When I mention the name ‘Jamie Ward’ you instantly think “oh yeah, he used to play for Northern Ireland didn’t he?”. He has gone from being a member of the ‘Kings of Lyon’ Euro 2016 team to a free agent, but for me, is one of the best Northern Ireland players of his generation, and I have some great memories watching him grace the pitch at Windsor Park.
Ward is the sort of player than fitted in very well with the Michael O’Neill game plan and could play across the front three. One performance from Ward that really stands out in the back of my mind is the 2-0 home win against Norway in the 2018 World Cup Qualifying campaign.
In that game, it only took Ward two minutes to put the ‘Green and White Army’ into the lead after he took up a brilliant position on the left-hand side of the box and finding room to place the ball into the bottom right corner of the next. I remember that goal really well, sitting in the section of the east stand that joins the south stand, with everyone just sitting down after the anthems and the final pre-match chants of ‘Green and White Army!’ and “Noooorthern Ireland!”.
His style of play is one that I really enjoy watching. An old school winger without the flashy tricks and skills, instead he heads for the byline and getting the ball into the box. He does like to cut inside as well and has scored some great goals from this position.
His goal away to Greece after nine minutes is probably the best goal he has scored for Northern Ireland. The way he hovered on the edge of the box and connected with the ball to send it into the back of the net was something special. He seemed to connect with it on his right foot before deflecting it off his left foot to give the keeper no chance.
I think Ward often gets overlooked when you talk about Northern Ireland’s best players in recent years, and while Davis, Evans, McAuley, and co get the credit they deserve, Ward never seems to be in that conversation, and I think he should be. Don’t get me wrong – he wasn’t the best player on the pitch every game and will probably be a player that will be overlooked in the future just as he is now, but his commitment and work ethic in every match is something that I think every Northern Ireland fan should be grateful of.
Ward is coming towards the end of his career, unfortunately. He is now aged 34 and has been out of the International picture for some time now, and without a club. I would love to see him make one final appearance at Windsor Park, but with the likes of Baird, Hughes, and McAuley not getting the send-off they deserve, I think one big testimonial match for the ‘Kings of Lyon’ team is needed when the likes of McGovern and Davis to finally hang up their boots, hopefully after the Euros and a trip to Qatar.
Despite what he has done in recent years for Northern Ireland, one memory of Ward will remain with me forever, and that is seeing Jamie Ward putting Northern Ireland ahead against Portugal. While Ward was offside and made a complete mess of it, it still found the back of the net. That was my first ever Northern Ireland match, and to see a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick in my first ever professional football match, it was a real honour. If only Lee Hodson wasn’t marking Ronaldo that night!
I hope Jamie Ward finds another club for next season, he is still a very good player and while he might not be the fastest anymore, if he was played up front or as an attacking midfielder, I still think Northern Ireland’s number 19 has a lot to give.