Martin Paterson's first-half header ended Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill's long wait for a victory as his side recorded a well-earned win over Russia at Windsor Park.
O'Neill's first nine matches in charge of the national side had yielded five draws and four defeats, but his first taste of success at the highest level was a sweet one as his men got the better of former England boss Fabio Capello and his highly-rated charges in Belfast.
The tireless Paterson, only starting because of an injury to Kyle Lafferty, delivered the result by nodding home Niall McGinn's 43rd-minute cross - his second goal for Northern Ireland and first in competitive action.
It was the least his energetic and passionate display deserved and he might have had another when his 58th minute header was chalked off to a tight offside flag.
Northern Ireland started with intent as Ward, McGinn and Paterson all got shots away inside the first five minutes.
None caused Igor Akinfeev serious concern, but it at least showed belief.
Gareth McAuley ended both, a brave block and a sliding tackle keeping his side in it.
McGinn produced a dynamic run from the right wing in the 13th minute, going past two men and cutting into the box only to take one touch too many before pulling the trigger.
Ward was showing plenty of nice touches in the number 10 position, linking well with Oliver Norwood in midfield and looking to play Paterson into space.
With a fully-fit squad, he may have been confined to the bench but he was making the most of his chance.
Norwood was caught in possession on the half-hour and the alert Dzagoev responded by setting Kerzhakov free, but his deflected shot looped over.
The breakthrough almost came in the 41st minute when Ward collected Danny Lafferty's quick free-kick, carried the ball a couple of paces and then rifled a low shot against the post from 25 yards.
Paterson tried to turn home the rebound but could not get any power on his touch.
Northern Ireland may have been frustrated but they responded in the ideal fashion.
McGinn was the provider, getting in behind his man and chasing the ball to the byline, where he hit a first-time cross towards Paterson.
The Huddersfield forward timed his leap and directed a fine header into the far corner.
Capello made two changes at the break, replacing Kerzhakov and Dzagoev with Artem Dzyuba and Denis Cheryshev but the latter lasted just six minutes before limping off himself.
Russia were forced to use their final substitute as a result, Alexander Samedov entering the fray.
With 58 minutes on the clock Northern Ireland - and Paterson - were agonisingly close to a second.
Shane Ferguson's deep corner was steered back across goal by Cathcart and headed in by Paterson, only for a marginal offside flag to cut short the celebrations.
An injury to McAuley allowed both sides a chance to collect themselves and receive instruction from the sidelines, Capello getting the chance to earn his near £8million-a-year contract.
But it was Northern Ireland who had the first chance after the resumption, Ferguson's quick feet giving him room to cross for Paterson.
He challenged Akinfeev hard but was unlucky to be booked for his efforts.
As the game entered the last 10 minutes Roman Shirokov started to take the game to the hosts but his runs were not enough to unsettle a back line marshalled calmly by McAuley.
With nine minutes left, McGinn made way for the defensively minded Corry Evans and Brentford's Will Grigg joined him as the exiting Paterson was awarded a hero's reception.
Four tense minutes of injury-time prolonged O'Neill's wait but Russia went limp as the time ebbed away.
David delighted with battling win
Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis believes tonight's 1-0 win over Russia at Windsor Park was just reward for all the hard work the team have put in so far in their World Cup qualifying campaign.
O'Neill's first nine matches in charge of the national side had yielded five draws and four defeats, but his first taste of success at the highest level was a sweet one as he got the better of former England boss Fabio Capello and his highly-rated charges.
And Davis feels it was no less than the home side deserved.
"We tried to make things difficult for them," the Southampton midfielder told Sky Sports.
"We worked hard tonight and it's nice to eventually get a reward for all the hard work put in.
"Russia are the top team in the group, they're a very difficult team to play against. They didn't give away many chances tonight and I thought we were outstanding, we deserved to win.
"Our performances throughout the campaign, we haven't really got the result to go alongside them but tonight we managed to do that."
Goalscorer Paterson added: "It's a great win against a very strong team.
"International football can be difficult, even at home, so we're delighted with the win."