Alastair McIver meets Crystal Palace’s longest serving current player
There may not be many English professional footballers who can claim – or would admit – to having been brought up in a Bible college. Crystal Palace’s long standing defender, Joel Ward, is the exception, and he is not ashamed of the fact, indeed, he is proud of both his upbringing and his football journey. At 29 and contracted to the south London club until 2021, Ward, now in his 8th year as a Palace player, is an unusual modern day mix of high octane performance and fierce loyalty, both to family and club.
Mileage wise, it’s been a short journey; just three clubs in his career, and none of them north of Watford!
Ward does his miles on the pitch, with 170 Premiership appearances for two clubs in 9 Premiership years, 5,446 passes delivered, an 83% success rate in tackles completed, 702 successful clearances, 392 defensive headers, and 315 interceptions. I could go on but I’m running out of steam!
Ward began his professional career in 2008 at Portsmouth FC, nearby to his birthplace in Emsworth, but was loaned out to nearby Bournemouth the following year. He returned to Portsmouth where he made his Premiership debut, but was sold to Crystal Palace in 2012. A year later he was part of their promotion winning side which has seen Ward a Palace and Premiership player ever since, with 167 first team appearance to his name, the record number of appearances for any player in a Crystal Palace shirt. In 2016, he played in Palace’s FA Cup final defeat to Manchester United at Wembley, in front of 89,000 fans.
I wondered what he felt was the better experience, reaching the FA Cup final or winning promotion to the Premiership?
“They were two very different moments in my career and I will never forget either of them,” he responds. “The euphoria of promotion and playing in the Premier League is incredible but playing at Wembley in an FA Cup final is a boyhood dream. I don’t take either for granted. It still gives me a tingle thinking about it. I was gutted to lose, of course, but I celebrate the fact that very few people have the opportunity to play at Wembley. I don’t take it for granted. I’ve been blessed.”
Today, young footballers at his boyhood club at East Lodge will be dreaming of similar success. The player himself looks back fondly on his upbringing from a young age, and the role his parents played in it.
My brother and sister and I were outside 90% of the time, playing football and running around. I was spotted as an 8 or 9 year old by Portsmouth, but I only played once a month at the time, because we had church on the other Sundays. It was the regime then. I just relished the opportunities that I had. We were brought up in a Bible college. I was around so many different cultures and people. My dad was involved looking after the students as well as leadership in the church. My dad was a printer, but he gave it up, a selfless decision for the family, to give us the best upbringing we could have. My parents were always incredibly supportive of all of us. He instilled in all of us a sense of excellence; our parents gave us that. They modelled sacrificial love to us to give us the best possible starts in life, giving us platforms to succeed in whatever we put our minds to.”
That upbringing has served Ward well and has undoubtedly helped him negotiate the cut and thrust of the professional game today. His honest approach has drawn praise from fellow professional, not least his boss, former England manager Roy Hodgson, who said after the final game of last season, a 5-3 victory for the Eagles over Ward’s old club, Bournemouth, “I’d like to in particular mention Joel Ward (and Martin Kelly), who I thought today were really, really good and showed everything that we try to be as a football club. I at least would like to pay that tribute to them because I know they’re not the type of players who win the Man of the Match awards.”
It was a second consecutive victory in an end of season flourish which saw Palace finish 12th in the table, a remarkable achievement for a club which had suffered so many injuries in the run in. Ward himself had a fractured season with knee and muscular injuries but over his eight seasons, he remains one of Palace’s most consistent performers, and his longevity at the club is affirmation of both his loyalty and the decision he made back in 2012 when he first signed the contract which saw him leave the south coast for London.
The season when I was transferred, there were a couple of potential options, but when I look back I see God’s hand putting the pieces of my life into place…it wasn’t all rosy at the start. I was moving away from familiar things, my church, my family, stepping away from my parents’ blessings. But decisions come and go and it’s the commitment you make once the decision has been made will see you through. God was at the forefront of that and other career decisions I have made, and He remains the anchor when times are hard.”
Family remains extremely important to Ward, and he and his wife had just returned from a family holiday to celebrate his dad’s birthday when we spoke. His parents remain his primary role models but he acknowledges others who have shaped his life and performance, not least former Portsmouth player, Linvoy Primus. “He’s someone I speak with on a regular basis, someone I look up to in the football world, someone I can always lean on.”
Ward is not one for excess, preferring a measured approach to life, including his fitness and training.
Injuries are going to happen, and last season I had eight weeks off but in football you want to be on the training pitch, and you want to be playing. I don’t really look at injuries negatively. It’s all part of being a professional sportsman. But in season, it never really stops. If you’re not playing, you’re training, if you’re not training, you’re recovering, trying to get your body in the best possible shape for game day. Whatever line of work you are in, you can pick up an injury, but in football, of course, and at Palace, we have a great support network.”
In the short off-season, Ward continues to look after himself with an enviable training and diet regime which sees him ready for the upcoming season.
I always look after myself with some good training and diet. I enjoy cycling. There’s nothing quite like going out on a bike and hitting the hills. One day I’d like to do triathlons. I try to cram as much in as I can as I feel privileged to be in the position I am in. On diet, the club advises us but for me personally, a healthy balance is not just about food intake. I love food, not just as fuel for the body, but you also have enjoy it and treat yourself occasionally. It’s something we need and I just feel it’s a blessing to have it.”
The new Premiership season beckons with its relentless pace and pressure, requiring commitment and skill, not to mention stability at the top of each club, and Palace have both knowledge and experience in abundance, with Roy Hodgson at the helm. What, I wonder, is he like to play under?
“Roy has a wealth of experience, and he comes across well,” says Ward. “He has a great balance as the manager of the team and also the way he manages individuals. That balance between managing the team on the day and managing those who aren’t playing week in and week out comes through experience. I have learnt a lot from him and will continue to learn. I can’t speak highly enough of him. He comes across well to the public, but make no mistake, there is also that side of him that wants to win, and he can let us know it. His driving force is that he loves football and he’s a winner and you can’t take that away from him.”
Ward is also a winner. Speaking with him on a warm but wet Tuesday in Surrey the day after he has returned from holiday, it might be easy to mistake his relaxed and measured, off season demeanour for something alien to the pace and intensity of professional football. And yet, as you are reading this, he will be re-entering the Premiership cauldron, drawing on the relentless self-drive that has kept him at the top of the game for nearly a decade now. How, I wonder, does he cope with such pressure?
During the season, it’s difficult to switch off. There’s a million and one things going on apart from the games. Analysing what went well and what didn’t go so well. Also the adrenalin. As a pro you’re striving for the best, and maybe we’re all over-critical, so you analyse all the time. That’s why it is easy to celebrate when you win and then move away and step back in the off season. If you don’t, those things can consume you. Dealing with the pressure of being a professional sportsman during the season is enough, because there’s always the day after, always the emotion after the game, the euphoria, the disappointment. But it’s not going to benefit you to hold on to either. You always need to move on. Whatever happens, park it, and move forward to the next game.”
Ward has his family and he has his faith, both of which play such a big part in keeping his feet – so to speak – on the ground.
For me, from a young age, I was always pretty open about my faith but I don’t force it or show myself off to people. I join in with the lads. At end of day you have to be relational, but you know your limits and you know your moral compass, and growing up, I was given a strong moral compass from my family. But I join in. Not to do so would not be the gospel at the end of the day. Closing yourself off from others is not the gospel, but being in amongst my team mates and work colleagues is, even more so now with different nationalities and cultures in the game over here. I feel that I am flying the flag in the sporting world and God has given me a platform, but how I use that platform is down to me. My parents did what they did to give me and my siblings a great start and I want to replicate it in my career….in my family life, and to the next generation, I want to give everything I’ve got…I’m always pushing.”
Before each game, Ward offers up a prayer of thanksgiving to God.
Yes, I have my moment. I don’t get over spiritual but before every game on the pitch I give the glory to God, to thank Him for the opportunity and give Him thanks for blessing me. I want to be that light and glorify Him. My prayer is about giving thanks and honour to the one who gave me this opportunity.”
So what is next for this 29 year old Premiership player, a modest, measured, mature and steady presence in a fast moving, physically challenging game?
If I maintain my physical fitness there is no reason I shouldn’t have a long time in the game. There are also some various options in the back of my mind. But until that time comes I want to focus on my playing career and give everything I can.”
In the meantime, Ward is enjoying the fruits of his labour, the blessings of his family and the security of his faith. He is not one to be found on the gossip pages, and is just as comfortable being around the house with wife of four years, Jessica, or on the golf course.
I do try round the house. I wish I was better, but I enjoy the outdoors, being active, going for a run or a walk. I cycle and have a golf handicap of 11.”
It’s rare perhaps, for a successful professional footballer to offer such an approach to the game he loves and perspective on the life he leads. Perhaps our perceptions are wrong, and we unfairly pigeon hole all of the game’s players into one box. But Ward is unusually thoughtful about his place in life and the benefits and blessings it has brought him. Thousands of young children aspire to professional football as a career before they have even developed their ability to make choices, and as adults, we can find ourselves asking the ‘what if’ question of ourselves, frustrated perhaps that our dreams have not been met in the way we had hoped. And so I wondered what Ward might say to those currently aspiring to something different in their own lives.
For me, it’s a broad question, but being yourself and realising the opportunities that present themselves and taking them, doing your best in whatever comes your way. It’s also so important to surround yourself with the right people, those who can speak into your life, like-minded people you can go on a journey with. It can be so easy to get caught up into what society pushes you into but being passionate and being yourself is vital. For me, it’s not just about me going on this journey. It’s about who I’m doing life with, it’s about community. Also, it’s about enjoying the different seasons in life, the way we look after ourselves.”
‘Joel Ward – He’s one of our own’ was first published in Sorted magazine, Winter 2019