Rotherham United: How Grant and Millers were good for each other
It was a vicious, premeditated foul designed to hurt Grant Ward and test his heart and mind.
The Rotherham United loanee had flashed past QPR’s Paul Konchesky a couple of times at AESSEAL New York Stadium and the visiting veteran defender was issuing his own kind of warning.
Konchesky clattered into his younger, quicker opponent, late and high, leaving him laid out just over the Rangers byline and requiring treatment
It wasn’t long before Ward was back on his feet. And it wasn’t long he was taking on and beating the 35-year-old former England international again.
Millers fans already knew by then that Ward, who had been on loan from Spurs since the start of the season, had talent and pace.
He showed that January 16 afternoon he also had physical toughness and character.
He’s back home in South London now, his Championship year in South Yorkshire over, and is unlikely to be seen in a Rotherham shirt again.
But his efforts for the Millers, from his difficult early days under Steve Evans, through the mid-season tenure of Neil Redfearn, to the amazing survival turnaround of Neil Warnock, will long be remembered and appreciated.
After starring in pre-season, Ward found himself out of favour under Evans when the action got under way for real but bloomed when Redfearn assumed control in October.
“He gets you up the pitch,” said Redfearn. “Quickly.”
Ward was played on the right and in the centre of midfield, but it was on the flank where his speed, direct running and desire to beat his man really stood out.
“He gives you athleticism,” Redfearn added. “He has got the confidence to pick up the ball and turn and get at defenders. He’s a major talent.”
Redfearn had Ward on the bench for his first game in charge, the 2-1 defeat at Brentford, but started him in every other match of his four-month reign.
There are flaws in Ward’s game. He likes an extra touch, which works against him in the tight confines of central midfield, doesn’t give an easy pass quickly enough and needs to improve the weight of his final delivery.
But his energy and the fearless thrust of his attacking play were up there with the very best in the second tier, and all three managers under whom he played with the Millers talked about his mental resilience, willingness to learn and determination to prove himself.
He also scored the club’s Goal of the Season with a long-range thrunderbolt at home to Burnley on October 2
Konchesky wouldn’t fancy playing against him again next season. Facing Konchesky again wouldn’t faze Ward at all.
Initially under Warnock, who answered Rotherham’s SOS call in February when relegation was looking likely, Ward found himself in and out of the side, to the surprise of many.
“He had a bit of learning to do,” said Warnock who was mindful his young charge could sometimes try too much in wrong areas and wanted to see more from him defensively. “There were areas where he needed to step up his level of responsibility.”
Ward listened, learned and became a key figure again as the Millers defied the odds to seal their safety.
Survival was pretty much wrapped with a 4-0 victory at MK Dons on April 9, an occasion which showcased the very best Ward has to offer.
In the first minute, he picked up a ball from goalkeeper Lee Camp on the halfway line, found only Jake Forster-Caskey standing in his way, pushed the ball into space and turned on the turbo. Forster was left trailing and Caskey was even further behind as Ward scorched to the byline before setting up Matt Derbyshire for the opening goal.
Fast forward to final day at Hull City on May 7. Rotherham were 5-1 down in the second half of a dead rubber, but Ward, crowning an all-action display, chased back 70 yards when the Tigers broke to make a crucial clearing header.
He’d listened, he’d learned, and Warnock was suitably impressed.
“I thought Grant was outstanding for us,” the boss said at the KC Stadium. “He is a young man who is only on loan but that doesn’t bother him. He is a Tottenham player but I thought he epitomised what we should have been doing. He has a good future ahead of him.”
What comes next? Ward is unlikely to make Spurs’ Champions League squad next season, so another loan, possibly at one of the bigger Championship clubs, could be on the cards. He’ll certainly be given a special welcome by the New York faithful if he does return with another side.
He arrived at Rotherham as a boy with just a handful of loan games at League One Coventry City to his name.
He celebrated his 21st birthday with the Millers, grew up in 43 appearances and leaves as a man.