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Former Wolves man on Stephen Ward on Anfield revenge

The first-time through ball from Sylvan Ebanks-Blake was inch perfect.

Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Stephen Ward (left) celebrates scoring the first goal during the Barclays Premier League match at Anfield, Liverpool. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday December 29, 2010. Photo credit should read: Peter Byrne/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Use subject to restrictions. Editorial print use only except with prior written approval. New media use requires licence from Football DataCo Ltd. Call +44 (0)1158 447447 or see www.pressassociation.com/images/restrictions for full restrictions.
Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Stephen Ward (left) celebrates scoring the first goal during the Barclays Premier League match at Anfield, Liverpool. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday December 29, 2010. Photo credit should read: Peter Byrne/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Use subject to restrictions. Editorial print use only except with prior written approval. New media use requires licence from Football DataCo Ltd. Call +44 (0)1158 447447 or see www.pressassociation.com/images/restrictions for full restrictions.

Just in front of him, the Wolves number 11 was already on the move, sensing the opportunity.

He got there just before the keeper, nonchalantly flicking it past him with the outside of his left boot and directing it inside the far post.

This was Anfield. And the number 11 was Stephen Ward.

By now a seasoned Premier League left back, injuries had prompted a return to Ward’s former striking role, and his clinical finish earned Wolves a first away win at Liverpool in almost 27 years.

The goalkeeper he scored past was Pepe Reina, who had run the length of the very same pitch a year and three days previously to ensure referee Andre Marriner clocked a second bookable offence from Ward, to send him off.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, ice cold when it came to Ward’s calm and collected conversion of that 56th minute chance in front of an Anfield audience of almost 42,000.

For Ward though, even with the relaxation of retirement over a decade on, it was not about retribution. It was always just about the goal.

“Maybe it was that little bit sweeter but at the time, when you are right in amongst it as a professional footballer, for me it was always just about that next game,” Ward recalled this week.

“In football you can’t afford to get too hung up on anything that has gone on before and that night was just about playing against Liverpool at Anfield.

“With the history of the club, the history of that stadium, that is motivation enough and it was always such a special occasion to be playing there.

“Just to be competing with a team like Liverpool at that time was massive, so to go there and beat them – well it was just a great night, wasn’t it?

“Going back to playing as an emergency striker, scoring the winning goal, that is something that will stay with me forever.

“It is a goal that I think also gives me a special bond with Wolves fans, it was such a special moment.”

Stephen Ward scores the winer for Wolves, prodding the ball past Pepe Reina.Liverpool v Wolves

As Wolves’ class of 2021/22 completed a fourth successive Premier League season by pushing Liverpool close last Sunday, their hero of Anfield 2010 is now contemplating his next chapter.

Last month the 36-year-old, who spent his final season with Walsall, announced his retirement after 477 senior appearances in English football, 239 of which came with Wolves.

His Saddlers swansong came as an 88th minute substitute, coming on to help see out a 1-0 win against Carlisle which secured League Two status on April 15th.

This after the final league start of his career, at Rochdale six days earlier, came as a sweeper, perhaps befitting a figure who would literally play anywhere for the good of the team.

That last season wasn’t quite Anfield of course, but Ward certainly enjoyed his time back in the Midlands, and it proved a fitting way to sign off.

“Having travelled around a lot during my career it was great to come back close to home and I really enjoyed the last year with Walsall,” he explains.

“At my age you cherish every game, but unfortunately with the passing of ‘Father Time’ my body started to break down and I had a couple of niggling injuries that took me longer to come back from.

“I think I knew from about January that this day was coming, but I made a decision in my head that I wanted to finish my career on the pitch – that was important to me.

“And what was nice was that it wasn’t a case of being given some minutes because I was retiring but that I was sent on to try and shore up a win.

“Once that game was over, and we knew Walsall had secured League Two status, it felt like the perfect way to go out.

“Was it emotional? Yes, a little bit as my family were there and my boy is football- mad and I knew that could be the last time I was on the pitch in front of fans with him watching.

“But I am at that age where even though my mind is still there and I know what I want to do on the pitch the body isn’t quite at the same level!

“It had become a lot harder to recover after games and training, especially after the injuries I have had, but in the end, it was a really nice way to round things off.”

If Ward’s body has started to creak at the seams after a decade-and-a-half of intense competition on English soil, his mind can still picture the moment, 15 years ago, when he first headed across the Irish Sea to sign for Wolves.

Growing up his footballing ability attracted attention far and wide but Ward’s parents were keen for him to finish his education after which he joined Bohemians in the League of Ireland.

He scored twice on his debut as a 17-year-old and had already been on trial with Sunderland when Mick McCarthy was boss before heading to Molineux, thanks largely to Wolves’ chief scout at the time and McCarthy’s trusted lieutenant in recruitment, Dave Bowman.

“I think the Sunderland trial came a little bit early for me but having that extra time playing first team football with Bohs meant I was far more ready when I came to Wolves,” Ward recalls.

“It was still very nerve-wracking when I came over, seeing the training ground, the stadium, and I signed on the Monday and came on for my debut against Cardiff on the Saturday.

“It was all a bit of a whirlwind, but in terms of the dressing room, and the way Mick was building a team, it was the perfect environment for a young lad to come in and develop.

“Karl Henry and Kights (Michael Kightly) were already there, Andy Keogh came in, later there was Foles (Kevin Foley), Sylvan, Dave Edwards, Stears (Richard Stearman), the real core of a young group that hadn’t made their way in the game as yet but were all hungry and wanting to prove themselves.

“Mick’s recruitment team and him as a person were pivotal in getting us in, believing in us and giving us a chance.

“That was one of the keys to the success of that squad – we played with no fear and had an edge about us to want to have a career at that level.”

Signed as a forward, Ward made an impressive start to life at Wolves, scoring on his first start against Plymouth, in fact scoring three in four games which was sufficient to earn the Championship Player of the Month award.

“Probably the last time I got recognition as a decent centre forward,” he says with a laugh.

And of course, his role as a regular centre forward, or indeed left midfielder as he was sometimes utilised, wasn’t to be the one where ultimately, he would make his name.

SPORT COPYRIGHT MNA MEDIA TIM THURSFIELD 14/08/21 .WALSALL V FOREST GREEN.Stephen Ward....

Having just missed out on the 2007/08 play-offs, in the early stages of McCarthy’s third season at the helm Wolves lost George Elokobi to a serious injury, and the manager teased the media about a surprise left back he was going to field in a home game with Nottingham Forest.

That surprise left back was Ward, Wolves obliterated Forest thanks largely to one of the most devastating first half performances they have produced in recent times, and the rest – for Ward – is history.

“I know it was a bit of a surprise to others but it wasn’t for me,” Ward reveals.

“I made a decent start up front but after a few months I realised to have a career at that level as a centre forward you had to be living and breathing the position and scoring goals.

“The sort of calibre of the strikers we already had and those who came in later – Sylvan, Kevin Doyle and Steven Fletcher – was always going to make it very difficult for me to stay in the team in that position.

“Not long after I arrived, we had played at Norwich and had a couple of players sent off and I ended up playing a few minutes at left back.

“We won the game and Mick told me I could comfortably play in that position and make a career out of it.

“We got to that Forest game, he put me in, and it couldn’t have been a better start.

“It turned into an unbelievable season, I was playing every week, learning as a left back, and we went on and won the league.

“The full back role was evolving at that time and it was becoming a position where it was just as important supporting the team going forward as it was at the back, and that really suited me.

“I hit the ground running, built up a great relationship with Matt Jarvis down the left, and it turned into a great year for me, a season which changed my career.

“For the team too, to win the Championship like we did, was huge credit to Mick and TC (Terry Connor) and everyone involved.

“There were a lot of inexperienced lads at that level, it was a proper rebuilding job, so to do what we did that season was phenomenal in terms of the budget that we had and where, as players, we had come from.

“I look back on it now with such fond memories, we were not just team-mates but we became close friends and so many of us are still in contact now.

“It was such a great dressing room, a great bunch of lads, and it is probably only now when you look back that it all really sinks in.

“Football took us all on different journeys after Wolves, but for those three, four, five years together, it was brilliant.”

There were many great memories amid the challenges of the years spent in the Premier League, not just Anfield.

Ward was involved in victories over Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham, as well as the dramatic last day escape against Blackburn, where a 3-2 defeat was still enough to secure Premier League survival on the final day of 2010/11.

Sadly however, the next season – Wolves third in succession in the top-flight – didn’t prove quite as memorable, not for the right reasons anyway with McCarthy dismissed in the February and the team relegated first to the Championship, and then straight through to League One.

“Football often goes through cycles, and it just seemed like that cycle with that group of players came to an end,” Ward suggests.

“It was desperately disappointing to see Mick go, and maybe if he had stayed we wouldn’t have been relegated but we will never know.

“He was so pivotal to that group, and there were lads shedding tears when he left because of how close we all were and how he had given so many of us a chance.

“Unfortunately, we just weren’t able to keep that sort of – I’m not sure of the word, maybe camaraderie - which had kept us so successful for so long.

“From how we were before it just didn’t seem the same but sometimes that just happens in football and maybe it needed more players to have left and come in to keep things fresh.

“It does happen in cycles though and just look at what happened later on with how Wolves rebuilt and where they are now which would have been unbelievable to think about back then.”

There was of course some collateral damage linked with the rebuild following relegation to League One, with several long-serving players returning on the first day of pre-season training to be told their services were no longer required.

Ward was among them, and, whilst fully understanding of the need to reshape a squad on the decline, feels fortunate that he was able to quickly depart on loan to Brighton rather than wait and report for afternoon training and lose his place in the dressing room like others in the self-styled ‘bomb squad’.

“It was a difficult period especially as we had gone through such a great time together as a squad, so it does get hard when things go wrong,” says Ward.

“We all wanted to stay and put things right, but it’s football, it’s a business at the end of the day.

“At the time it was disappointing because I had such affection for the club but when I look back it was probably the right time for a change and the right time for some of us to move on.

“The way it happened wasn’t ideal, and a few of the lads who were no longer wanted had to stay for a while which you didn’t want to happen to anyone.

“Unfortunately, we were the ones that had been involved in some of the successes but were now no longer wanted but that’s football, the same thing happened with Mick as manager.

“It was what it was, and for me there are no hard feelings.

“Thankfully most of us went on to do well elsewhere which I think shows we still had something to offer and those that came in at Wolves did fantastically well and they came straight back up.

“Once they made their mind up on us it was right to try and move us on as quickly as they could and football is always a learning curve so I think we all learned from that situation.”

That loan stay with Brighton ended in play-off semi-final defeat before a move back to the Premier League with Burnley, where, after relegation, he landed another Championship winners’ medal as the Clarets bounced straight back.

Further spells followed with Stoke and Ipswich before his Saddlers swansong, bringing the end to a career which included 171 appearances in the Premier League alone.

There was a facet to Ward’s game widely recognised by team-mates whereby he would regularly play through the pain barrier and injury just to get out on the pitch.

Often on pre-season tours to Ireland he would find himself shivering in the Portmarnock sea getting the ice-cold water onto his knees to alleviate the worst of an injury sustained during his time at Wolves.

On occasions it was to his detriment, as he couldn’t perform at his peak and supporters would have no idea he was struggling and unable to operate at full throttle.

But that level of courage and selflessness? His team-mates loved him for it.

“I have seen players in my career that when things get tough they disappear, they get a slight injury and are out for weeks,” says former skipper Henry.

“Then there are players who really want to be out there and will carry on through all sorts of injuries, and Wardy was one of those.

“As you go through a season you are rarely in peak condition but someone like Wardy would go out there maybe at 80 per cent or less and somehow get through it.

“He would end up getting no thanks for it, fans wouldn’t know he was struggling, but within the dressing room players like that were so appreciated.

“Some players would run through a brick wall for the team and for the club, and one of those most definitely was Wardy.”

“I was always brought up with the mentality that you always do what you can to get out there and help your team-mates,” adds the man himself.

“Sometimes it doesn’t help you individually and maybe sometimes I should have taken a step back and looked after myself but I would play through whatever I could.

“I had knee problems throughout my time at Wolves after an initial injury which we had to manage and maybe I’ll feel the pain from that later in life.

“But it’s how I was brought up.

“There were a lot of us in that same conversation at Wolves, because of where we’d come from and wanting to prove ourselves we always wanted to play in those games, to build our careers.

“I think that is another reason why Mick went for players like us because he knew we had a hunger and a desire to do whatever it takes.”

That hunger and desire would also take Ward to the top internationally as well.

He picked up 50 senior caps with the Republic of Ireland, many alongside several Wolves team-mates, and was a regular at the European Championships of both 2012 and 2016.

Playing for Ireland, his debut, “getting to sing the anthem”, is among the replies when asked if he can pick out his three career highlights from so many.

Winning the Championship title with Burnley is another.

“It was a really similar dressing room to Wolves at Burnley in terms of the characters and a manager (Sean Dyche) with similar traits,” he recalls.

“We went 23 games unbeaten across the second half of the season to win the league after being relegated the year before which was an incredible run.

“And then of course, that Wolves promotion, the first of my career, has to be right up there.

“That day we sealed it against QPR, Sylvan getting the goal, it was amazing and even more so because of the different journeys we had all been on to get there.

“Some had been on tougher journeys than others to get to where we wanted to be, but it was brilliant to achieve what we did.”

And now, hopefully, there are more achievements to come.

After a lengthy career packed with pressure and intensity, Ward is currently enjoying some rest and relaxation, spending time with family, preparing for the next chapter.

He wants to stay in the game and has already done some coaching at Academy level but his options are open, perhaps also including putting all his experience into use in a backroom role around player development.

More than anything, he would love to return to one of the clubs he represented so professionally as a player, to give something back.

“That would be the ideal,” he admits.

“To get back involved with one of the clubs I played for, if the opportunity ever arises, that would be great.

“I definitely want it to be something within the game because that is all I have ever known – it has been my life and it has been my passion and I am sure it always will be.”

That next opportunity will surely not be too long in coming, and Ward acknowledges the full emotion of hanging up his boots may only emerge fully in pre-season.

When players start returning to training at their clubs bright eyed and bushy tailed looking forward to the dressing room craic and a new campaign and, for the first time in almost 20 years, he won’t be among them.

There is however, quite rightly, only pride and satisfaction at a career so well executed. And successes both so well earned and deserved.

It’s not been a bad return from the time a young fresh-faced Irishman took a leap of faith and took that first step to Molineux to follow his footballing dreams.

And who has managed to maintain a popular figure with Wolves fans, despite the disappointing way his stay at the club came to an end.

Ward admits to feeling ‘butterflies’ on his first return to Molineux with Burnley, but the warmth of the reception he received from Wolves fans, and the continuing mutual respect when he comes back for matches, is certainly very much appreciated.

“I have been so lucky both with the clubs I have played for and the people I have met during my career,” Ward concludes.

“That is right from that day I came over to Wolves with my Dad who ended up doing my first deal and didn’t have a clue what he was doing!

“But I really didn’t care what they were offering, I just wanted to sign that piece of paper and have the opportunity.

“From that day on, I am just really proud of what I have managed to achieve, and really grateful to everyone who has helped me along the way.

“All in all, I am very proud and content with what I have done as a player, and am looking forward to hopefully having some success in the future, wherever that may take me.”

And of course, above all else, he will always have one night at Anfield.

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