West Ham fans can be an unforgiving lot, as any visiting player who played in front of the old Chicken Run at Upton Park can testify.
But the one way to earn their respect is to show 100 per cent effort – and few players have done that to quite the same degree, and with quite such a level of enduring success, as Mark Ward.
The right winger was a key element of the club’s most successful-ever side, the team that finished third in the old Division One in 1985-86, combining skill with an overwhelming work rate.
His boyhood club Everton’s decision to release him for being too small turned out to be to West Ham’s advantage as he grasped his second shot at the big time with both hands to earn himself enduring cult status amongst Irons fans. And as he told Blowing Bubbles, it was this early knock-back that made him the player he went on to be.
‘I’d been at Everton since I was a kid, so when they let me go I was devastated,’ he said. ‘Sometimes in life, you need to go back a bit to go forward. They said I wasn’t big or strong or quick enough – I couldn’t grow, that’s the size I was, but I could do something about being stronger, and the pace came with that.Embed from Getty Images
‘I’m not being arrogant but I always believed in myself and knew I had the ability. Just before Everton let me go, I was playing in an U19 tournament in Holland, against the likes of AC Milan and Sevilla, and I was player of the tournament. Ronald Koeman played in that tournament, and I was better than him, so I just had to progress physically.’
That physical development came about in two years playing for non-league Northwich Victoria, although when he was invited for a trial, Ward misread it as Norwich until his father pointed out the mistake.
‘My two years there enhanced my career and made a man of me, because as a small 18 year old, I was playing against some big men,’ he said. ‘I got to play in the FA Trophy final at Wembley in my first season there too, so it was a fantastic experience. I’ll always be grateful for what they did for me.’
Two impressive seasons at Northwich were enough to catch the eye of Oldham manager and former Everton legend Joe Royle – and maybe the Everton connection helped sway Ward’s decision to sign, because it was certainly not the money.
‘Working and playing non-league I was on £200 a week, then Oldham offered me £130!,’ he said. ‘Joe also told me that the chairman didn’t want to spend £9,500 on a non-league player, but I promised him I’d be their best player that season.
‘Even though I was taking a cut in wages, I couldn’t say no, and once I signed I worked as hard as I possibly could in training. When he said I was going to make my debut, I said “I should think so too”! I scored in my first game and didn’t miss a match for the next two seasons.’Embed from Getty Images
On a Tuesday night in August 1985, as Ward was preparing for the new season with Oldham, he received a phone call from Royle, and everything changed.
‘He said “Are you sitting down son? Because we’ve just agreed to sell you to West Ham for £250,000 and John Lyall will be at your house in an hour to sign you”. My response was “the chairman’s happy to sell me now, two years ago he didn’t want to buy me”!, he explained.
‘A few clubs had been looking at me but I knew nothing about West Ham’s interest until that moment. These days, particularly with social media, everyone knows about everything in advance, but I prefer it that way, get your head down and do the work, and then if something happens, it happens.
‘Within the hour, John Lyall turned up, invited himself into the house, told me to put the kettle on and totally took command of the situation. He wasn’t arrogant, he was humorous too, but he was totally in charge and straight away I thought “this is a proper manager, someone I want to play for”.’
Lyall drove Ward down to London with an overnight bag, and the following day, just days before the start of the new season, he signed for West Ham, along with another new arrival who Ward met for the first time in the corridor outside the manager’s office – Frank McAvennie.
‘There were already some great players at the club, and I don’t think a lot of people knew who Frank and I were, but we were strong, aggressive, confident and gave the team that little bit of extra edge,’ said Ward – although it took him a bit of time to become quite so self-assured.
‘In my first training session, I didn’t get a touch and for the first time in my career, I felt out of my depth,’ he explained. ‘I knew I had to improve dramatically, and I wasn’t that great in my first game, but John Lyall kept faith with me, and I ended up playing every game that season, the club’s best ever season. That’s something I’m very proud of.’
That team was of course the legendary Boys of 86, and their third place finish in the old Division One remains the club’s highest-ever league placing.
‘There was no secret, we just had great players from back to front,’ said Ward. ‘Phil Parkes was an amazing keeper, in defence we had Ray Stewart who was as solid as a rock, Alan Devonshire was the best I ever played with and was just back from injury so he was like a new player, and up front we had Frank and Tony Cottee.Embed from Getty Images
‘We had confidence and momentum, it’s just a shame that a lack of consistency at the start of the season undermined things and we ran out of games at the end. But there was no shame in finishing third behind those Liverpool and Everton sides though, they were at their peak.’
Ward picks out the 4-0 win at Chelsea on a legendarily grassless pitch at Stamford Bridge that spring as one of the team’s finest performances. ‘Towards the end of the season, we really thought we could win the title, and when we turned over Chelsea like that, I think the rest of the country did as well. It’s such a shame we fell just short that year.’
But when asked to pick out one outstanding memory of his time at West Ham, Ward opts for not a goal or a game, but a place. ‘Every time I played at Upton Park was a very special memory for me,’ he said. ‘It was an iconic place, people didn’t realise just how special it was until it was gone.
‘As a winger, I used to be up alongside the Chicken Run, and I remember Alvin Martin telling me that the experience would either make or break me, and it made me. They could see I was 100 per cent pure blood and guts, and they respected that. Every time I walked out there was a blessing.’
Brought in by Lyall, Ward had found his home at West Ham and would happily have stayed much longer, but for one thing: Lou Macari. When Lyall was sacked in 1989, the former Swindon boss replaced him, and Ward’s days at West Ham were numbered.
‘He’s the only reason I left, and he should never have been allowed near that club,’ he said. ‘As a player he was great but he wanted to change everything about the way that team played.
‘If Billy Bonds or an insider had got the job after John Lyall, I’d have been happy to stay there. I’m not someone who’s hard to manage but I can’t work with someone if I’m not on the same wavelength, and I absolutely was not with him.’
As it turned out, though, Ward’s move away – to Manchester City – worked out well for both clubs, as in return West Ham got fellow Scouser Ian Bishop and Trevor Morley.
‘After Boxing Day, City were nine points adrift at the foot of the table, and Howard Kendall, who was the manager there, said “I need a team of Scousers to keep us up”.
‘You can imagine how much the Mancs liked hearing that! I said to him “you’ve just let one go to West Ham”, and he said “he can’t do what you can”. And as it turned out, we did stay up.’
When Kendall left City, Ward was disappointed, but his parting words were ‘I’ll see you sooner than you think,’ and a year later Kendall signed Ward for the second time, for his boyhood club Everton.
His time at the West Ham finishing school had paid off, and he now returned home the complete player after a decade away.
‘Joe Royle was right – going to West Ham had made me a better player. I was so lucky to have such a good time there, with such great team-mates and fans, and then to come back to Everton was an absolute dream come true.’
When asked about his special bond with the fans at West Ham, his words are simple – and would probably apply equally to City and Everton fans as well.
‘All fans want is commitment,’ he said. ‘The likes of Billy Bonds are the real heroes – consistent and hard working. I never missed many games, the fans could always see that and they respected that.’
Ward is a rare thing in football – someone who has earned cult status at three different clubs, with three very different sets of fans, and that adoration is coming to his aid now, as he works tirelessly raising funds for his sister Sue, who has been diagnosed with incurable debilitating condition motor neurone disease.
‘People have been so generous and helpful,’ he said. ‘We had an event at Foreman’s Fish restaurant near the London Stadium a while ago where West Ham, City and Everton fans were all there supporting, and we raised £18,000 in one night. The PFA and my personal friends have got behind the cause too, so it’s great to see everyone getting involved.’
“Involved” is as good a word as any to sum up Ward’s playing style, and he remains involved with West Ham to this day, hosting pre-match events, meeting fans and sharing memories with fans and former players. And clearly, it is a two-way love affair.
‘When you pull on a West Ham shirt, especially in my day, it leaves a mark on your soul – you can never forget what it means,’ he explained. ‘That’s why I still have such a special relationship with the fans. They can see that, and they understand that.’