Stephen Ward: ‘No one wants to go home early’

One of the buzz words pinging about the Republic of Ireland camp this week has been positivity, so maybe this is a good time to point out that Stephen Ward’s experiences with the Italians haven’t been all bad.

Far from it, in fact.

True, Ward was one of those present and criticised for his part in the Euro 2012 debacle that ended with a comprehensive 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Azzurri, but he can sandwich that with more digestible results.

Twelve months earlier he was part of a young and experimental side that claimed a 2-0 victory against a similarly unfamiliar Italian side in Liege, and he was part of the crew that drew (0-0) in Craven Cottage in May 2014.

“We could have won it,” said Ward of that latter tie. “We hit the crossbar a few times so we have done well against them in the past. We’ve proven before we can get big results on big occasions against the best sides.”

It may not amount to much, but that defeat in Poland was very much an outlier in terms of recent meetings with the Italians. Rewind back to 2009 and the sides played out a pair of draws in World Cup qualifiers in Dublin and Bari.

Shay Given, John O’Shea, Glenn Whelan, Aiden McGeady, and Robbie Keane played in those games seven years ago. The Italian roster has known even greater upheaval with just Gianluigi Buffon, Daniele De Rossi and Giorgio Chiellini still featuring.

The expectation is that Italy will again vote for change in Lille tonight given their confirmed qualification, a stack of yellow cards and a desire to keep things fresh for the latter rounds. It’s not something Ireland will track assiduously.

“Not really, no, because we see it here every day, being in the situation where you are not playing and everyone wants to impress,” Ward explained.

“They want to go out and give the manager a selection headache. They know they are in the next round. Whatever players come in, they are a top quality side. They’ll have a point to prove to the manager. No matter what team goes out there, we’ll have to be on our game.”

Of more importance is the talk of change closer to home. Switches are being contemplated in defence, midfield, and attack and Ward is one of those who may revert to the bench as Martin O’Neill pores over his options.

The Burnley defender was marked absent on more than one occasion as the Belgians raided down his wing last weekend, but the individual and collective disappointment of Saturday in Bordeaux hasn’t been embraced given the short turnaround.

It is little over a year since Scotland flew out of Dublin with a crucial point in the qualification group and one that left Ireland hoping for an unlikely string of results to stitch together if they were to make France.

Then, as has been the case this last three nights, the players found themselves tracking results elsewhere while knowing none would matter if they didn’t hold up their own end of the bargain.

Ward likes what he has seen in training, an intensity that suggests Bordeaux and Belgium has been left behind, and O’Neill and Roy Keane have been central to that desire to end this chapter on their own terms.

The management team have form in that regard, their positivity and passion, and the regularity with which they reinforced those messages in the week leading up to the defeat of Germany, playing a major role in that unlikely victory.

“We just feed off that. They show their passion before the game and it just rubs off on the players. When you go out there and you leave the dressing room, you are ready to go and everyone is ready to give it 100%.”

It didn’t happen in Bordeaux. The blame for that must be spread among both the players and the staff, but there is at least a realisation that there is no more room for error, trepidation or doubt.

Nights like tonight can define careers.

“To do it in a major championships, to qualify, would top everything. Everyone knows there is carrot dangling there. There is real incentive for the lads to go out there and give it a real go. No one wants to go home early.

“I think we are in a stronger position than we were four years ago, squad-wise, mentality-wise, and hopefully we can do something special.”

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