Ward in wonderland as he shares training pitch with hero Roy
Stephen Ward enjoyed a "surreal" return to Republic of Ireland duty as he found himself on the same training pitch as boyhood hero Roy Keane.
The Brighton defender grew up supporting Manchester United and watching Keane star for both club and country.
But yesterday morning in Malahide, the 28-year-old was among the squad which was put through its paces by the Republic's new assistant manager, and he admitted it was a strange experience.
Ward said: "It's a little bit surreal sometimes, I suppose. You grow up watching him – he is obviously one of the greatest players to play for Ireland.
"As a kid I was a Manchester United fan, so he had a big influence on your life as a child watching Manchester United, so it's a bit surreal.
"It's good to work with him and obviously it's a great duo that they have brought in on very high calibre, so it will be really enjoyable.
"He seems just like any normal lad. Obviously, we don't know them very well, they don't us, so everyone is just getting to know each other."
It was much like the first day at school for the players as they attempted to impress Keane and manager Martin O'Neill in the first training session since the pair took over from Giovanni Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli.
Ward said: "Obviously when a new manager comes into any team or any group of players you are involved in, it's like a fresh start and everyone wants to impress.
"There's a great buzz around the place. Both in the camp and outside, there's a lot of interest.
"Everyone is here to enjoy it first and foremost. Everyone wants to be here and represent their country, but also wants to impress the new management team as well."
Ward was one of the main beneficiaries of Trapattoni's search for new talent as the Italian attempted to increase the pool of players from which he could select, and by the time the Republic headed for the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine, he was first-choice left-back.
However, within months, he was not even in the squad and entrenched in an ultimately unsuccessful battle to prevent club Wolves from slipping into League One.
But a summer loan move to Brighton has helped to revive an international career on which he refused to give up.
Ward said: "It was tough. Not being in the squad is obviously tough, but I tried to never let it affect me. We were having a tough enough time at club level trying to make sure that we stayed in the league, which unfortunately we couldn't.
"Obviously you are disappointed when the squad is announced and you are not in it, but I never let it get me too down.
"I had a couple of weekends off to spend with my kids and my family which I hadn't had for a few years, which was nice, but I was always very intent on working as hard as I could to get back in.
"The previous manager had said that club level and being at Wolves had affected it, so it is nice to get back playing and enjoying my football and it has coincided, thankfully, with me getting back in the squad."