This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Tottenham Hotspur matchday programme – 23rd January 2016.
Instinct is paying off for Joel Ward, who took his season’s goal tally to three at Southampton a fortnight ago. Playing with a new-found freedom, the right-back was in the right place at the right time to get on the scoresheet again as he aims to be a valuable asset at both ends of the field.
When Jason Puncheon latched onto a loose backpass by Steven Davis and skipped over Maya Yoshida’s challenge, Joel Ward’s eyes lit up. The right-back charged forwards, his memories still fresh from a similar excursion five months earlier.
On that August day at Stamford Bridge a lung-busting run late in the game saw him become an unlikely matchwinner, but when he swept home Puncheon’s low centre to put his side ahead against Southampton on a drizzly afternoon two weeks ago, the surprise factor had disappeared.
That was the south coast native’s third goal of the season and proved that his haul was no fluke. Having taken 98 appearances to get his first for the Eagles, he believes that Alan Pardew’s style of football and his development under the Palace boss is the perfect formula that will see his scoring exploits continue at this rate from now on.
“Goals are something that I wanted to add to my game and I think it’s what modern football is about,” Ward said. “Full-backs need to get forward and create goals and get themselves some too, so I wanted to do that.
“I think it’s happened now because of the progression and the freedom that the gaffer gives us at the right times. When I scored against Chelsea and Southampton I’ve found myself in the box where I’m not really supposed to be at that stage of the game, but I can trust the boys behind me and it seemed the right thing to do. Sometimes you just go with your instinct – at those times it felt right to be there and thankfully I came away with the goals.”
Having opened his Palace account last March against Queens Park Rangers, Ward got this season off to a flyer with a goal against Arsenal in the first home game of the campaign. The contrast between the two strikes is huge – against Rangers you could sense that Ward was shooting in hope rather than expectation. Against the Gunners however he confidently triggered a crisp first-time effort from 25 yards that whistled past Petr Cech – a man with the most clean sheets in Premier League history no less.
With hindsight, that goal has become a symbol of his new-found belief of getting himself on the scoresheet, and talking us through it he said: “When it came to me I only had one thing on my mind and that was to hit the target and make the keeper work, and it’s found the bottom corner. I’ve hit it perfectly and it’s one of those ones that as soon as it’s left your boot you know it’s going in.
“Cech is a top keeper and I think it’s the same with every team we play. They make it difficult for you to get the ball past them but thankfully I’ve managed to do that and come away feeling good about a goal.”
Fast-forward a fortnight and Ward was on top of the club’s scoring charts alongside Bakary Sako when he unexpectedly made a rare appearance in the opposition’s area to score a late diving header against Chelsea to secure the Eagles’ first win at the Bridge since 1982. For its timing and the prestige of the opponents, he puts it down as his favourite ever.
“It was an important goal for us and it was great to get one that got us three points at Stamford Bridge, especially with our momentum at the start of the season. It was a great feeling to score that one.
“I haven’t scored many but there’s been a few important goals in my career. There’s the equaliser I scored for Portsmouth against Southampton and I also scored from just outside the box for them against Leeds which was similar to the Arsenal goal, but in terms of the occasion I’d have to go for the Chelsea one.”
Ward’s time at Pompey saw him net three times in each of his final two seasons at Fratton Park, but he puts that down his versatility that saw him selected as an attacking midfielder at times (“to be honest I played pretty much everywhere except in goal for Portsmouth” he chuckles), so to match that total as a fully-fledged full-back would have been extra special – especially as it came on his former arch-rivals’ turf.
On his feelings towards Southampton, the Emsworth native admitted: “It’s always a big game for myself when we play them. Personally I get a little bit of stick from the crowd but that’s all good fun and a bit of banter – there’s no hard feelings. It was nice to come up with the opening goal to put us on our way and thankfully Wilf finished superbly for the second to give us a win. A few of my family members were there too to see that one so that was great.”
However overcoming Southampton in the cup has been Palace’s only victory in their last six outings, which were squeezed into 22 days as January proved to be just as gruelling as the festive fixtures preceding it. Palace are far from the only team to have struggled during this period, indeed four other sides (Watford, Aston Villa, Everton and Newcastle United) have all also achieved just a solitary win from their last six league encounters. With squads stretched and players suffering with fatigue, the issue of a winter break matching our European cousins’ lead has been mooted, and Ward sees the pros and cons of that argument.
“Players and fans love the Boxing Day games and the others over the Christmas and New Year period, but it’s a draining time for us with the games coming thick and fast. Some clubs play a huge amount of games throughout the season depending on how far they go in the cups and it can be sapping, but it’s going to be hard to change because of the way the culture is over here.
“I think our form is just down to the uniqueness of this league. Sometimes you feel invincible and then you come up against an opponent that you feel you should dominate and you don’t. That’s the beauty of the Premier League, no-one is guaranteed to win and this season is a prime example of that.”
It’s a sports league that is attracting increasing attention from across the globe, and that was evident when some good news emerged from the recent gloom as David Blitzer and Josh Harris’ investment in the Eagles was confirmed last month, with plans afoot to redevelop the stadium to allow the club the best chance possible to progress to the next level.
Having been at SE25 for approaching four years now, Ward has witnessed first-hand how much the club has evolved since its Championship days when he first arrived, and he buys into the notion that the future is looking bright.
On the new investment, the 26-year-old added: “It’s exciting times; I think the club want to show their ambition and with the new owners I think we can do that. It’s going to take time to see those changes and what they’re going to bring to the club, but it’s positive and exciting for what the future could bring to Crystal Palace.
“I think the redevelopment of Selhurst would be a great thing, the fanbase is here and the support is on a global scale. It’s all going in the right direction and we’ve got a great foundation to build from.”
All of that might be a few years away, but with the transfer window still open all thoughts on investment are firmly towards the playing squad, but don’t expect any insider gossip from Ward, who admits that the players are, for the most part, as much in the dark regarding new recruits as the fans!
“Sometimes you see things in the media about players coming in or you spot them having a medical, so you can see things going on from afar,” he admits. “It’s mainly rumours though and until someone walks through the door or people leave then you take everything with a pinch of salt. If anyone does come in then they’ll be welcomed and integrated into the group quickly.”
Whether Ward clocks some new faces at Beckenham over the coming days or not, he and the rest of the squad have one aim – to get Palace back to winning ways as quickly as possible.
The consummate professional, Ward will happily sacrifice any further goals and focus on his defensive duties as long as it leads to victories, but you’d hope that the right-back continuing to hit the back of the net can only aid the cause.
“We’ve had a great first half of the season and we want to keep that momentum going,” he continued. “It’s been a difficult period recently with injuries and not picking up as many points or results that we wanted, but you get times in the season where that happens but the nucleus of this group and the management will bring us through.
“We’ve got to put things right and get some points under our belt in this upcoming period and push on. We’ve got to continue to look to finish in the top 10 – we’ve got our goals to reach and we have to build the momentum and confidence up again to allow us to go out there and win games.”