Belfast Telegraph

Ward: there's no hangover from our Euro heroics

By Paul Ferguson

Pint-sized terrier Jamie Ward insists Northern Ireland's stuttering display against the Czech Republic in Prague on Sunday night was not down to a Euro 2016 hangover.

Northern Ireland secured a valuable opening 2018 World Cup qualifying point after a scoreless draw at the Generali Arena but their performance was littered with mistakes, a lack of high-tempo action and key players such as skipper Steven Davis, Paddy McNair and Kyle Lafferty failed to fire.

Ward, however, argues that Northern Ireland have moved on from their exploits in France as they realise that qualifying for the World Cup finals would be a greater achievement than reaching the Euros.

With only the top team in each group qualifying automatically for Russia and the best eight second-placed finishers out of nine going into a play-off, Ward confesses the focus changed some time ago to these fixtures.

The new Burton Albion signing, on loan from Nottingham Forest until the end of the season, said: "It wasn't difficult to adjust to a new qualifying campaign. This is our job. This is what we get paid for so we have to be professional enough to realise that. This competition is no different to the Euros - if anything it's a bigger stage to play on if we qualify for it."

The Czech Republic were once one of the superpowers in European football. That is no longer the case with the likes of Nedved, Poborsky and Baros, who graced the international arena with such distinction, long retired. But as skipper Davis admitted in his pre-match briefing, the very name, the Czech Republic, should tell you that you're in for a tough match.

"We'd have accepted a point at the start of the game," remarked 30-year-old Ward. "I said earlier in the week that it was important we didn't lose and we've got off to a good start and it looks like we have done that.

"I thought the first half was fine. We nicked the ball in some good positions, but our final pass in the end wasn't quite right. They came on strong in the second half but we defended well.

"We are a good side - just look at what we did at the start of the Euros campaign. We went to Hungary and beat them and went to Greece and beat them. So there's an awful lot of character in this team now and you can see that drives us through."

Northern Ireland will now play San Marino in their second World Cup qualifier at a completely refurbished Windsor Park on Saturday, October 8.

Ward is today set to meet up with his team-mates at Burton for the first time since his move on transfer deadline day but already is relishing taking on San Marino in Belfast.

He added: "A point is a good start for us and we've got to capitalise on playing the likes of San Marino and make sure we go and win those games.

"We know the Germany game is going to be tough - we've seen that before - so we have to try and beat the so-called smaller nations, they're the main points that we need to try and pick up."

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