'Direct route to the Premier League is gone for Irish boys' - Ward
Pathway from LOI to top flight via the Championship is best way says Ward
It's a very rare thing these days, the sight of an Irish footballer playing in England's top flight.
On the opening weekend of the new Premier League season just gone, only eight players from the Republic of Ireland got game time, a 50% drop on the number of Irishmen who got to play on the first weekend of the 2008/09 season.
Those boys in green in the Premier League are getting rarer, and older (take out Declan Rice, who was taken off at half time by West Ham, and the average age of the Irish Premier League player is 27).
And as Irish football grapples with an increasingly depressing scenario in the Premier League, one of the Irish veterans in that division feels that the League of Ireland now offers the best route to a Premier League career.
There is young Irish talent out there, and those who follow the game at underage levels noted, with pride, that two of Manchester United's scorers in an U16 game yesterday came from Ireland: Tallaght lad Ademipo Odubeko, a product of St Joseph's Boys, and Mullingar native Ayodeji Sotona, both boys of Nigerian descent but who are in the Irish underage international set-up.
But sustaining that progress all the way to the first team in the Premier League is hard. Last season Irish football got a bit excited when Irish youth cap Michael Obafemi got a run-out for Southampton. He hasn't kicked a ball for the first team since, spent pre-season with the club's U23 squad and, seeing as Shane Long can't even get into the Saints' 18-man squad, the road ahead of Obafemi looks tricky.
Stephen Ward last week began his seventh Premier League campaign, one of the Gang of Eight who appeared in the English top flight, Ward now on a career tally of 169 Premier League appearances, just outside top 30 of Irish players who have played there since the Premier League was born in 1992.
And he feels that the route which took him to the Premier League, via the League of Ireland and then the Championship, is the only road to take as young Irish players struggle to make their way from the academy system into the first team.
"It's difficult now with the money in the game in England and the scouting systems that the clubs have, you are battling across the world and it's tougher than it's ever been to get into a Premier league side," Ward told The Herald.
"I'd look at the lads who have come from the League of Ireland.
"We played Preston in a pre-season game, they have some really good Irish players who all came from the League of Ireland, that was my first time to see Graham Burke and he looks like a very good player.
"It's more difficult I know, but if we have more players playing in the Championship, there is scope there to get into the Premier League that way.
"It's harder but I hope more can break through."
Ward was 21 when he moved to England, joining Wolves from Bohemians, and was a week shy of his 25th birthday when he finally got to play in the Premier League. Of the current Irish crop in that division, some have successfully come through the academy system in England: Declan Rice, Jeff Hendrick, Ciaran Clark, Cyrus Christie and Shane Duffy.
Others were late bloomers from the League of Ireland like Ward, Seamus Coleman and Matt Doherty (though Wolves man Doherty never played first-team football for Bohemians).
"I look at how I did it, you never know which path you will take yourself," Ward explains.
"My grounding in the League of Ireland was perfect for me, the same for other players coming over.
"It can be a difficult step-up, going from the League of Ireland to the Premier League is hard so you need that stepping stone, probably the Championship.
"We do have good young Irish players in the academies in the Premier League but they just need that bit of luck. We have Jimmy Dunne here at Burnley and he has done really well in pre-season but he will probably have to go out on loan to get games.
"It's getting tougher. A lot of it is luck, like doing well in a particular pre-season game, or having a manager who takes a shine to you.
"There are different paths, if you look at me, Jonny Walters and Robbie Brady, we all took different paths to get to the Premier League but we are all here.
"It's about doing well, working hard, and taking the chance when you get it," added the Burnley veteran.
Ward turns 33 next Monday, a week before Martin O'Neill names his squad for the September games away to Wales and Poland.
The left back was not included in the squad for the end of season games last May/June as he was excused from duty by the Ireland boss due to a long season with his club.
Veterans Ward and Aiden McGeady (both 32) and Glenn Whelan (34) all face an uncertain future at international level but Ward says he wants to carry on his Ireland career and will make himself available for duty.