Rotherham United: How more goals have made Danny Ward the Millers' main man
I owe Danny Ward an apology.
In pre-season, I interviewed him after the first friendly, a Saturday-afternoon run-out against Parkgate FC in July, and the Rotherham United striker told me he’d set himself a target of 20 goals for the 2016/17 season.
Excellent player though he is, he’d scored only three in half a Championship campaign with the Millers after arriving in January 2015 and four in his first full year with the club which culminated in former manager Neil Warnock’s survival miracle.
So I didn’t give his quotes the prominence they deserved. Instead of leading with such a lofty aim, I buried it down the story. 20 goals? Eighth paragraph.
It would be in the intro if I was writing it now, for the 24-year-old has been scoring at the rate of almost a goal every other game since August 6 opening day and is among the division’s most prolific hitmen.
Twenty goals remains a huge ask for a forward whose best ever return is 10 in 2013/14 with Huddersfield Town, but five in 11 matches in a team at the foot of the table is some achievement.
Boss Alan Stubbs recognises a dangerous player when he sees one and has set up the team to provide the ammunition for his main marksman.
Winger Jon Taylor has been told to deliver crosses more quickly from the right, while the ability of Chelsea loan youngster Izzy Brown, operating close to Ward but just behind the frontline, to see a killer pass has already brought his partner one goal and set up other inviting opportunities.
“First of all, you have to get the service to Wardy. He’s a very talented footballer,” Stubbs said.
“We’ve got options within the team where we can create chances. I think Wardy has benefited from that. I think Izzy has been a big plus in helping him.
“Danny has played more of a central role this season and I think he’s just getting the benefits from the likes of Jon and Izzy.
“At times, we’ve had a couple of options on the left with Joe (Newell) and Fordey (Anthony Forde). Izzy’s been out there as well. I think they’ve just created more chances for him.”
Not that Ward’s contribution can be measured purely in goals. His pace, mobility and all-round play have always been big weapons for the Millers.
He gave the two stand-out individual Rotherham performances of last season, leading Hull City’s esteemed defence a merry dance in a 2-0 home win last December and then leaving centre-halves of the quality of Tom Lees and Michael Turner in his wake as he covered every blade of the Hillsborough grass in a famous 1-0 derby victory in March.
This term, Ward has added more consistency, and there has been a new-found strength and sharpness about him.
In a tough start for Rotherham, his contribution has been one of the biggest causes for optimism.
Also, his ability in the air is completely out of scale with someone who just touches six feet in height. Brown played his first match for the Millers in the 1-0 triumph over Brentford in August and couldn’t believe how many headers his teammate won.
Ward’s name crops up probably more than any when other Millers players talk about gifted teammates and who is a difficult opponent in training.
He will admit that, in the past, he’s not always looked after himself in entirely the proper manner, but fitness coach Paul Warne - part nemesis, part nagging guide - has helped him see the error of old ways.
Ward is quick to acknowledge the influence of the former Millers player and is from the same tireless mold.
However, scarred by what Warne puts him though in pre-season, he’ll never quite grasp his mentor’s love of running. “One of those mad people,” he grins with a shake of his head. Actually, there’s no grin, just a shake of the head.
Warne, by the way, rates him as highly as teammates and Stubbs do.
Rotherham were criticised for their failure to sign a centre-forward during the transfer window. Yet, during a barren search, the manager drew comfort from the fact he already had Ward at his disposal.
“‘Striker’ is always that sexy word,” Stubbs said. “Everybody wants a striker and, to be honest, I was always really happy with Wardy from the day I walked in.
“His ability is there for everyone to see. It was just about making sure that he stayed in the right areas.
“I was with David Moyes at Everton and David likes his strikers to work really hard and work the frontline. One of the complaints at the time was that, by the time the striker had done all the running, when ball came into the box he was too tired to make that run.
“We’ve just emphasised to Wardy that, yes, he does have to work hard along the frontline, but when that ball comes into the box he has to be bright and on the front foot. He’s been a positive since we came in.”
Such a positive, in fact, that David Wagner, boss of table-topping Huddersfield, admitted after the Millers had travelled to the John Smith’s Stadium 12 days ago that special plans had been made to combat the threat of two specific players. Brown was one, Ward the other.
Rotherham lost 2-1. But Ward scored.
He is an unassuming character for whom actions speak louder than words.
“I know I’ve needed to add more goals to my game,” he said.
“I’ll always work hard. I’m quite pleased with my form. On a personal level, things have been going okay.”
All his goals this season have been good ones, from his smart header in the 2-2 draw against Wolves on the first day of the season and the well-taken August 20 winner over the Bees to the slick double last month against Blackburn Rovers and the clever volley against former club Huddersfield. He doesn’t really do tap-ins.
In the past, the attacker has suffered from a back problem which required regular monitoring and too often his skills have been lost to the Millers as he has been forced into the treatment room.
Ask him a question about staying fit and he immediately looks round for wood to touch.
He missed most of March 2015 two months after joining the club, was out for a month early last season, was absent for some of October, then, during the 11-match unbeaten run under Warnock, gave up his place when he suffered a spasm on the day of the win at Ipswich Town.
But there has been a change. Now, another another statistic, as impressive in its own right as five in 11, marks him down as Rotherham’s biggest contributor since Stubbs took over in the summer.
This season, he has started every Championship game and finished all but one of them, coming off after 69 minutes of the 2-2 home draw with Nottingham Forest.
No Millers outfield player has racked up more league minutes than the club’s danger man and top scorer.