After Northern Ireland’s latest disappointment, the former Derby and Nottingham Forest star tells Holly Hunt about his international journey, the agony and ecstasy of playing at a major tournament, and why Baraclough’s current squad must weather the storm after Euro 2020 qualification defeat.
“I actually got back to my room and had a little cry,” recalled ex-Nottingham Forest forward Jamie Ward a little sheepishly. “I filled up and had a few tears coming down my face.”
Northern Ireland had just bowed out of the 2016 European Championships at the hands of Wales on June 25. Gareth McAuley turned the ball into his own net and the Green and White Army missed out on a place in the quarter-finals by a narrow 1-0 defeat.
For Ward, it seems Northern Ireland’s recent qualification heartbreak only scratches the surface of the emotions he felt four years ago.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d feel like that,” he continued. “I was on a comedown. When you’re in that moment, you don’t think it’s ever going to end.
“I just thought: that’s it, that’s done. We were back home in Northern Ireland two days later. It was mad. I think it’s something that you kind of keep to yourself.”
The then-30-year-old was informed he had been re-called to the squad for the double qualifying header against Greece and Finland. It was the first and only time Northern Ireland had ever made it to the prestigious event.
Ward and Northern Ireland made it through the group stages, finishing behind Germany and Poland in Group C, before being ousted by Wales in the last 16.
As the high of the competition began to wear off, the after-effects kicked in. He felt a strange sense of deflation in the wake of Northern Ireland’s exit, but he couldn’t quite fathom out why at first.
“I’ve never experienced anything like the bubble you go into. It’s all just focused on football and you know you’re going in to play a massive tournament, and then all of a sudden, it’s completely taken away from you after losing a game of football in the knockout stages.
“It’s like you’ve just come back down to earth with a massive bang and a big sense of reality – as if to say, ‘That’s gone now, and I might never play in this tournament again’.”
His Northern Irish team-mates returned to their top-flight dream world while Ward hopped on a flight back to East Midlands where he linked up with Championship side Forest.
The two were worlds apart and the likes of Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart, who were playing for West Brom and Watford respectively at the time, couldn’t relate to his plight. For the winger, nothing could ever measure up to the experience of playing at a major tournament.
“Obviously, it’s natural that we were all gutted it was over, but we had players in that team that were lucky enough to go back to play for Premier League clubs,” he emphasised.
“They were still playing in this bubble to a certain extent because they were playing in one of the best leagues in the world. Whereas with me, that was the best thing that was ever going to happen to me.”
And he wasn’t exactly welcomed back to the City Ground with open arms, either. Philippe Montanier had taken the reins at Forest and Ward had hoped that the then-manager would have tracked his player’s progress.
“I went back to Forest and we actually had a French manager at the time, so I thought with it being played in France, he’d have probably watched a few of the games that one of his new players that he was going to manage played in.
“By the way I was treated when I went back there, I don’t think he did watch many, if any. He only had two players from his club at the Euros, me and David Vaughan, who was coming in a week later because Wales got to the semi-finals.
“When I walked back into the building on my first day, he didn’t even know who I was. I knew from then it wasn’t going to be ideal with having him in charge because first impressions didn’t look good. In the end, it wasn’t a marriage made in heaven.”
In spite of the anti-climactic comedown and the not-so-warm welcome, Ward, who has earned 35 caps, suggested that playing in the competition was “without a shadow of a doubt” the highlight of his career for club or country.
“The whole buzz of going through the group stages, starting in 2014, we built a massive belief and togetherness within our group. We would work hard for each other and we knew we had some matchwinners who could change games and go and win games for us.”
Rewind over a decade ago when Birmingham-born Ward’s Northern Ireland journey began. He was starting out at his boyhood club, Aston Villa, when a scout happened upon him whilst keeping tabs on the current Northern Ireland skipper, Steven Davis.
“You’ve got to be realistic. Would I have ever played for England? No. Did I ever think I’d get the opportunity to play in the Euros with Northern Ireland? No. Somehow we went and did it and we did it in style!”
He was eligible to play for the country through his grandfather and opted to pledge his allegiance to Northern Ireland, as opposed to holding out for word from England.
“I was told by Sam Ellis at Sheffield United who was assistant manager at the time,” he explained. “He pulled me and said, ‘I’ve had a call off of the Northern Ireland manager asking about you and he said he’s going to call you up’.
“I didn’t really believe him – I just thought he was messing about!” he laughed. “Then he said, ‘No, I’m being deadly serious’.”
Ward, who had represented the Under-17s right through to the Under-21s, finally made his senior debut while at Derby County, in a resounding 4-0 victory over the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park in August 2011.
“I think the call should’ve come a bit earlier. If you look at the other players that had been called up, there were people playing reserve team football at Premier League clubs but had never played a competitive league match in their career up to that point.
“I’d played 150 games [in League One and Two] and the only reason I got my call-up was because I got a move to the Championship so that sums football up for you back then.”
When quizzed about the possibility of returning to Ian Baraclough’s side, Ward, who is currently on the books of National League Solihull Moors, admitted he would “love” to pull on the jersey again but is fully aware that his chances are slim.
“It’s never going to happen unless they have a massive injury problem,” he conceded. “Fingers crossed they don’t because it wouldn’t be fair on the lads that have grafted to get them to this position.”
But for all their graft, Euro disappointment has continued for Northern Ireland, who missed out on a place at Euro 2020 after losing 2-1 to Slovakia in the qualifying play-offs. Ward insinuated that the team might have to weather the storm for a bit longer.
“It’s disappointing to miss out on the Euros considering the performance on the night was better than everyone expected. On the whole, they deserved to beat Slovakia. The goals have come from two mistakes from senior players, and I think the goalkeeper could’ve done better with his positioning.
“Michael O’Neill was lucky because he got all his players in the peak of their careers, so he certainly had it a bit easier than the current manager is going to have it, but he also worked miracles at times.
“There’s a transition period where we’re going to have quite a few youngsters come through the system, so it’s going to be a tough two or three years for the nation – but hopefully after that, they can kick on again with a fresh crop of players.”
Follow Holly on Twitter @hollyhunt10