Belfast Telegraph

Jamie Ward wants to make Wembley Derby's fortress

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland forward Jamie Ward has set his sights on shooting Derby County into the Premier League.

The 28-year-old will be a key player for the Rams tomorrow when they face QPR in the Championship play-off final at Wembley, commonly considered the richest game in football worth an estimated £134 million to the winners.

Ward was superb in the play-off semi-final victory over Brighton and Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill was hoping he would take that form into the South American tour, only for the former Sheffield United ace to withdraw from the squad earlier this week.

The Irish FA announced that Ward did not feel travelling to face Uruguay and Chile would be in his best interests or that of the international squad due to his extended club season.

It was a decision that did not go down well with Northern Ireland fans, but should Ward take Derby into the promised land of English top flight football, where riches and huge games against Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea are guaranteed, County supporters will hail him as a hero forever.

Ward said: "We're looking forward to a great day at Wembley and hopefully we can finish the job off and get Derby into the Premier League. It really is an exciting time for everyone and I am sure the fans will enjoy their day down there.

"The supporters were brilliant against Brighton. It was the best I have seen them since I have been at Derby and they deserve great praise for the way they got behind the team.

"I would love them to go to Wembley and produce the same again and make it like a home game.

"We will give everything for everyone to try and get promoted."

While Ward can't wait to play in the most famous football stadium in the world, Derby boss Steve McClaren is another relishing a visit to Wembley, the scene of his biggest disappointment.

Back in 2007, McClaren was in charge of England when they lost 3-2 at home to a classy Croatian outfit meaning failure to qualify for the 2008 European Championship finals.

In the pouring rain at Wembley that evening, McClaren stood on the touchline holding an umbrella watching England fall apart. Labelled the 'wally with the brolly' he was sacked the day after.

To his credit McClaren resumed his managerial career and proved to be a major success with Twente, leading them to the Dutch title. He has been in charge of Wolfsburg in Germany and Nottingham Forest since and also returned to Twente before taking up a coaching job with Harry Redknapp's QPR side last summer.

In September 2013, he became boss of Derby, where he coached under Jim Smith in the late '90s, and has inspired the Rams to raid the top six in the Championship and make the play-offs.

Ward is in no doubt that McClaren has played a massive role in guiding County to Wembley.

"I think you can see we have all got behind Steve McClaren since he came in early in the season. He brought in a few players and he has improved us, which is why we have gone on and done so well," added Ward, who won't be the only Northern Ireland international involved tomorrow.

Aaron Hughes having moved from Fulham to Loftus Road in January, is in the QPR squad and is hopeful of seeing some action before going on the South American tour with his country.

Many Fulham supporters were amazed that a proven performer like Hughes was allowed to leave Craven Cottage at a time when the club needed experience to help them stay up.

With Fulham's relegation from the Premier League to the Championship, it would now be ironic if 34-year-old Cookstown man Hughes went in the opposite direction with another London side.

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