From a calamitous to a consistent, Stephen Ward has steadily grown into this Ireland team, and Martin O’Neill finally has a left-back he can rely on.
The left-back position has been the biggest thorn in Martin O’Neill’s side since taking over as manager of the Republic of Ireland.
In fact, one would go as far as saying that it has been the ‘problem child’, to coin a certain phrase.
Stephen Ward was the go-to left-back under Giovanni Trapattoni, and that was the way it continued once O’Neill took charge. However, throughout the qualifying campaign for Euro 2016, the Dubliner’s limitations were clear for all to see.
With one of the finer full backs in Europe in Seamus Coleman marshalling the right wing, oppositions targeted the Irish left flank, with much success. Ward was found out for poor positioning, and struggled regularly to deal with through-balls.
Several potential make-shift solutions were mooted; James McClean dropping back, Ciarán Clark or Marc Wilson shoving across, or perhaps one of Coleman or Cyrus Christie switching wings.
O’Neill finally went with Robbie Brady. While there was some success there, despite early teething problems such as the concession of a goal at home to Poland, it became clear that playing at full back would hold one of Ireland’s most promising talents back.
Brady travelled to France as the starting left-back, but after the Sweden game, O’Neill could not deny his talents for any longer, and pushed the Norwich City star further up the field, where he showed what he can do against the best in Europe. Keeping Brady at the back would only stifle the development of an exciting attacking talent.
So we’re back to Stephen Ward.
A former striker in the League of Ireland, it took Ward a long time to develop the positional know-how to survive as an international left-back.
The away qualifier play-off to Bosnia and Herzegovina showed his limitations, as the home side plundered down their right wing to great avail.
In the games leading up to the Euros, it appeared that Ward was not the answer, with his old failings coming back to haunt the Irish defence again and again, as was seen against Slovakia below:
However, what Ward does have is a composure on the ball. Sure, he is often the go-to defender to hoof the ball up to Shane Long and Jonathan Walters, but this is a decision from the sideline. Love him or hate him, don’t shoot the messenger, as this is a tactic of the entire team.
His size is certainly an asset, as his physicality can help the side for set-pieces in both attack and defence.
When roaming forward, he can cause problems, and Burnley fans have been singing his praises of late. In attack, he can do damage, and it is something that the Green Army would love to see more of.
Most importantly, he is tightening up defensively. The errors have been cut out. Rock solid against Italy and France, he has brought that form into the World Cup campaign.
Communication with his centre-halves has improved, he has not been caught ball-watching, nor has he strayed forward without taking a glance at where the opposing winger is.
Sure, Stephen Ward is no Roberto Carlos or Denis Irwin, but he has matured into a solid option, if nothing else, to slot into the Irish back four.
Long may it continue, and judging by his improvement over the past year, there is no reason to suggest that it won’t.