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Thursday 29 September 2016

'The kids are all right'

Ward down after Euro exit but encouraged by squad's new blood

Stephen Ward gets his head to the ball before Antoine Greizmann during the last-16 clash in Lyon. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Stephen Ward gets his head to the ball before Antoine Greizmann during the last-16 clash in Lyon. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Jeff Hendrick gets the better of N’Golo Kanté. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Four years ago in Poland we were left with bad blood. Leaving Euro 2016 and heading into the qualifiers in a few weeks' time for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it's more a case of new blood.

Fresh faces and a sense of hope that the batch of twenty-somethings who shone for Ireland here in France can deliver more nights like the win over Italy in Lille.

Stephen Ward was one of those Ireland players who came home from the bruising Polish experience with the head slung low, but for the defender, who can look forward to Premier League football again next season, the stature of players like Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Shane Duffy now leaves Irish football in a much better place than four years ago.

Unbelievable

"They've been unbelievable. Even that man Cyrus walking past me now," Ward said after the game in Lyon, as Derby defender Cyrus Christie - who was along with David Meyler the only non-playing member of the outfield players in Martin O'Neill's squad.

"The strength in depth that we have in the squad now is unbelievable. Robbie Brady has been outstanding. To have those sort of players in the squad for the future is great.

"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 and hopefully we can bring those supporters to a World Cup."

If Irish pride was bruised by those deflating defeats in Poland, for Ward that pride is back in place after this tournament, Ireland reaching the knock-out stage of the European Championships for the first time in three attempts.

For Ward, it's all been a journey: getting out of a qualifying group which looked doomed 12 months after that morale-sapping draw with Scotland in Dublin; then defeating Bosnia in a play-off; then getting out of a tough group in France.

"Listen, I think nobody expected us to get out of the group," Ward says.

"So I think we can look back at what we've done with pride but obviously there's always that tinge of disappointment when you come so close in a game like that.

"I think when you look at some of the other groups, I don't think we could have had four tougher teams to play.

"I think we've done exceptionally well to put in the performance that we have. We're disappointed and it will take a while to get over that but there's also immense pride at the way the lads have gone about it. It was a great effort," Ward added.

"The manner of the performances - with the exception of the second half against Belgium - I think we've absolutely given everything and we could have knocked France out, but it wasn't to be."

Ward was a doubt for the game with an ankle injury sustained in Lille on Wednesday, but he played on.

It's hard to know if it would have made a difference to the outcome, but an extra few days' rest for Ireland - denied them but offered to the French - is something to ponder.

"I had a little knock myself and I probably could have done with an extra couple of days but we were right up for the game," Ward explained. "There are a lot of proud lads in that dressing room who are proud to wear the shirt and we were going to give it everything, whether it was straight after the Italy game or a week after.

"You could see that we were still pushing forward even when lads were dead on their feet, they were still trying to get that goal to push it into extra time but we've just come up a little bit short but it was a great effort from the lads."

There was a touching moment after the game when the Irish squad remained on the pitch, for a good few minutes, to soak up the songs and the praise from the supporters, who were vastly outnumbered in Lyon but who remained in fine voice.

"I think it was very emotional, the fans have been an absolute credit," added Ward.

"They've been a credit to the country, so we wanted to show our appreciation.

Appreciation

"We'd been knocked out and they're going home like we are and we wanted to show our appreciation. It was a really touching moment at the end.

"Obviously, there was a lot of talk beforehand about the ticket allocation but we knew that if there was 500 or 5,000, they would make more noise than anyone and they've been outstanding throughout the tournament."

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