure and it has invigorated the squad through this tournament despite the somewhat meagre resources available to him in terms of qualified players.

Nine of those who started yesterday will still be in their twenties, most by a distance, when the World Cup campaign kicks off in September against Serbia in Belgrade and their performances in France will hopefully feed into that.

“They’ve been unbelievable,” said Ward of the youth.

“Even that man Cyrus (Christie) walking past me now: The strength in depth that we have in the squad now is unbelievable. (Robbie) Brady’s been outstanding.

“To have those sorts of players in the squad for the future... Sometimes you can finish a tournament and it feels like the squad is ageing but to have lads coming in and perform the way they have, hopefully we’re in good stead for September.

“Hopefully we can bring those supporters to a World Cup.”

The optimism was mixed with some regret.

Ward carried an ankle knock into the game from the night in Lille against Italy and, though he sought to be diplomatic and play down the lack of recovery time, he couldn’t help but admit to feeling somewhat spent by the end.

There was nothing they could do about that, or the paltry ticket allocation for the Irish supporters.

Maintaining their defensive shape and posing an offensive threat was enough to be attending to against the hosts.

Ultimately, they fell short to a side that has still to convince everyone of their championship credentials but one replete with talented individuals and Antoine Griezmann was the first among those equals here.

Without him, France would not be in the last eight now.

“Look, you see it week in week out in the Spanish league and the Champions League: You give him a chance and he scores. I don’t think we did too much wrong for the first goal, he just arrived late into the box and it was a fantastic header.

“It got them right in it and I’ve sure they got a lift from it, but we were right in the game at 2-1. You only need one chance but the break of the ball just didn’t go our way. We’re a bit disappointed but we’ll look to September now.

“There’s a good mix in the squad, some unbelievable players coming in and the future looks bright.”

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