Shropshire Star

Former Wolves and Walsall defender Stephen Ward taking it all on board in life after football

Wolves against Nottingham Forest is a fixture which changed Stephen Ward’s career.

Stephen Ward scores the winner for Wolves, prodding the ball past Pepe Reina

Back in the August of 2008, he was 18 months into life at Molineux which had been occupied either as a striker or on the left of midfield.

Boss Mick McCarthy had lost his normal left back George Elokobi to a serious injury, and hinted in his pre-match press conference that he had found the perfect replacement.

That replacement…was Ward.

Wolves won 5-1, Ward spent much of the remainder of his Wolves stay at left back, and so too at Burnley, ultimately chalking up 171 appearances in the Premier League not to mention 50 senior caps for the Republic of Ireland.

If it was a McCarthy masterstroke, it was also a decision which paid off thanks to Ward’s ability to adapt, willingness to learn and a strong mentality allied to the technical quality to operate in several different positions.

That adaptability and willingness to learn – as seen when he remained in Ireland to complete his education before landing his big move to Wolves back in 2007 – has already been seen in Ward’s post-playing days since hanging up his boots 18 months ago after rounding off his career just down the M6 with Walsall.

Already doing some voluntary coaching with the Academy at Burton where his son was playing, Ward has then worked as assistant with Kevin Foley to Roger Johnson at Brackley Town, alongside completing the UEFA ‘B’ and ‘A’ licences.

All the time however, he had the overall ambition of a Sporting Director role and was visiting different clubs, utilising his contact network, whilst also studying for a Masters in Sports Directorship.

And then, this summer, he was appointed as Sporting Director at Solihull Moors in the National League.

Another journey begins.

“It is always in the back of your mind towards the end of your career, what to do next,” Ward explains.

“The majority of players who stay in the game aim to go into coaching, management, working as agents or in the media.

“I enjoyed coaching, and I enjoyed working with Rog and Foles at Brackley, but I always had this feeling that football is now such a global business and a global sport.

“And so I had always been interested in the business side of it, what goes on off the field.

“I am sure any player will tell you that when you are training every day, you are thinking about being in the best possible physical condition and mental space to be able to perform.

“But over the last 18 months to two years of my playing career, when I got to the stage when I knew I hadn’t gone long left, I started using my network of contacts to learn about different roles.

“I went to clubs to meet people who worked in different positions off the field, including Wolves, where Scott Sellars (former technical director) was really good in terms of helping me and making me realise what areas would suit me.

“I was also lucky to have a friend who was working at Manchester City as the pathways manager in the loans department and spent a bit of time there, getting the chance to speak to people I wouldn’t have had a chance to otherwise.

Ward with Mick McCarthy – the man who turned him into a left-back

“With that I could learn how a club operated at the very highest level, but I also used contacts down the leagues, and when I was at Walsall, Leigh Pomlett (co-chairman) was great in showing how a club at that level operates.

“In seeing a mix of clubs in different leagues I found I had a real buzz of that Sporting Director type role – it was something I became really interested in – and studying for the degree only enhanced that feeling.”

Pursuing that Masters qualification has certainly provided Ward not just with plenty of food for thought as to how to take on life post-playing, but also substantial practical knowledge as well as learning from the thoughts and experiences of some of the key figures within the game.

And it hasn’t just been in football, with a dip into the world of Formula 1 to deliver a presentation on the high performance culture and strategy of the Mercedes AMG team after visiting their headquarters in Brackley.

“Once I knew what I wanted to do, and going straight into it from football, it was really important to develop my business acumen and the Masters has been perfect in that respect,” says Ward.

“I am now onto my dissertation with just a few months of the course remaining, which has been invaluable with my learning and networking.

“Some of the speakers have been brilliant, not just in football but from other sports, and you can take aspects from so much of what they say and take the opportunity to pick their brains.

“My cohort is a mix of people from football or professional environments in other sports, and the whole course has been excellent – I really can’t recommend it highly enough.”

As he moved towards the end of the Masters, and whilst he was gleaning as much information as possible from contacts and experiences, opportunity knocked for Ward with the new position created at Solihull.

He was introduced to Moors chairman Darryl Eales who was leading a restructure at Damson Park, bringing in a new manager in Andy Whing whilst looking to appoint the club’s first ever Sporting Director.

A forward-thinking National League club, which has been knocking on the door of the Football League by twice reaching the play-offs in recent years, it seems a perfect fit for the equally ambitious Ward and, after several weeks of conversations, he was appointed in the summer.