Keeping wolves from the door
Molineux star Ward welcomes influx of challengers fighting to replace Ireland's established first-teamers
STEPHEN WARD insists that Ireland's established players will welcome the challenge of keeping hold of their places as a new crop tries to force its way onto the plane bound for Poland in June.
Giovanni Trapattoni could introduce two more new caps to the Ireland scene at Lansdowne Road tonight if he chooses to play Shane Duffy and James McClean, while the duo of James McCarthy and Séamus Coleman are hoping to add to their combined tally of just seven caps.
Ward currently has just nine caps but he's an established member of the team and, barring a disaster, will start at left-back against Croatia in Poznan in June, but the former Bohemians man insists that he relishes the challenge of proving that he deserves to be where he is.
"There is pressure but that's what you want as a player, you have to accept pressure and use it as a positive," Ward told the Evening Herald ahead of winning his 10th cap tonight.
"We are all Ireland fans as well as players, we want to see the team do well so we want to have a strong group of players available to the manager.
"This is a chance for the newer lads in the group to stake their claim and I am sure they will do that. The new lads have certainly made an impression in the couple of days' training we have had so far this week and they'll see the game tonight as another chance to impress," added Ward.
Ward was so far down the pecking order this time last year that he failed to make it into a 29-man squad for the game against Wales here in Dublin, and yet now he's one of the first names on the teamsheet, a sign of how quickly things can change. Winning the eye of Trapattoni took a while but now that he has the manager's attention, Ward intends to keep it that way.
"I certainly don't want to give up the left-back slot to anyone but I won't take it for granted. I waited a long time and worked very hard to get into this Irish squad and I won't give it up easily.
"For me it's all about improving. I need to keep playing well for my club.
"If I'm not in the Wolves team come May things could be different so I can't sit back and rest on my laurels," added Ward.
"Every time I come over here I want to do myself, my family and my country proud, so every game is important to me.
"There has been a great mood around the camp this week. It's the first time we have met up as a group since we qualified so everyone is delighted to be back here with the finals to look forward to.
"We're not just meeting up to prepare for a string of friendlies, we are preparing for a major finals."
Most football fans in this country find themselves chatting about the Euros on a daily basis in workplaces, colleges, schools and canteens across Ireland and with Irishmen like Ward, Kevin Foley, Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt, Wolves are no different.
"You can see there is a difference already, just being in Dublin for the last few days you can feel it, there is such a buzz about the place because of the finals," says Ward.
"Everyone you meet is wishing you well and asking about the finals, so it will make a massive difference to the way people will look at football in Ireland.
"I just hope that we go there and do Ireland proud.
"At Wolves and with our situation it's a bit harder to focus on the finals now because we have other things to worry about, we are in the middle of a real scrap to stay in the Premier League and that's our focus for now.
"So while I am trying to think about the finals, I want to make sure I go there as a Premier League player.
"Hopefully things will settle down now at the club after a few hard weeks. Some things happened within the club that we, as players, couldn't effect.
"We have let Mick McCarthy down and we cost him his job and we all feel for Mick. But it's the same backroom staff now with TC (Terry Connor) in charge so it's up to us to make sure that we improve as a team and get ourselves up the table and stay in the league.
"I think it gives you a spring in your step when you come into the international break on the back of a good result with your club and I think that myself, Kevin, Hunty and Kevin (Foley) all felt a bit better this week after that good result in Newcastle."