Stephen Ward reaping rewards of reversal in club fortunes
Stephen Ward headed back to the race for the Barclays Premier League having rekindled his hopes of making it to the Euro 2016 finals with the Republic of Ireland.
The last time he met up with his country in November last year, Burnley defender Ward admitted he might have to leave the club in the search for regular football if he was to make it on to the plane for France.
But four months on, the 30-year-old full-back joined up having re-established himself in the Clarets team after repeatedly bending manager Sean Dyche's ear.
Ward said: "I was banging on his door every day - not asking why I wasn't in the team, because you know we've got a good squad there and for whatever reason he was playing other people.
"It was just more a way of saying if I'm not playing when January comes, then it's something I have to consider - not that I ever wanted to leave because I really enjoy it there. It's a great club and it's a great set of lads we have and a great working environment.
"It was something I was considering, but just before Christmas things changed. It's been a great few weeks for us as a club and hopefully we can go and finish the job off in the next seven or eight games."
Ward, who won his 32nd international cap in Tuesday night's 2-2 friendly draw with Slovakia, made only one Sky Bet Championship start during he first half of the season, and that on December 28, by which time he had played in the first leg of Ireland's 3-1 aggregate play-off victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
However, he has figured in all 14 games since the turn of the year to help Burnley establish a four-point lead over second-placed Brighton at the top of the table, and he is feeling the benefits at international level too.
He said: "There's no substitute for playing games. It was something I spoke about before with my manager before I got into the team, that I might have had to leave the club to give myself a chance of getting into the [Ireland] squad.
"Thankfully the way football works, I got into the team and we've done quite well."
Ward endured a testing evening against the Slovakians, with both the visitors' goals - Miroslav Stoch opened the scoring with 14 minutes gone and, after Shane Long and James McClean had both converted penalties at the other end, Peter Pekarik's cross went in off Paul McShane with more than a hint of handball - stemming from attacks down his flank.
But the draw, coupled with Friday night's 1-0 victory over Switzerland, means Martin O'Neill's men have now lost only once in 12 outings, and that is hugely positive as the finals loom.
Ward, a veteran of the Republic's disappointing Euro 2012 campaign, said: "Obviously it was tough last time, but I think there's real good feel around this whole camp, the squad, the staff.
"There's a real good blend of youth and enthusiasm coming in to join more experienced players. Even when you're around the hotel, you can see how close the lads are and the staff as well.
"We've got to optimistic going into any competition."
Confidence will be key in France and goalkeeper Darren Randolph, who came off the bench to replace the unfortunate Rob Elliot when he suffered a serious knee injury, believes Tuesday night's comeback suggests Ireland currently have that.
Randolph said: "I don't think you should ever panic when you go behind - unless you go 4-0 behind to Brazil, then you're not going to get back into the game.
"If you go 1-0 in any game, you have to stay confident. You have to keep playing your game and that's what we did. That's more confidence than anything else."