ward: a win is possible
Defender says tie in Tbilisi is full of eastern promise
THE old Eastern bloc used to be a mental block for the Republic of Ireland team as Irish teams struggled for campaign after campaign when playing behind what was the iron curtain.
Even in the impressive Euro 2000 qualifying campaign, trips to the east were not fruitful ones, Mick McCarthy's team taking just one point from three games in the old Yugoslavia and Irish teams have come undone in places like Prague and Bratislava.
But recent seasons have seen that travel bug exorcised from the system, and many of the current crop have gone to Yerevan, Moscow, Tallinn, Podgoric and Skopje to come home with big wins.
Tbilisi on Sunday will be a test but Stephen Ward, a veteran of many of those away days, feels that the team have the ability to travel to what's called in football lingo "a tough place to go" and come home with something to be proud of.
"These are hard places to go to and it's a long trip. But we are very buoyant about the new campaign, we started our preparations early and we go there with confidence," says Ward, who started at left back at home to Oman on Wednesday and who hopes to keep his place in the XI for Tbilisi.
"You hope the confidence carries us through. In the last while our away form has been very good, we have gone to places like Armenia and won. And that's a big factor for us.
"The match in Kazakhstan in the last campaign was very tough, it wasn't our best performance ever but we got the win we needed and at this stage of the group it's all about going there, getting a result to bring home, the performance can be analysed later.
"We know the atmosphere will be intimidating but we can deal with that. We have hhad that before in places, we had it in Estonia, we had it in Moscow and we did ok in those games.
"I know Irish teams might have found it hard in places like that before but I think we can cope," added Ward, who moved to Burnley from Wolves last month.
Ward did well against an insipid Oman side on Wednesday night and he hopes to stay in the side, though Marc Wilson is pressing for a place there if Martin O'Neill opts to deploy the Stoke man at left full. "The manager will make that decision, he has options and he will make the call. But I feel I have done well for Ireland and this move to Burnley has really freshened up my career, I am in a good place now. All I can do is my best in training and the matches and hope it's good enough," says Ward.
"Wednesday against Oman was a good night for us, a win and a clean sheet was good to get. We were expected to win but it was still good for the confidence to go out and do it.
"It was the first time we'd been together in a while and some of us were a bit ring-rusty, I haven't had as much football as I'd have liked in the last while so I enjoyed getting 90 minutes in.
"It was funny that myself and Doyler were in the starting XI even though we hadn't played at all for our clubs this season. I played a bit in pre-season and played in a Cup match last week for Burnley, so I felt ok before the game but I feel a lot better now for the 90 minutes I had."
Over the summer, players who had been struggling at club level, like Doyle and Anthony Pilkington, secured moves and new clubs and Ward is feeling the benefits.
"It's a fresh start for a lot of us in terms of our careers. I moved clubs over the summer, so did Doyler and a few others. I am relieved to get myself sorted in terms of my club, hopefully things will flow from that," he says.
Ward has yet to play for Burnley in the Premier League - he was not signed in time for the season opener against Chelsea and has not been able to break in subsequently but he is not concerned.
"The manager, Sean Dyche, was honest with me when I signed. He said the team had been promoted last season and he would give the lads who won promotion their chance at the start of the season.
"I was under no illusions about going straight into the team, I knew I'd have to fight but it is a long season and I know chances will come," says Ward.