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Tuesday 22 August 2017

It's game of opposites for Ward

Burnley man's focus fully on Gibraltar, work on Germans is down the line

Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City and Stephen Ward of Burnley watch the ball during the clash at the King Power Stadium
Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City and Stephen Ward of Burnley watch the ball during the clash at the King Power Stadium

PRESSED into action as a central midfielder by his club in the Premier League last weekend, Stephen Ward jokes that he has no plans to challenge the likes of Darron Gibson and Glenn Whelan for a midfield slot with the national team as he's happy to scurry back to his left-back slot.

But there is no joking, only serious intent, from the Dubliner ahead of what will be a strange week of international duties, Ireland facing the weakest nation in Europe (Gibraltar) on Saturday and then the best side in the world (Germany) on Tuesday.

Possessing just one player who is a full-time professional with a league club and coming off the back of a 7-0 loss in their first-ever qualifier, Gibraltar are the minnows of minnows and Saturday in Dublin poses another test - their first away competitive match as a nation.

Ward knows what it's like to upset the odds - scoring the winning goal for Wolves away to Liverpool in the Premier League is a career highlight - and he insists that focus cannot be lost.

concentrate

"We don't know a lot about them but the focus is on qualification so the aim this weekend is a win at home to Gibraltar. If we are professional and concentrate on the job ahead we will be ok, then we can go to Germany with two wins from two games, that would be really pleasing," Ward told The Herald.

"We will do analysis on them as much as we'd do on anyone else. The backroom staff will do their work and we should know as much about Gibraltar as we'll know about the Germans.

"You look around at the games across Europe and the games are getting harder, as Wales found out in Gibraltar. Any team can come and put 10 men behind the ball to make it difficult for you so we have do do the job on Saturday, get the win, dust ourselves down and get ready for the toughest task of the group, away to the world champions.

"We can't get distracted by Germany. That's the good thing about this squad of players and this management staff, we know we have a massive game against Germany next week but we have to deal with Gibraltar first.

"The manager won't let people get carried away with talk about the Germans as every point is vital and getting the win against Gibraltar is the main task. You need points to qualify and we have to get them wherever we can. So once Saturday is out of the way we will look to Germany," added Ward, aiming to win his 27th senior cap this Saturday.

The former Bohemians man arrived in the Ireland camp on Monday with his confidence boosted by a 90-minute appearance for Burnley over the weekend in their 2-2 draw with Leicester City, his Premier League debut for the Clarets.

A summer arrival from Wolves, he had watched the opening stages of the new season from the bench as he was unable to work his way into Sean Dyche's starting XI but an injury crisis last weekend forced Dyche to dig deep and Ward was used - with some effect - as a central midfielder.

"It's a long time since I played in central midfield, I think I played once for Wolves in a three-man midfield, a good while back," he says.

"It was nice to just get a game at last. The game went well for me and the manager seemed pleased with how I did. I had been working hard in training, I knew I'd have to be patient as the manager was giving a chance to the team who had won promotion last season.

"We had a couple of injuries last weekend, we were really lacking in numbers and the manager just asked me to do a job in the middle. He'd heard a rumour that I had played in other positions before, he asked me to fill in and it went ok. In the last few weeks I had more of a hope of getting a run and with the West Brom result, losing 4-0, I think people expected changes anyway but, with the injuries we had, the manager's hand was forced a bit.

"It was nice to get minutes on the pitch and hopefully I have given him a problem for the team selection for the next match. I enjoyed getting my first taste of Premier League football with them."

His lack of first-team football was an issue for Martin O'Neill, the Ireland boss stating yesterday that he started Ward against Oman last month to give him much-needed game time ahead of the Georgia match.

"I was conscious of the fact that I needed games with the Ireland matches on the way, I played in a game for Burnley's U21s last Tuesday night to get some minutes, so I have had two 90 minutes now in the space of a week," says Ward.

"But I think it's back to left full for me now. It was a good experience but I don't see myself as a long-term central midfielder, and there's no chance I'll be looking for Glenn Whelan's place."

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