“Wardy, what a joke.”
It was last October at Portman Road and Danny Ward had just taken Ipswich Town apart.
He’d scored twice in a 2-2 draw and run a home defence containing Scottish international Christophe Berra absolutely ragged for 90 minutes.
Afterwards, centre-half and Ward’s car-share buddy, Richard Wood, emerged from the Millers dressing room, shaking his head at what he’d just seen, to deliver his admiring critique of his pal’s performance.
Ward was capable of games like that. Not always. But often enough to make him a wanted man in the Championship.
No wonder Ipswich were one of the club’s bidding for him until the striker chose to move to Cardiff City for around £1.6 million and be reunited with his old Rotherham boss, Neil Warnock, on Friday.
He spent two and a half seasons at New York Stadium after a free transfer from Huddersfield Town in January 2015. For 18 months, he showed talent, inconsistency and a susceptibility to injury in equal measure. Not enough goals, we all said. Too quick to stay down, some said.
Then he came good.
Last season was one to forget for Rotherham as they were relegated from the second tier, but for parts of it Ward played the best football of his career and was voted the club’s Player of the Year.
There were eight goals in the first 16 games, nine by Christmas, a partnership with provider Izzy Brown that offered faint hopes of survival until Chelsea sent their loan youngster to Huddersfield instead. Caretaker manager Paul Warne - now in permanent charge - described his centre-forward as “a leader” and made him captain.
In the New Year transfer window, clubs came calling. Rotherham, realising that cashing in on their prized asset would be pretty much an admission that they were already down, refused to do business.
The 26-year-old would have tripled his wages by leaving. But he respected Warne, believed his boss when he told him he would be allowed to go in the summer and, in his own words, ‘got on with it’.
“Clubs come in for you but until a move happens you’ve just got to get your head down and stay focused,” he told The Star after his switch to South Wales had been announced.
“I’ve made some great friendships at Rotherham so when I stayed it wasn’t such a big hardship because I wanted to do well for my mates and Warney and my family and so on. You’ve just got to get on with it.
“I just wanted to help out the lads in any way I could and try to get out of the situation we were in. We didn’t, but that’s just one of those things. Staying or nor staying, I never thought too much about it, to be honest.”
The goals dried up during and after the January saga. Some people claimed Ward’s effort did too. But while his form undeniably dipped until he started scoring again in the latter stages of the campaign, the workrate didn’t.
After every match, Warne had separate highlights videos compiled - one showing the good parts of displays, the other showing the worst. And, yes, before anyone else says it, the lowlights were usually longer.
Time and again, Ward could be seen tracking back at full pelt when Millers attacks foundered and the opposition broke, often beating midfielders and defenders back to his own penalty area.
“You’re playing for personal pride,” the attacker said. “You’ve still got fans paying to come to watch you. They don’t want to come and watch and you’re just jogging about as if you’re not bothered.
“In the end, it’s a game of football. We’re competitive lads and you go out to win. You don’t go out to get rolled over and embarrassed by other teams. You try to put in a performance and do the best you can in every game.
“There was no sulking from me that I had to stay. There’s no point being like that. I wanted to do well for the lads. If you sulk, you just look like a d*ck.”
There were three goals in his first half-season, four in his first full year and last term’s total was 12, his best ever return as a pro, giving him a final tally of 19 in 95 appearances.
Those figures aren’t that impressive, but Ward, also able to operate wide left and whip in a telling cross, wasn’t just about hitting the net.
On his day, he had the pace, power, mobility and footwork to hurt most teams and a leap which made him more than a match for much taller opponents in the air.
In the opinion of former fitness coach Warne - who helped Ward no end to sharpen his conditioning and improve his lifestyle - the player has the ability to earn his living in the Premier League; not as a regular starter maybe, the manager said, but as an impact player coming off the bench.
The best individual Championship performances in a Millers shirt I have witnessed in the last three years - barring centre-back Craig Morgan’s 10/10 showing in a 1-1 draw at Charlton Athletic in January 2015 when Ward scored his first goal for the club - all came from the number nine .
He was virtually unplayable in a 2-0 home triumph over promotion contenders Hull City in December 2015. He outran and outgunned the Sheffield Wednesday defence as Matt Derbyshire lurked at the far post at Hillsborough in March 2016 and wrote himself into Millers derby folklore.
Then came Ipswich. “Wardy, what a joke.”
He was a big figure in the dressing room, funny and always in the thick of the banter. Teammates, to a man, will say he was a top bloke and the best player at the club.
Long coach journeys were sometimes wiled away by him and ex-Millers right-back Stephen Kelly getting out their guitars and instigating team singalongs.
He could appear a touch dead-pan, but that was just his initial manner. The more he relaxed, the warmer he got, and he was as well liked by the club’s staff as he was by the players.
I interviewed Kelly at the club’s Roundwood training base when Ward sidled past as the Irishman was dispensing his wisdom. “Who’s this for?” Ward enquired. “www.snooze.co.uk?”
Another time, midfielder Joe Newell, squealing for his life and protected only by a towel, burst from the Roundwood changing room with a fully-clad Ward in hot pursuit.
It didn’t end at all well for Newell. Or the towel.
Offers were at the £2 million mark in January. This week’s price still represents decent business for Rotherham for a player in the last year of his contract and who cost them nothing, although the Terriers will benefit from a sell-on clause thought to be around 40 or 50 per cent.
Relegation hurt and Ward appreciated how fans stuck by him and the team.
“They always supported me and I appreciate every bit of backing they gave me,” he said. “It’s always good to hear fans singing your name and stuff.
“Every single one of us was going out there and giving our absolute best. Too often, it wasn’t enough. You just feel disappointed yourself and for the fans. It wasn’t a nice thing to experience.”
His playing farewell came in the 1-0 New York victory over Ipswich on April 22.
He limped out of proceedings at half-time with a hamstring problem. Par for the course earlier in his time at the Millers maybe. But not anymore. Not in his last year.
Forty-three appearances. 12 goals. Loyalty. Commitment. Skipper. Player of the Year.
Too quick to stay down. In 2016/17, Danny Ward stood up.
Ward in his own words:
His time with the Millers
“It was good. I met some great lads. Loads of players came in and out. Warney was a big part of that. He helped me massively. And the fans were always behind me, particularly last year when you consider the kind of season we had. They still travelled to away games to support us. I’ll always be thankful for that. I really enjoyed my time with Rotherham.”
“It’s always good to get on the scoresheet but I’d rather have been winning games than personally scoring goals. It’s always a better feeling in the camp when you’re winning games and doing well in the league. Ultimately, the main aim is to get the three points every week and we weren’t doing that. The first half of last season was the best playing spell of my career. The goals dried up after Christmas a bit and obviously I got a bit frustrated. I don’t really know what happened. I started well and, once you get on a bit of a roll, things just seem to fall to you in front of goal. It was a tough season. There were a lot of manager changes and it’s hard when managers are coming in and out and you have different styles of play to try to get used to.”
“You know what Warney’s about. He’s a fitness freak! But that’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. Sometimes, you need that motivation and inspiration, if you want to call it that, from someone. Some days you come in and you’re aching but you need to push on and Warney is the man to get everyone going. On a personal level, I had a few niggly issues and bits of fitness stuff and he was always the first one to come over and help me out and make sure everything was going right outside of football. I can speak to him as a friend. He’s helped me out a lot in the game. I’ve got a lot to thank him for. I can see him doing well as a manager. I know the stresses he felt when he first took over last season. Now he’s got a full season to get the lads in and do things as he wants things them to be done, I can see Rotherham doing really well. We had a good team of players last year but, for one reason or another, it just wasn’t clicking. Now Warney can get everything organised, I think things will go well and Rotherham could be pushing for promotion next year.”
“I loved playing with Izzy. He was only a young lad but he came in into the team and, after a slow start, it just clicked. Then he went to Huddersfield and he just took off again and helped them win promotion to the Premier League. He was brilliant for me. To be fair, I think him leaving probably did have an affect on my scoring. When you’ve built a partnership with someone, you understand where they’re going to run and what they’re going to do with the ball. That helps you move off them and vice versa. He knew what I was going to do and would make a little run. No disrespect to any of the other lads, because they’re all good players, but when you’re playing week in, week out with Izzy you know exactly what you’re going to do. Then, suddenly, he’s gone and you’ve got to try to get a new understanding with whoever you’re playing with.”
“I’d say the Reading in my first season when we stayed up, when Frecks scored. That’s probably my stand-out moment. It was great to see the fans’ faces and how buzzing they were to stay up in their first season back in the Championship. You could tell what it meant to people. It was a special moment. I really enjoyed that.”
Cardiff over Ipswich
“I’d worked with Neil Warnock before and loved my time at Rotherham with him. He was brilliant, and so were Blacky (assistant boss Kevin Blackwell) and Jeppo (coach Ronnie Jepson). I knew a few of the Cardiff lads as well. Everything seemed to fit. That’s what swayed me to go for Cardiff rather than Ipswich. Obviously, Cardiff is a long, long way away, but when you know some of the people down there and you know the manager can get teams promoted because he’s done it in the past, it makes moving easier. It just seemed like a great opportunity. I had a couple of conversations with Ipswich. But Cardiff were in and the fact Neil was there was a big thing because we’d worked so well together before. He kept Rotherham up in 2016 and I know what he’s about. I’m good friends with Jon Stead and Paddy Kenny, who’ve worked with him before and done great things with him. They don’t have a bad word to say about him, and I’d experienced that myself. That’s why Cardiff was the one for me.”
“Staying in the Championship was a massive factor for me. When you’re in the Championship, playing in these big stadiums in front of massive crowds, you want to stay at that level and try to get to even higher levels. It’s hard to tell whether I’d have stayed at Rotherham had they stayed in the Championship. You don’t know. Obviously, last season didn’t go to plan. As a personal thing, I knew I needed to stay in the Championship and to play as high as possible. I’ve got lot to thank Rotherham for. They’ve gave me the opportunity to play in the Championship week in, week out, especially last season.”