England match is means to an end for Ireland says Ward
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND defender Stephen Ward is hoping to erase his childhood memories of England's last visit to Dublin.
The 29-year-old was a schoolboy back in February 1995 when rioting England fans forced the abandonment of a friendly fixture between the two nations at Lansdowne Road.
Ward, watching on television at home with his mother, could not understand what was happening at the time, but 20 years on, is hoping a new generation of fans from both sides of the Irish Sea will be able to enjoy a good and trouble-free game of football when the pair go head-to-head in the city for the first time in 20 years.
Asked if he had memories of that night, the Burnley defender said: "Yes, I do, actually. It was obviously a strange night.
"I remember watching at home with my mum - my dad was working - and it was a weird night. I didn't really understand it at the time, I was quite young. But looking back, it was a night that people want to forget, and I think it's going to be a lot different this time.
"Football has moved on, I'm sure we have moved on here, the country there, and hopefully it will be a good game of football with a good atmosphere, a nice derby atmosphere - but obviously a peaceful one this time."
For all the significance of the fixture in the context of what happened two decades ago, the game represents far more than a ceremonial occasion, with both sides preparing for vital Euro 2016 qualifiers, the Republic against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium on June 13 and England against Slovenia in Ljubljana the following day.
With that in mind, Ward insists he and his team-mates, if not the supporters, will be using it as a means to an end.
He said: "Obviously it's a massive game - it's a local derby, really, and we want to get one over on them [England] and perform well for our fans here.
"It's probably the ideal game to play leading up to Scotland because that's going to be pretty similar, the same sort of atmosphere, probably an English-type game of football. Yes, it's going to be a big occasion, a great game, but the lads are quite good here at keeping their heads quite grounded and taking each game as it comes.
"It's a bit of a dress rehearsal for what's a massive game the week after, so we don't want to get too carried away with the occasion either because we need to concentrate on getting our game plan right for the following week."
Ward is desperate to play his part in the game at the end of a season, which was truncated by an ankle injury which limited him to just two appearances as a substitute and a total of 17 minutes of football for his club since the start of December. As a result, he missed March's 1-1 draw with Group D leaders Poland, with Hull winger Robbie Brady getting the nod at left-back.
With versatile Stoke man Marc Wilson also more than capable of lining up on that side of the defence, manager Martin O'Neill has a big decision to make ahead of the clash with Gordon Strachan's men, and Ward will hope for a chance to prove he is the man for the job by getting a run-out against England. But far from fearing the fight for a place in O'Neill's plans, he welcomes the strength in depth the current Ireland squad possesses.
He said: "There are plenty of options there. Obviously, Robbie has done really well - Robbie is a fantastic talent.
"That's the great thing about the squad, we have got a lot of players now competing for every position, and that can only make the XI that goes out the strongest possible when the games come around."
Such is the unity among a squad which has undergone significant change since qualifying for the last European finals four years ago, that Ward insists no player begrudges another the opportunity to contribute to the common good.
He said: "Sometimes at club level, that can be the case because games come thick and fast.
"But when you have only got eight, nine, 10 games to qualify, you really just want whoever goes out there to do the job. Whether it's yourself or your team-mate, you back them to the hilt.
"That's always the case in this squad and it's something the manager has really instilled in the lads here."