‘Wonderful’ Ward is the converted striker who became McCarthy’s trusted left-back... but is he what Town need?
- Credit: Archant
Former Republic of Ireland international Stephen Ward is training with Ipswich Town. ANDY WARREN looks at what the veteran could offer the Blues.
Try before you buy
A left back is on Ipswich Town’s agenda this summer and, with the prospect of Luke Garbutt returning full-time slipping through their fingers, the Blues have turned to veteran Stephen Ward.
The Irishman has joined Paul Lambert’s squad for ‘a week or so’ as the Blues take a look at him and he takes a look at the club with a view to possible deal.
As things stand Myles Kenlock is the only out-and-out left-back with senior experience in the Ipswich squad, with Tristan Nydam spending time playing there last summer before picking up a serious ankle injury.
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It remains to be seen whether a deal is done to keep Ward, who turns 35 later this month, for the coming campaign but the signs are pointing towards Ipswich adding another left-back into the mix.
Career so far
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In Ward, the Blues would be getting a vastly experienced player who has made 418 club appearances during an impressive career, while also winning 50 international caps with the Republic of Ireland. Only Luke Chambers (733) and Cole Skuse (581) have played more games in the current squad.
Ward’s split his time exclusively between the Premier League and the Championship, playing seven seasons in each for the likes of Wolves and Burnley, while also having a brief spell with Brighton and spending last season in the second tier with Stoke. He has two Championship promotions on his CV, with Wolves and Burnley.
He’s been a first-team regular in almost all of those campaigns but has found minutes a little hard to come by during the last two seasons. He played just 15 league games during his time with Stoke and featured just once since the start of 2020.
After being in-and-out of the side under Nathan Jones, the man who signed him, he became a first-team regular under incoming boss Michael O’Neill until he was struck down by a back injury at the end of December.
He recovered from that, signed a short contract extension and was around the Stoke squad once the Championship resumed in June, though only took to the field once before his release.
Style of play
Ward’s operated as a left-back in recent years but has also spent spells playing in more advanced roles on the left side.
He’s comfortable on the ball, likes to link up with those ahead of him and play one-twos and can put a decent ball into the box.
In many ways he is a similar player to Garbutt, though perhaps a little more solid defensively and a little less adventurous in attack. Fans of his previous clubs will tell you he’s a steady performer.
He won’t replace Garbutt’s set-piece threat and, while he has scored 17 goals during his career to date, probably should have netted more given he began his career in Ireland as a striker.
It remains to be seen whether Lambert will go with a back four or with wing-backs next season but Ward would be capable of playing as either, as well as on the left of a 4-4-2 should that be the way the Town boss goes.
He could bring some much-needed leadership, too, given he’s captained the teams he’s played for on occasion.
The Blues have lacked on the leadership front in recent years, with too much falling on the shoulders of captain Chambers and vice-skipper Skuse.
Having veteran presence – clearly something coveted by Lambert given his pursuits of Richard Keogh and Danny Graham – could help a squad including many young players and others who have struggled to meet the expectations that come with playing for a club the size of Ipswich Town.
There will be concerns regarding his age and how much he has left in the tank, which is why having him in to train and play pre-season games would be a perfect way to assess what he has to offer before making any financial commitment.
Jones, when signing him last summer, admitted his advancing years was a concern but one he was willing to take.
“He’s a wonderful player, a great character, very experienced,” Jones said of Ward. “He’s been promoted – won the Championship twice. He’s an Irish international, I worked with him, he’s technically very, very good so he ticks every box. It’s just the aging process is the only drawback.
The nearly man
This isn’t the first time Ward has been mentioned in connection with Ipswich Town - far from it.
The full-back was linked on a number of occasions during Mick McCarthy’s time as Ipswich boss and you get the sense the former Ireland manager would have loved to have been reunited with him at Portman Road following their time together with Wolves.
It was a route McCarthy went down often, with Christophe Berra, Stephen Hunt, Richard Stearman, Sylvain Ebanks-Blake, Kevin Foley and Stephen Gleeson all arriving having played under their boss in the old gold of Wolves.
It maybe never happened because McCarthy had a good run with left-backs at Portman Road, firstly with Aaron Cresswell, then Tyrone Mings and latterly Jonas Knudsen.
It was McCarthy who brought Ward over from Ireland in 2006, as a striker no less, and he latterly played for the ex-Town boss for his country, too, before retiring last year.
“I bought him as a striker and left-winger, so quite clearly I didn’t see his future in that position (left-back),” McCarthy said of Ward recently.
“But then having had an injury, I played him at left-back and he was outstanding.
“He played there ever since and as he progressed and played with us, we got to the Premier League. Having played him there, he never moved.
“That was him, he was nailed-on as left-back and he took to it as well as anyone I’d seen.
“I can never tell if someone is going to get 50 caps but he was someone I came to rely on very heavily, he was a great player at Wolves for me.
“He was a bit like Kevin Kilbane, the way he worked, tracked back, tackled and defended if he had to.
“From what he has gone on to achieve, he has been one of the most successful purchases. What was it from Bohs, £100,000?
“I think we’d both think that it was a success. I do and I am sure that he does.”
Any other business?
You may remember Ward was involved in a row between former Town boss Roy Keane and ex-Ipswich striker Jon Walters in 2018.
In a leaked WhatsApp message Ward outlined details of a dispute between Keane, Walters and Harry Arter during a Republic of Ireland training camp in May of that year.
In Ward’s account, ridden with expletives, Ward detailed how assistant boss Keane confronted both Walters and Arter due to the fact they were absent from training with injuries.
Ward said: “Roy walked over and was like, ‘Why aren’t you lads training?’ and he blatantly knew why they weren’t training because the manager would have told him and they were like, ‘We can’t do three days in a row’. ‘What are you guys? Professional footballers? That’s a shambles that is’.
“The both didn’t say anything and Roy walked off and came back over again, ‘So when are you going to train, I’m sick of people pulling out with injuries, what the f*** is wrong with ya?’ and the lads were like, ‘Listen, we’ve got problems, we do it at our clubs, we can’t do it’. Roy said something under his breath about Jonny (Walters) and walked off.
“Jonny lost his head, jumped off the bench and walked after him, grabbed his arm and said, ‘What’s the story Roy? If you’ve got a problem say it to my face, don’t f**king walk off.
“Roy brought up something about when they were at Ipswich together, they had like a falling out as well. ‘You’re threatening me again Jon, like you did at Ipswich’, and Jonny was like, ‘Yeah, are you going to be a s**thouse again and send me my fine in the post rather than say it to my face?’.”
So will Town sign him?
Well that remains to be seen.
The Blues are hopeful of beginning their pre-season game schedule in the coming week so there’s every chance Ward will be involved in some of those matches, where he’ll have a chance to stake a claim.
Any move for Ward will see the Blues needing to consider the new £2.5m salary cap in League One, with the club currently having little room for manoeuvre given the fact the current squad takes up £2m of the allowed salary.
Further additions are needed, in the form of a striker and even a second senior goalkeeper, meaning the club will need to prioritise.
If left-back is near the top of that list there’s every chance Ward could sign, though he’s likely to have to accept a significant pay cut given he’s spent the last 15 years in the top two divisions of the English game.