Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Linfield's Sean Ward now ready to finish the job after shock start

Sean Ward had a debut to remember for Linfield but he was surprised to be handed a starting role against Skoda Xanthi in Greece last week.

The former Glentoran man produced a classy display in midfield as the Blues grabbed a sensational 1-0 lead in the Europa League qualifier.

Aaron Burns drilled in the decisive goal which has handed David Jeffrey's side a fighting chance of squaring up to likely opponents, Belgium giants Standard Liege, in the next round.

It's been a fairytale European run for the Windsor Park men, featuring three clean sheets after Faroe Islands side IF Fuglafjordur were brushed aside 5-0 on aggregate.

Ward was unavailable for the Scandinavian assignment but he can reflect on a stunning team performance against a slick Greek Super League side.

"I was shocked because I didn't expect to start the game out there," says Ward. "I thought I would be on the bench but I was given a job to do in midfield and we had a gameplan to stick to.

"Everyone knew their jobs and I have to say it really was a superb team performance. I can remember thinking after the Irish Cup Final that David Howland came on and changed the game but after this match I thought I couldn't identify any one player as standing out – everyone was magnificent. From Johnny Tuffey in goal to Matthew Clarke and Michael Gault who I have never seen in better condition, the boys were amazing and worked so hard.

"I thought it was a nice touch when their fans applauded us off at the end of the game. Make no mistake, they are a top class team used to playing against the top Greek sides. I think their budget is around £3.5m and the facilities they are using are amazing.

"There's a gulf in class between the teams and the different set-ups but in this one-off game we stood up to the challenge and there's a real buzz and excitement about this team."

The win in Greece was one of the Blues' finest European performances and it came on the back of home and away wins over Fuglafjordur – a feat never achieved by the club before on the continent.

Skoda Xanthi will arrive at Windsor on Thursday (7.45pm) thirsty for revenge and while Ward admits the challenge remains a daunting one he is clinging to the dream.

"We can still dream of making progress but they have nothing to lose now and they are going to have a real go at Windsor," said Ward. "We will be playing a very different team on Thursday. They are more than capable of coming over here and scoring a few goals. We will need to defend well again but four clean sheets – three in Europe and one against Ards – is an achievement to be proud of.

"It sets us up well going into the league season and the players are looking fit and sharp. The injury to Andy Waterworth was a blow but he's focused and determined to return and score goals for the team.

"The boys have made me very welcome and there's a great atmosphere in the dressing room."