Belfast Telegraph

Ward in hunt for unique slice of Irish Cup history

Winners: Philip Lowry (left) and Sean Ward celebrate the County Antrim Shield success this year
Winners: Philip Lowry (left) and Sean Ward celebrate the County Antrim Shield success this year

By Graham Luney

While Ballinamallard United are licking their lips at the prospect of making a special bit of Irish Cup history, Crusaders ace Sean Ward has a unique personal record to go for.

If the Shore Road side can shoot down the Mallards at Windsor Park on Saturday, as they are expected to do, Ward will become the first player to win the famous prize with three of Belfast's top sides: Glentoran, Linfield and Crusaders.

It's not the versatile defender's primary goal, of course, but it would be a nice cherry on top of the celebration cake for the 35-year-old.

Ward, Chris Morgan and Paul Kirk have won league winner's medals with the three Belfast clubs but the Crues haven't exactly been winning the Irish Cup for fun over the years.

Their last success was in 2009 and the north Belfast side have only lifted the trophy three times. Since 2015, they have won as many league titles as Irish Cups in their history.

Ward helped the Glens beat Cliftonville in the 2013 final and he was part of the Linfield squad that triumphed in 2017, though he was an unused substitute in the final when Coleraine were swept aside 3-0. A month later he made the move across to the Shore Road and helped the Hatchetmen taste title glory.

"Paul Kirk and Chris Morgan also won the league with Linfield and Glentoran, as well as Crusaders, but I don't believe someone has won the three league titles and Irish Cups with the clubs. It would certainly be a nice record to have," said Ward.

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"It would be another nice medal to win, with another great team as well. At times we have been very good this season, and with the quality we have we are capable of winning Irish Cups, but it depends on how well we play on the day."

There's real pressure on the Crues to win on Saturday because there's more than just the Irish Cup on the line.

Winning the trophy also provides a route to the Europa League qualifiers and investment of at least £200,000 - finances which the club needs to sustain their full-time experiment.

"European football is a huge financial plus for clubs and it also gives players a chance to play in different countries," added Ward.

"(Manager) Stephen (Baxter) has talked about other clubs commenting on Crusaders' success. You have to win leagues to put yourself in a strong financial position and you can't begrudge people that.

"European football is so important for us because it always helps develop the infrastructure of the club and strengthen the squad.

"The challenge for us to maintain that level of success is pressure.

"I'm under no illusions, we are in a very privileged position and that's because of the hard work that goes on, and in Crusaders' case it started when the club had to rebuild after relegation. That's the model that other clubs have to try and follow. Clubs can't sustain a full-time model unless they get success and that comes through winning league titles or qualifying for Europe.

"Clubs might have to be more creative and organised to do that if we do lose a European place.

"There's one or two years, if even that, that I haven't qualified for Europe, and it hasn't always been easy because as a school teacher that's when my holidays usually are.

"I have loved playing in Europe and enjoyed that style of football when you have more time on the ball.

"It's a huge learning experience and it can be humbling as a player too."

Ward says only a professional attitude will secure a victory on Saturday against a side who he says have caused them problems already this season.

"We played Ballinamallard in the League Cup and I think we were lucky to win 2-1," he added.

"We know about their experienced players and Richard Clarke was at Crusaders and Glentoran with me. He's always been a quality player.

"What's important is that our preparation and attitude is right.

"Do I believe we will win the Irish Cup? Yes I do, provided we perform the way I know we can."

• BALLYMENA United have been awarded a 3-0 win for Saturday's Danske Bank Premiership fixture against Crusaders, who have also been fined £500.

The Crues, who won the Showgrounds tie 3-0, were guilty of fielding an ineligible player when David Cushley, who wasn't listed in the matchday squad, appeared from the bench.

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