Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughTwo years ago no-one had heard of Joel Ward - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough Two years ago no-one had heard of Joel Ward - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

Two years ago no-one had heard of Joel Ward

The defender was on loan to then League Two side Bournemouth and playing centre-back week-in, week-out in hope of impressing his parent club Portsmouth.

Pompey had won the F.A Cup just months before and as Ward moved along the coast to the Cherries, his Premier League employers completed the signing of Peter Crouch for a fee worth up to £11million.

With a defence of Glen Johnson, Sol Campbell, Sylvain Distin and Nadir Belhadj, few Pompey fans expected to see a young centre-half break up their cup winning backline any time soon.

As the Blues’ following knew, manager at the time Harry Redknapp had never favoured bedding in young talent unless they were exceptional, once loaning young fans favourite Gary O’Neil to Walsall and then Cardiff the following season in favour of new experienced signings Tim Sherwood and Eyal Berkovic.  

Ward had been cast out to one of the boss’ former sides and even the most optimistic of Portsmouth fan didn’t think the then 19 year-old would ever feature in the first-team.

How times change.

Redknapp left. As did Johnson, Campbell, Distin and Belhadj. Within the space of a year, the squad full of glitz and glamour billed as permanent contenders for Europe for years to come had disbanded and the new man in charge Avram Grant (following unsuccessful spells at the helm for Tony Adams and Paul Hart) was fighting a losing battle to rescue the team from relegation.

He failed, and of course the F.A Cup win had resulted in dire consequences for the South Coast side. The owner who had funded the run, Alexandre Gaydamak, didn’t want to flash his cash anymore. Portsmouth were left with a squad on high wages, which accounted for more than 70% of their turnover. A small stadium and poor infrastructure meant the only way out was to sell.

Not even that could save them and 2010 brought administration, relegation and almost liquidation. Grant left, and so did most of his team. That left Pompey in the Championship with the smallest squad across the entire Football League.

Another new manager took over. Steve Cotterill, who had led Notts County to League One, was given the task of completely overhauling a club in turmoil. After the previous season was marred by two ridiculous takeovers by the “rich” Suleiman Al-Fahim and Ali Al-Faraj, Hong Kong businessman Balram Chainrai rescued the club and things were at least financially safe, despite a mid-season altercation with Gaydamak over money owed, something that was thankfully resolved.

With minuscule resources, a lack of players and investment, Cotterill was forced to turn to top-flight fringe players on loan and academy graduates who had been introduced by Grant towards the end of last campaign.

Of those young players to make the grade, five were included in early match-day squads, Matt Ritchie, Nadir Cifti, Peter Gregory, Ellis Martin and Ward. England under 19’s goalkeeper Liam O’Brien was released much to the bemusement of supporters but Cotterill was honest enough to announce he wouldn’t cut it. 

As loans started to arrive and the squad strengthened, the young players were slowly cast aside much in the style of Redknapp. Cotterill cited they weren’t ready for the rough and tumble of the second tier and had to first move away and educate/develop.

Cifti, who had scored two goals in the campaign’s opening three fixtures, was made available for loan but the striker stayed and now features as a perennial substitute, yet to find the net again.

Ritchie was billed as the best of the bunch yet the winger was loaned to League One Swindon and eventually sealed his permanent departure to the Robins in January.

Gregory and Martin were moved out of the first-team picture and the latter made a loan move to local non-leaguers Havant and Waterlooville.

Yet Ward remained at Fratton Park, starting at right-back in a depleted defence. His performances were dogged, spirited and all of a sudden, impressive.

The Emsworth born full-back featured until the loan signing of Greg Halford from Wolves, which lost him his place. Not for long though, injuries and suspensions meant Ward was back in the side, this time at left-back. This followed Ward’s first goal for the Blues, the now 21 year-old netting against Doncaster in a 3-2 defeat, from right-midfield. A few matches later and Ward was excelling in a new role, defensive midfield alongside the experienced Hayden Mullins and the man-made midfielder spectacularly grabbed his second goal for the club against play-off hopefuls Leeds.

With the arrival of another loan signing in January, Jonathan Hogg from Aston Villa, fans expected Ward to drop to the bench. Yet he came back again, starring in a more advanced midfield role. The performances didn’t suffer either, Ward netting his third of the season against Doncaster again, this time a brilliant lobbed finish.

From fringe youth player to first-team regular, Ward has played 34 times since the start of August. So how has he done it?

What is so impressive about Ward is not just his versatility but his adaptability. Not only can he play in so many positions, but he can play them well and intelligently. He reacts to his role and performs accordingly. His energy is startling; his delivery from out wide is also a threat, a goal created in the Carling Cup win at Stevenage was evidence of this, Ward’s sensational 40 yard cross headed home by Michael Brown.

Ask a Pompey fan who their player of the season has been and you can bet most will say Ward. The Blues’ following embrace a young player coming through their ranks and will support them until they ultimately leave, something proved in a recent game against Barnsley when the youngster was replaced by Kanu.

Cue a mass chorus of displeasure from the home support, followed by a standing ovation for the substituted player. In the most recent fixture against Crystal Palace, Ward was again replaced and greeted by an upstanding crowd, only this time his departure was accompanied by his own song, “There’s only one Joel Ward” rang out around the stands and it’s safe to say at Fratton Park, if you have a chant, you’re a fans favourite.

And that’s exactly what Ward is, a local player who is establishing himself at his boyhood club, playing with determination, passion and most importantly, quality.

Ward is the first to admit he has a long way to go and there is always room for improvement, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Premier League came calling sooner rather than later.

And I wouldn’t be shocked if a certain Mr Redknapp came back in for the player “he gave a professional contract to”.

Even so, his emergence will always be the sign of a new era at Portsmouth.

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