Grant Ward: From park pitches to PlayStation to Portman Road
- Credit: sarah lucy brown
Ex-players and pundits queued up to slam the so-called ‘headphones and wash bag’ culture of young English players following the Three Lions’ limp exit from Euro 2016 last summer.
Mollycoddled in the bubble of professional academies, the insinuation is that too many kids are more enamoured with the idea of being a footballer than actually becoming one.
Grant Ward, who was in the Tottenham Hotspur youth system from the age of 10, is in the demographic of young men being knocked with the symbolism of tattoos, jewellery, big cars, huge headphones, computer games and fancy branded miniature toiletry bags.
“A lot of the boys my age, especially the footballers, it is like that,” admits Ward, who turns 22 in December. “That’s just the generation we are in.”
Don’t be too quick to judge though.
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There is no doubting that this young man, who was born in Lewisham, London, but grew up in Kent after his parents split up, has been raised the right way. He is unfailingly polite and generous with his time for both this interview and photographs.
And throughout our chat it is clear that the simple joy of kicking a ball has been, and continues to be, what drives him.
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“It’s true, it’s changed a bit. Kids nowadays just sit on their PlayStations. Obviously I was on there a bit as well, but I’d prefer being outside and playing stupid games like Curbsy, Wembley doubles, things like that,” he says.
“That’s kind of how I got scouted at Spurs.
“My brother Jason (seven years Grant’s senior) used to play and when I was younger I always used to go and watch him and be mucking about on the sidelines.
“He was playing for Grays Athletic, who were in the Conference at the time, and one of the coaches there used to be a coach at Tottenham as well.
“He’d always see me on the sidelines running about, doing keep-ups or bits of skill and one day he said ‘you’ve got something, come along to Spurs’. That was where it all started.”
Jason, who was a youth team player at Millwall before dropping into non-league, didn’t make it as a professional.
“He’s still good,” says Grant, who also has an older sister. “I’ve got lots of nephews and nieces and we all go to the park and have a bit of a muckabout with the ball sometimes. It’s fun.”
‘Fun’ is not a word you hear professional footballers and managers use that often. It’s refreshing to see that child-like love of the game still in Ward’s eyes.
After scoring a dream debut hat-trick for Ipswich he looked every inch the schoolboy living a Roy of the Rovers moment when he left the ground.
Wearing a rucksack on both shoulders and still clutching the match ball tightly, he stopped and signed every autograph asked of him that day before finally getting into his car.
Maybe it’s because he was such a late developer that he’s drinking in every moment.
“When I first went to Spurs everyone just wanted to play up front at that age, so I started as a striker, but the other boys had been going there since the age of seven and they were a bit more cultured in terms of positioning,” he explains.
“I was just raw, quick; I didn’t really have that positional sense. It was a steep learning curve to start with. My dad was the one who suggested I might be better off on the wing and it took off from there.
“Going up through the ranks I was never one of the top players in my age groups. People were always like ‘yeah, he’s good’, but there were always a few other boys ahead of me as the top ones.
“It took me a few years, until I was 16/17, until I really developed my game. I’d always be working on things and trying to improve. I’d go into school early so I could squeeze in some practice before lessons.”
Reflecting on the day the Tottenham scholars were told whether they were being handed professional deals or not, he said: “It was a bit nerve-wracking, but in my head I knew I’d done enough. I’d just got a good feeling from the way the coaches were speaking to me.
“Chris Ramsey, Tim Sherwood and Les Ferdinand were the development coaches. It was just like a random day, everyone was ready to go home and they suddenly said ‘we’ve got some meetings’ and that’s when they told us all.
“I was the first one to go in, they told me the good news, then a lot of good friends I’d grown up with went in and got bad news. Some of them you never see again. You don’t realise that’s the harsh reality of things when you’re that young.
“When I left Tottenham there was no-one left from that age group. It’s a ruthless business.”
With that in mind, did he ever have a back-up plan?
“In my head I always knew I was going to be a footballer, but I still made sure I got some good grades and quite a few GCSEs – mum and dad were always on to me about that,” he says.
“Plus, with football scholarships these days, if you haven’t passed your English and maths, you have to do extra education. That was another incentive for me to do well!
“Teachers always want you to be good academically and they don’t care about anything else. A lot of them can be quite negative, to be honest with you, when you say you want to be a footballer. They’ll say things like ‘what happens if you break your leg?’”
Ward, who grew up idolising Arsenal striker Thierry Henry and modelling his game on flying Tottenham winger Aaron Lennon, never ended up making a first-team appearance for the White Hart Lane club.
Before his £600k move to Portman Road last summer, he had loan spells at Chicago Fire in the USA, Coventry in League One and Rotherham in the Championship. Varied experiences, he says, which have made him a more rounded person and player.
“Chicago was great,” he says. “The seven months I had out there, at the age of 19, was one of the most fun (there’s that word again) times in football I’ve had. It was big time for me grow up.
“The league is developing now, but back then it wasn’t as high profile. Their manager was Frank Yallop, who used to be here at Ipswich, and he used to come home every now and again and watch a few matches. Apparently he’d seen me play in an old-school reserve game that included quite a few of our first-team players. He asked if I’d like to come out and I thought it would be a good experience.
“I thought the standard was good. It was a very physical league.”
He continues: “All my loan spells helped me a lot. Look at the likes of Harry Kane and Andros Townsend; they went out on loan eight or nine times before making it in the first-team there. I’ve spoken to them and they say that was crucial to their development.
“Reserve games are completely different. They are low intensity, the coaches want you to play on the floor all the time, even if you are fully pressed. There’s no long ball and that’s not always realistic to do that in competitive games.
“If you lose the ball in an academy or reserve game it’s like ‘oh that’s just the way we play’, but if you lose the ball in a competitive game and the opposition score then your head is on the line.
“That was an eye-opener at Rotherham to be honest. When I went to Coventry, Tony Mowbray took over and he changed it and we played a lot of football. It wasn’t completely different to what I was doing at Tottenham.
“When I went to Rotherham they were having a tough time, so it was a bit more long ball. He (Steve Evans) didn’t really want us to get on the ball, he wanted us to go in behind.
“My first game (a 4-1 home defeat to MK Dons) I played in the middle and I kept coming to the ball for feet because that’s how I’d been brought up. The ball would go long, they would head it, it would bounce in the middle of the park and I’d be nowhere to be seen. I was off at half-time and I didn’t play for about seven games after that.
“I had to adapt and develop different parts of my game.
“I had three different managers at Rotherham (Evans, Neil Redfearn and Neil Warnock) and they all had their different philosophies. That’s been good for me because here at Ipswich you have to be able to do everything really.”
This interview first appeared in Edition One of KINGS OF ANGLIA
Edition Two, featuring Josh Emmanuel, Darren Ambrose and much more, can be ordered at www.buyamag.co.uk/KOA £3.99 No P&P in the UK