Wednesday, April 30, 2008
In the Nick of time for Ward
The exotic Asian stamps in Nick Ward's passport are an indication of how quickly the Melbourne Victory midfielder's life has changed.
In the last few months, he's visited North Korea, Thailand and Japan while South Korea and China are also in his imminent travel plans.
Since returning to the A-League from the English Championship in December, Ward's career has been looking far brighter.
After helping spark a late season surge by Melbourne in the Hyundai A-League, Ward has found himself travelling all over Asia with the Victory in their inaugural AFC Champions League campaign.
And now the 23-year-old is excitedly looking forward to August's Beijing Olympics where he's likely to be a key member of the Olyroos.
'Things seem to be going a lot better for me,' Ward told ESPNsoccernet. 'I recovered from a hernia operation and I haven't missed any games.'
It's a far cry from his frustrating 16 month spell with QPR, visiting the likes of Burnley, Preston and Colchester, and getting loaned out to Brighton & Hove Albion.
Australian officials, including former Socceroo coach Graham Arnold, were less than enthusiastic about Ward's move to Loftus Road, believing the ex-Perth Glory star should either have stayed at home or aimed higher.
He was often played out of position by former manager John Gregory and then largely ignored by successors Mick Harford and Luigi Di Canio. Ward made just 23 appearances for QPR and eight on-loan to Brighton, scoring two goals.
'Sometimes you don't always get along with the new manager, which happened to me,' he said. 'Everything happens for a reason.'
Ward's drab stay at QPR was brightened up by a budding friendship with former Manchester United and Socceroo goalkeeper, Mark Bosnich, who spent a few months training with the club in a return to football after drug and personal problems.
Ward intends to try his luck again in Europe, but is happy for the moment to be a bigger fish in the smaller sea in Australia, having extended his deal with Melbourne to include the 2008-2009 domestic season.
The A-League has been a showcase for Ward ever since his penetrative attacking skills with Perth Glory made such a big impression in the fledgling championship's debut season.
He became the first man to win the A-League's Rising Star Award, and, at the age of just 20, was voted the Perth Supporters' Player of the Year.
Facing up to Serbia, the Ivory Coast and defending champions Argentina in August's Olympic Games will provide the biggest challenge in Ward's career to date and be a possible springboard towards the 2010 World Cup with the Socceroos.
Although Ward has excelled for Australia's under-20 and under-23 sides - he came on as a substitute in the Olyroos' final qualifiers against Iraq and in North Korea last November - he's still yet to make his first senior appearance, having been an unused sub during for an Asian Cup qualifying match against Bahrain in 2006.
'I've been waiting for my first cap,' he admits. 'I thought it might have come a bit earlier.'
The likes of Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell and Mark Bresciano are ahead of him in the midfield pecking order, but Ward knows that upcoming matches with the Olyroos - and facing the bigger sides in the AFC Champions League with Melbourne Victory - will give him plenty of opportunities to catch the eye.
Q: Would it be fair to say that 2008 is turning out to be a much better year than 2007 was for you?
A: Yes, I would say that. Last year we did qualify for the Olympics so that was a high in 2007. But I definitely had some lows last year. Since coming back to Australia with Melbourne Victory I recovered from a hernia operation and things seem to be going a lot better. I haven't missed any games with Melbourne Victory and it's really good for me to look forward to the Olympics in August.
Q: How have you found playing in the AFC Champions League so far? What is it like facing Japanese opposition and have you noticed a style of play that's different to what you're used to?
A: I've enjoyed playing in the AFC. It's a lot higher standard than the A-League especially when you come up against a Japanese team like Gamba Osaka. They've got lots of international players. You can tell the quality, especially in their front third. If you give them opportunities, they tend to take them. I think that's what's cost us in the two games we played them.
Q: How do you look back on your time in England, at Queens Park Rangers and Brighton? What could you have done to have been more successful?
A: I have a few regrets in different ways. I was young. You learn from different things. I went to a club where it wasn't very stable. The first eight games were good: I thought I was playing reasonably well. Then managers change. Sometimes you don't always get along with the new manager which happened to me. I would have liked for it to have gone differently but you can only go with what happens. Everything happens for a reason. I'm happy where I am at the moment. Obviously I'd like to go back overseas but my main focus is to get over the groin injury which is still not completely gone.
Q: When you left for QPR, the FFA were against your move as they thought you should be aiming higher. With hindsight, can you see where they were coming from?
A: Not necessarily. The Championship is a big league and all you need to do is have a couple of good games and you could be picked up by a Premier League team. The main reason I went to a Championship team is that I was going to play every game. You see some of the other Aussie boys - around my age - who are in the Premier League but they're not playing.
Q: After your excellent first season in the A-League with Perth Glory, what was it like coming back to the competition with Melbourne Victory?
A: It had changed a lot. The hype behind it, the interest from the public... it had changed. It's a lot bigger now. I definitely enjoyed coming back, even though I was carrying a pretty bad injury and was struggling through the last five matches and taking different painkillers. I've enjoyed it with Melbourne. They're a great team with some really good established players like Archie Thompson and Danny Allsopp and you've got good young players coming through like Leigh Broxham. I haven't got a bad word to say about it.
Q: How do you feel about the prospect of playing at the Olympics with the Socceroos given such a tough draw? How good is the next generation of players coming through?
A: When we qualified, it was sort of surreal. It took a little while to sink in. You get only one chance to play in the Olympics. It's a great honour to represent your country. The draw is a very tough one. Serbia are always good at youth and national level. Ivory Coast will be tough. Drogba's shown interest that he wants to play in the Olympics. And the Argentinians speak for themselves. I'm sure that we can do well. We've got a great team. We've been together for a few years now. We have a good understanding of each other and we have a good system. Graham Arnold's worked with us. I think they've done it right this time. We've played a lot of games together. I'm optimistic we can make it into the finals.
Q: You've sat on the bench for the Socceroos in an Asian Cup qualifier.
How do you think you might fit into a full strength Socceroo side and is this something that you expect to happen soon?
A: I've been waiting for my first cap. I thought it might have come a bit earlier. I hadn't been playing so that hampered my chances. I got the injury as well. I might have got the chance earlier this year but with Pim (Verbeek) coming in, it wasn't to be. I think I could fit it. I've had a lot of experience with the younger teams& I've always been a starter with them. Obviously there are players ahead of me and I've got a lot to learn to come up to their standard. You've got Timmy Cahill, Mark Bresciano and those sorts of players ahead of you but all you've got to do is be given a chance and you never know.
* Sydney-born Jason Dasey ( www.jasondasey.com ) is a host for Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.
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