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Northern Ireland sports stars will continue to make the nation proud, promises Ward

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland star Jamie Ward is convinced the team will carry on making the country proud by delivering big performances in the upcoming World Cup qualifying campaign.

And in a message to the world, the Nottingham Forest ace predicted that Northern Ireland sport as a whole will continue to flourish thanks to the likes of golfing superstar Rory McIlroy and World champion boxer Carl Frampton.

Following Saturday's heartbreaking Euro 2016 exit to Wales, Michael O'Neill and his squad flew home yesterday to a celebration party at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast attended by thousands of Northern Ireland supporters.

It was an evening fit for the Kings of Lyon, who made it into the knockout stages in France thanks to a famous 2-0 victory over Ukraine and were unfortunate to lose 1-0 to Wales in the last 16 in Paris.

Ward, who played in all four matches in France, believes Northern Ireland, as a nation, can take great heart from the football team's first major tournament in 30 years and says there is no reason why they can't qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.

"Pundits said we wouldn't score a goal in France and we wouldn't win a game. It's great to shut them up and prove people wrong. Now, going into the World Cup campaign, we'll do the whole country proud again," said Ward.

"Sport is on the up in Northern Ireland - golf, boxing, football. I think people just write it off because it's a little country but we always bite back. Obviously Rory McIlroy is doing well in golf, Carl Frampton's doing well in boxing and there are others delivering for Northern Ireland in the sporting world. It's great to see and long may it continue.

"We can definitely qualify for Russia. We have some very good players. We all play at a good standard. We have a lot more Premier League players than people expect and it's great to have that experience in the side.

"Also, we know how good we are now. Potentially, we'll lose a couple of players due to age and people retiring, but I'm sure we can go again. We have enough team spirit in there to keep going.

"You saw in the Wales game how we tried to run through brick walls for each other and make it happen."

In keeping with the emotions of the rest of the side, Ward was shattered by the 1-0 defeat to Wales and the unfortunate manner of it. Gareth McAuley, who was brilliant throughout the tournament, scored an own goal in the 75th minute from Gareth Bale's cross to seal the fate of O'Neill's men. It was a cruel way to go out.

"Obviously, we're disappointed. We didn't feel we deserved to lose the game," added Ward.

"It was hard to take and it's not nice seeing your team-mates in tears. It's hard seeing grown men in tears.

"We just have to accept it and not worry about it. We have to look forward to the World Cup campaign now."

On West Brom star McAuley, Ward stated: "There's no blame towards Gareth. If he had left the ball and the Welsh lad behind him taps it in, he gets asked why does he leave it.

"He had to go for the ball. It's just one of those things that happens in football.

"He knows we're all behind him and we're all behind each other. We know how much we all mean to each other and how great these last six or seven weeks have been."

Ward added that he hopes McAuley, who netted the opening goal in the victory over Ukraine, and others thinking about international retirement carry on playing in the World Cup qualifiers which kick-off in September.

He said: "It's up to Gareth what he does. He's not getting any younger, but we hope he stays on because he is obviously a big asset for us.

"Nobody will judge him on the own goal. People will soon forget about that.

"They'll look at the fact he was the first Northern Ireland player to score at a European Championship. The good memories are what people will remember."

Belfast Telegraph