JAMIE Ward has been called up to the Northern Ireland squad for their friendly away to Malta next month writes David Broome.
The Derby County forward, 26, makes it six international Rams for the week, following the call-ups for Republic of Ireland trio Richard Keogh, Jeff Hendrick and Conor Sammon, while Kieron Freeman and Mark O’Brien were tasked to the Wales and Eire Under-21s respectively.
However, manager Nigel Clough warned that Ward, who only recently returned to action after three months out injured, would only travel if completely fit.
He said: “I think if he’d been fit for the last three months there wouldn’t have even been a question of that.
“But he’s only been back a few games.
“Whether he’ll be fit enough to go, we’ll have to wait and see, as he has been out a long time.
“But you see his importance to us, and you see his ability even though he’s just been back a couple of games.”
Ward will be in line for his fifth cap at the Ta’ Qali National Stadium on February 6.
The Birmingham-born forward, who qualifies for the Green and White Army through his grandfather, made two appearances for the Under-18s and a further seven for the Under-21s before his first call-up in March 2009.
In two World Cup qualifiers against Poland and Slovenia, Ward was an unused substitute, but won his first cap in a Euro 2012 qualifier against the Faroe Islands in August, 2011.
Ward is in line to make his second successive start against Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup fourth round today, kick-off 3pm.
He played 67 minutes against Nottingham Forest last weekend before being substituted, but Clough insisted there was no flaring up of the torn hamstring which kept him out towards the end of last year.
“He’s doing all right,” said the former Burton Albion boss.
“He’s had quite a gentle week this week with some training and some work on his hamstrings.
“It’s going to be the case between now and the end of the season of just getting that balance right between trying to get him fit enough for the games and strengthening the areas where he’s had trouble.”
Craig Bryson, who also returned in the 1-1 draw against Forest and lasted 75 minutes, is a slight doubt as he continues to recover from a knee injury.
Clough said: “If he’s fit, he’s in with a shout.
“We don’t get into the practice of fielding weakened teams or anything like that.
“But it’s the same principle as it would be for a league game, in that if it’s going to do damage then we won’t risk him.
“But if he feels okay, he’ll be out there playing.”
That would mean the only absentee, other than long-term injury victim Shaun Barker, is Jake Buxton.
Clough said: “He’s not far away, and he’s doing a bit of twisting and turning, as well as running now.
“We hope he’ll start training next.
“On Monday, the Under-21s have got Huddersfield, but I think that’ll be too soon as well.
“The week after that probably, we’ll try and get him a game.”