Home Football Credit Where It’s Due, Stephen Ward Has Grown Into An Important Figure For Ireland

Credit Where It’s Due, Stephen Ward Has Grown Into An Important Figure For Ireland

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.

BORDEAUX, FRANCE - JUNE 18: Stephen Ward of Republic of Ireland reacts during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group E match between Belgium and Republic of Ireland at Stade Matmut Atlantique on June 18, 2016 in Bordeaux, France. (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)

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.

LILLE, FRANCE - JUNE 22: Robbie Brady of Republic of Ireland heads the ball to score the opening goal past Salvatore Sirigu of Italy during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group E match between Italy and Republic of Ireland at Stade Pierre-Mauroy on June 22, 2016 in Lille, France. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

So we’re back to Stephen Ward.

BORDEAUX, FRANCE - JUNE 18: Kevin De Bruyne of Belgium and Stephen Ward of Republic of Ireland compete for the ball during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group E match between Belgium and Republic of Ireland at Stade Matmut Atlantique on June 18, 2016 in Bordeaux, France. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

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.

LYON, FRANCE - JUNE 26: Stephen Ward of Republic of Ireland and Antoine Griezmann of France compete for the ball during the UEFA EURO 2016 round of 16 match between France and Republic of Ireland at Stade des Lumieres on June 26, 2016 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

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.

About Brian Barry