This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Manchester City matchday programme – 19th November 2016.
“Sometimes you have to look back to see where you’ve come from”
No-one has played more Premier League games for Crystal Palace than Joel Ward, but whilst he enjoys pitting his talents against some of world football’s elite players on occasions such as today, he refuses to forget where it all began.
There have been 114 occasions that Joel Ward has emerged out of a tunnel and onto a Premier League pitch for Crystal Palace. The pre-match routine is always the same for the man occupying the number two jersey: a little jump in the air ahead of handshakes with the opposition, and a quiet moment to pray before the action kicks off.
If that repertoire is a little familiar to you too, then it is because its one you have witnessed more than any other. No player in the Eagles’ history has represented them more times in the Premier League than the versatile defender, who is currently just edging Jason Puncheon and Damien Delaney in the standings. It’s a badge of honour the full-back wears with pride, and one he is delighted to currently possess.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself because to have that record is brilliant,” he said. “Thankfully I have been well looked after here in terms of injuries and I’ve been able to play a lot of games. I love playing football and hopefully I’ll go on to hit more landmarks.
“There are countless memories – team and individual performances as well as the road we’ve been on. It’s been an incredible journey, and in years gone by it’ll be crazy looking back on them. It’s like that now so I can’t imagine what it’ll be like in 20 or 30 years’ time.”
Perhaps only the biggest football anoraks inside Selhurst Park today will know that when Ward goes to look back at his career highlights decades from now, his debut in this division didn’t come on the opening afternoon of the 2013/14 season against Tottenham Hotspur in a sunkissed SE25 like many of his other teammates that day, but instead arrived over three years previous.
Aged just 20, he featured a trio of times for Portsmouth towards the back end of the 2009/10 season, as an already-relegated Pompey side crippled by financial struggles and docked nine points for entering administration battled towards the campaign’s climax.
With manager Avram Grant already casting an eye towards a mass exodus of the club’s highly-paid star names and a second FA Cup final appearance in three years on the horizon, he handed Ward a maiden chance to impress in the top-flight.
“I made my debut at Wigan – we drew 0-0 and I started at left-back and then in the second half I moved to centre-back,” Ward reminisced about that day in April 2010. “As a kid your aspiration is to play at the top which is the Premier League, and thankfully I am where I am and I’m very blessed to pull on the Palace shirt and play regularly in this league.
“I made a couple more appearances off the bench, and back then as a young professional it was surreal walking onto the pitch because you dreamt of playing in those games at those stadiums. You just have to take that moment when the opportunity arises. That’s what I tried to focus on and grabbed it with both hands.” A win – one of just seven that season – a draw and a defeat were the sum of Ward’s early efforts in the Premier League, but he had been well-equipped to ply his trade at that level, having enjoyed the benefit of learning the art of defending from some of the league’s biggest names over its 25 seasons.
Ward may now hold the Eagles’ divisional appearance record, but his tally of 114 looks rather modest when compared to those he was being coached by at the time. David James, Sol Campbell and Sylvain Distin all still feature in the league’s top 12 appearance makers of all-time, with a combined tally of 1,544 games between them. With such experience at his disposal, a well-equipped and eager-to-learn Ward was seemingly destined to become a mainstay in the top tier himself.
“At Portsmouth, there was an abundance of very good players who were established and experienced, right throughout the team,” he continued. “In every position there was always quality, and I was blessed to have those guys around and learn from them. I didn’t train with them all the time but you were in and around it and you aspired to be where they were. I remember being at the FA Cup final and some of the European games, especially when AC Milan came to town. They were magical nights and one day I hope to be playing in those sort of games.
“Linvoy Primus was a big role model for me growing up; he was like a mentor when I was at Portsmouth because we had both been there a long time, and we still speak on a regular basis. He’s always been a strong figure throughout my career, but Sol Campbell and Sylvain Distin would also take you under their wing and show you the ropes, and even the likes of David James would help you out. There was ample experience there and it was great to be able to learn from them and take it all in.”
A squad shorn of its stars and headed by Steve Cotterill would take to the field at the start of the following season, but with his fleeting taste of Premier League football behind him, Ward’s name was soon on the teamsheet. That is where it would remain for the next couple of seasons but as the finances got tighter and tighter, eventually Ward would have to seek pastures new. When Palace offered £400,000 for his services, it was money that Pompey simply couldn’t resist. That brought to an end his playing days with a club that he will be eternally gratefully towards for putting him on the path to being a top-flight regular, but he admits that his association with the team based just nine miles from his hometown of Emsworth is far from over.
Looking back on the first big move of his career, he said: “I had a couple of fantastic years playing regular football which is the most important thing. A lot of young pros now turn their noses up at going out on loan or playing games, but there’s nothing like playing competitive matches. Early in my career I was able to play a lot of games in a short space of time and get some experience under my belt, and that allowed me to come to Palace.
“There wasn’t really the option for me to stay at Portsmouth in terms of what I needed to do with my career. I wanted to go, and I think financially I had to even through it wasn’t for a lot of money, but it was something. I’m thankful for the experiences I had there since I was a kid aged eight or nine and coming right through; it put me in good stead to coming here.
“One day in the not-too-distance future I’ll be able to get back there and watch them. It’s always difficult to get to Fratton Park with games falling on the same days so the opportunities don’t present themselves, but I’d like to do that sometime.”
One place that the 27-year-old does manage to visit regularly now is Bournemouth’s Dean Court, another of the fullback’s old stomping grounds. While they may be dining at English football’s top table now, when Ward arrived at the Cherries for his first taste of life as a professional footballer in August 2008, things were very different. Another club struggling to keep its head above water financially, the south coast club had started the season on minus-17 points having been relegated from League One the previous season after another points deduction.
It was a baptism of fire for Ward, but that would be the season that would establish the foundations for a lot of the Cherries’ current success as Ward, alongside current Palace fitness coach Scott Guyett, helped them avoid the drop by nine points. The next season, Eddie Howe won promotion to the third tier and thus began a fairytale rise up the football pyramid.
Despite the tough situation they were in at the time, Ward could see Bournemouth’s potential back then, adding: “It’s a great club and even though it hasn’t got a particularly big fanbase or stadium, it’s very well-run.
“When I was there things were difficult as we started the season on minus-17 points and it was my first year of playing games, and in every one we had to fight for our lives because we were in deficit from the word go. It was a great achievement to be a part of that squad and it was a big learning experience for me, especially working under the managers I did there such as Eddie Howe who was great.”
As well as the Palace man, there are a few other recognisable faces who have trodden the same path, and Ward admits he likes to also check in with them from time to time:
“There’s a few of the lads I grew up such as Matt Richie and Marlon Pack and I still speak to them on occasions. I think it’s something that is difficult as people go their separate ways as one minute you’re playing with someone and then the next you’re at separate ends of the country in different teams, but you try and stay in touch as much as you can.
“Sometimes you have to look back to see where you have come from. I feel good and strong; I’ve been playing well and been solid but I’m always looking to improve, better myself and try to add to the team.
“I always try to raise the bar day in, day out. When things get tough or you’re discouraged, you can look back and see where you’ve come from, and I’ve come a long way in a short period of time.”