WARD LIVING REPUBLIC DREAM
Stephen Ward admits he has to pinch himself when he contemplates the prospect of running out for the Republic of Ireland at the Euro 2012 finals.
The 26-year-old Wolves full-back is a relative newcomer to the squad with only 10 senior caps to his name to date, but he has established himself as a key member of Giovanni Trapattoni's first-choice back four.
Indeed, he is the only fully fit member of that back four ahead of Saturday's friendly against Bosnia at the Aviva Stadium.
However, simply preparing for the finals of a major tournament is a dream come true for a man who was a schoolboy the last time Ireland made it on to the big stage a decade ago.
Ward said: "Just to be in and around it here and be in the squad is something I could only have dreamed of.
"I pass by houses of my friends on the way to the training ground and the flags and everything are out, so it's a little bit surreal.
"But we have arrived and we need to cherish every moment.
"I have said many a time that a lot of your fondest childhood memories are when Ireland have been in major tournaments.
"You remember everything that happened, the goals, the parties when they came back, and to be on the other side of the fence is something I can only ever have dreamed of as a kid."
The Republic, of course, came within a hair's breadth of the reaching the World Cup quarter-finals in 2002 when they were beaten on penalties by Spain in Suwon despite going into the tournament without skipper Roy Keane following his infamous Saipan bust-up with manager Mick McCarthy.
Spain will once again stand between the Irish and their hopes of qualification this time around with the current World and European champions vying with Trapattoni's men, Italy and Croatia for a way out of Group C.
Ward is well aware of the severity of the challenge, but he remains convinced Ireland can progress.
He said: "I don't think we would be going there if we didn't think we could get out of it.
"We are under no illusions that it's a strong group and we are going to come up against some really good sides.
"But if you look at us as a team and how we play and the manager we have, he is world-class and he gets the best from us as a squad of players.
"We feel on our day we can frustrate anyone and be a match for any side, so there's no reason why we can't go there and cause a few upsets."
Trapattoni guided the Republic to within a controversial play-off defeat by France of the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa, and presided over their qualification for the Euros via a shoot-out with Estonia.
His philosophy, which has been drummed into the players over the last four years, and meticulous preparation may not always please the purists, but he deals primarily in the currency of results, and with his team unbeaten in 12 games, his account is very firmly in credit.
Ward said: "His record speaks for itself. He's a world-class manager and every little factor that can change a game, he wants us to work on.
"The most important thing for us as a squad is we have a philosophy, we have a way of playing and he will make sure that anyone who comes into the squad understands that this is how we do it, and you have to buy into it straight away.
"It's been a success. He gets us playing the way he believes will get results.
"The most important thing for us as players is each and every one of us knows exactly what is expected of us and exactly what he wants us to do when we go out on to the pitch.
"As a player going into such a big tournament, it's quite a comfort to know you know your job and you know exactly what is expected of you."
Trapattoni has been blessed with the kind of weather he might enjoy more regularly at home in Italy on the east coast of Ireland this week as he has put his players - at least those of them not nursing injuries - through their paces, and that, on occasion, has included joining them for the warm-up.
Ward said: "He has so much experience and to still see him join in in the warm-ups is great. His enthusiasm is unbelievable and it definitely rubs off on the lads."
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