Exit Interview: Ward was the model pro who started fast but simply ran out of steam
- Credit: Steve Waller/Archant
Stephen Ward's time with Ipswich Town is over. Andy Warren looks back at the Irishman's season at Portman Road.
It’s a case of ‘one and done’ for Stephen Ward at Ipswich Town.
His signing last summer seemed a positive one. He filled an area of need following the departure of Luke Garbutt and brought experience, vocality and leadership to a side badly lacking all three of those qualities.
He came with concerns, of course, given his advancing years and an injury-hit campaign with Stoke City prior to his move to Suffolk, but those worries seemed unfounded as he impressed in pre-season and brought an air of authority to the side.
That translated into the competitive football, too, with his debut against Bristol Rovers a good marker for what was to come over the next month as he got up and down the left flank, contributing in both defence and attack as the Blues came out the blocks hot once again.
He and fellow veteran Luke Chambers, whose combined age totalled 70, were rolling back the years at full-back until an Achilles injury struck Ward at MK Dons at the start of October, ruling him out for three league games.
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His return came hot on the heels of the Blues’ first defeat of the season, away at Doncaster, but there was a sense he was rushed back into action as he struggled to get back up to speed and hit the standards he’d set during September.
Ward played the next 15 league games before dropping to the bench and being replaced by Myles Kenlock, who was given an extended run in the side and brought energy to the team, before another return for the veteran and some improved displays.
He captained Ipswich in his final three appearances for the club, highlighting his professionalism and positive influence around the squad, but his Town career ends in the same way Alan Judge’s did, with the Irishman stood down before making the one further start required to trigger an extra year in his deal.
The signing of Ward looked like a stop gap option when he arrived last summer and, in reality, the dip in form he suffered following a poorly-timed injury meant he was always likely to be heading to the exit at the end of the season.
As it turned out, he didn’t quite make it that far.
What went well
At his best, Ward brought balance, composure, an air of calm and vast experience to an Ipswich side needing all of those attributes in abundance.
He moved up and down the left flank with control and, on a number of occasions, made it into the box to shoot having also get past his winger on the overlap to cross on a regular basis.
Ward is a model professional and all those who worked with him this season will surely have benefited from his approach to the game both on and off the pitch.
He took some of the burden from captain Luke Chambers in terms of leading the group and was trusted and respected by both of his Ipswich managers, Paul Lambert and Paul Cook.
Areas to improve
Ward just wasn’t the same following the injury he suffered at MK Dons in October.
His return came too quickly and he looked sluggish at times, struggling to keep up with the pace of the game as he looked to get back up to speed.
Chambers and Ward bombing forward was one of the most notable features of Town’s early season form but their ability to do just that dried up, meaning Town had lost an important method of attack.
As has been the case for at least two years, one of Ipswich’s key weaknesses is allowed crosses to come into their own penalty area too easily, with Ward one of those guilty of positioning himself too narrowly on a number of occasions as he looked to avoid getting exposed by quicker wingers.
What the future holds
The Irishman will turn 36 just a couple of weeks after the start of next season, meaning it’s natural to wonder whether this is the end of the road for a player with so many miles on the clock.
He’s played almost all of his career in the top two divisions with Wolves, Burnley and then Stoke, with last summer’s move to Ipswich seeing him drop to League One level in a bid to continue his career.
Though he ran out of steam at times during his one season in Suffolk, it’s clear Ward has and continues to look after himself away from the pitch, meaning there’s every chance he will continue his playing career elsewhere.
He has been involved in community work throughout his career with his various clubs and is the kind of character who would transition to coaching well, should that be something he is interested in post-playing.
Retirement is an option, of course. It will be interesting to see which way he goes from here.
For Town, Ward’s departure once again leaves Kenlock as the only specialist left-back in Cook’s squad.
While the academy product has certainly proved he is capable of being part of the squad, it’s highly likely Cook will look to recruit a new flying full-back this summer.