Wales and Watford legend Helen Ward spoke to Impetus’ Ben Gilby about her incredible career for club and country as well as looking at how the game has developed and how she believes the sport is developing in tiers two and three.
Above: Helen Ward celebrating with Wales. Photo: FAW.
Earlier this year, Helen Ward won her hundredth cap for Wales. However, having been born in Brent, the Watford striker was eligible to represent the Lionesses, and indeed she did represent England U23’s earlier in her career as she reflects.
“I went on a few training camps and played in a game or two for England U23’s but, if I am honest, I never really felt like I fit in. I never felt like it was going to work out and in truth, I didn’t enjoy being away and so I didn’t show my best form.
“I then had a conversation with my assistant manager at Watford who also happened to be the assistant for Wales and he asked if I had a Welsh background or family history. When I explained that my grandparents were Welsh, he invited me along. It didn’t take much to convince me and from the minute I met the staff and players, I felt right at home. It was the best decision I ever made.”
That decision culminated with Ward making her international debut for Wales in September 2008 away to Luxembourg, an occasion that she still looks back fondly on. “Luxembourg away isn’t the most glamorous of occasions, but it meant the world to me to stand in that line-up and hear that anthem for the first time.
“There have been so many wonderful memories with Wales. It honestly has been the constant in my life for nearly 14 years and I have grown from a younger player to the oldest in the squad, and I feel like I have lived some of my best moments with these girls, certainly in terms of football.
“Other than my debut, the 45-minute hat trick in Haverfordwest against Kazakhstan was a good day – I came on at halftime as a sub at 0-0 and we went on to win 4-0 so that’s another.
“But one of my favourite team performances of all time was the 3-0 home win against Russia at Spytty Park, Newport. Again, it was 0-0 at halftime, it was roasting hot and we were running ourselves into the ground. Then we came out in the second half and absolutely battered them! It was the first time we had beaten a second seed team in a group and kept us in with a chance of qualifying for the World Cup. Ultimately, qualification didn’t come but that was a special game back in June 2018. It was also the first time I had both of my babies at a game.”
Prior to winning her hundredth cap, Ward highlighted how she feels her national team head coach Gemma Grainger had built on the achievements of the previous Welsh coaches. The striker outlined the real qualities that she believes Grainger has brought to the table.
“She has been great at acknowledging what and who had come before her and the foundations that we had built. Under Jayne Ludlow, we had become a very strong, defensive unit and a very disciplined team in terms of structure and our individual roles. We learnt how to adapt and adjust and learn new systems quickly and I think Gemma recognised that.
“She has just adapted parts of what we are good at and built on them by not trying to change us too much – particularly in terms of our out-of-possession principles but added an extra dimension to our play as an attacking team.
“We have a new formation but have good foundations and a good identity that has been built on and off the pitch over time.”
That identity is one that is making Wales extremely tough to beat. In their current World Cup qualifying campaign, they may have been beaten home and away by France, but Corinne Diacre’s team were well tested in both encounters. Ward believes that the Welsh are getting closer to the top teams, and it is only a matter of time before a historic win is achieved.
“It’s going to take time, of course, but we are as close as we’ve ever been. We are learning a lot about ourselves and, for me, that’s more important than learning about the other nations. We are learning that we can compete and that we have every right to compete with these sides and that’s showing in our performances. We just need to keep doing what we are doing and trust that it is working. The draw in a friendly against Denmark proves we have what it takes.”
With Helen having grown into the game in a period when it was hard to have prominent female role models in a male-dominated sport, the Watford striker believes there have been major strides in recent times, including the numbers of female coaches.
“I think there has been a big improvement in this area (female coach numbers), to be honest. You look at us with Wales for example where our last two head coaches have been female FIFA Pro License holders so that can’t be a bad thing. The FAWSL and Championship also has a good number of female coaches so it is happening.
“I think in the past, with the game being so young, the focus was on getting more women and girls playing the game and naturally were often being coached by men. Now, those players have got older, learned the game, and are now progressing into coaching.
“You look at some of the pioneers of the women’s game, the likes of Casey Stoney, Jayne (Ludlow), Jo Potter – they played the game and won trophies at the highest level and are now managing and coaching. That’s the start of it and now it is a professional sport, it is the natural progression for many players so we will keep seeing more and more former players going down that route.
“It’s not just coaching, either. We’re seeing more and more women in other roles in football. Whether it is behind the scenes or in the media and that’s what we want. Strong female role models across the whole spectrum of football.
I am interested in coaching but I also like the idea of working in the background of a club, developing pathways for younger players as well as working as a freelance broadcaster and covering the game that way. Let’s just say I am keeping my options open!”
As well as being a hugely respected long-term member of the Welsh national team, Helen is a legend at Watford, having originally joined the club at the age of nine.
“Yeah, Watford are a massive part of me as a player and a fan. I have had a connection with the club for over 25 years and it will always have a massive place in my heart.
“I was eight or nine when I first joined and it was basically a case of my older brother getting bored of me following him to football and playing in the garden so when he went to senior school and found an advert for trials at Watford he said I should give it a go. And that was that, I was hooked. I then stayed there until I was 22 when I left to join Arsenal.”
After a spell at the Gunners, Ward spent three years at Chelsea and four at Reading before returning to the Hertfordshire side that holds her heart. The striker has seen a lot of changes at Watford over that time.
“Things have changed massively. When I left in 2009 there was a very tenuous relationship between the men’s and the women’s sides and although coming back to finish my career there was always in the back of my mind, it would have to be right.
“If I’m honest, it didn’t look great for some time but then, when I fell pregnant with Charlie in 2017, everything fell into place and I realised the strides the club had made and I was ready to return.
“Even since 2017, things have been on an upward curve and despite spending longer than we’d have liked in tier three, it has given us a chance to grow again. We have hit another bump in the road with our relegation from the Championship at the end of this season but I know we are better equipped than ever to bounce back.”
That relegation came in truly dramatic style when Coventry United, who produced a superb late run of form to recover from points deductions to set up a final day decider against Helen’s side at Watford’s main Vicarage Road stadium. There was heartbreak for Ward and her teammates as a stunning 30-yard free-kick from Molly Green, seven minutes into stoppage time at the end of the game kept Coventry up and sent the Golden Girls back to the FA Women’s National League.
“It was a tough season for many reasons,” Ward admitted. “I think the gap between the FA Women’s National League and the Championship is closing, but with more and more of the Championship sides turning professional, it could well open up again.
“Ourselves and Sunderland (promoted with Watford into the Championship for the season just finished) found out ourselves pretty late after having to apply for upward movement due to the pandemic, so that set us on the back foot a little and we had to catch up in terms of player and staff recruitment all over the club. That’s not an excuse, though, and quite simply, we weren’t good enough often enough on the pitch and that is what has cost us our place in the Championship.
Whilst Helen admitted earlier that as the Championship has more professional clubs, the gap between tiers two and three may grow, she feels that next season may be different.
“I think teams can thrive, of course and I have real high hopes for Southampton to do that next season. Of course, you never know what might happen, but I am hearing all the right things coming out of that club so I am keen to see how they get on.
“In the future, I’d love to see both FA Women’s National League Northern Premier and Southern Premier winners get promoted so that clubs in the third tier have even more incentive to raise their game and get on a level with the Championship sides. In turn, that will filter down the leagues and grow the game from within.”
Our discussion ended with Ward reflecting on what piece of advice she would give an eight-year-old version of herself. Her wise words carry great meaning to all of us, however young (or old) we are.
“Enjoy every minute and don’t put pressure on yourself,” Helen advises. “As a footballer, the best feeling in the world is scoring goals and winning games – so enjoy it!”