A forward with immense pace and a great work ethic. Goals, assists, you name it. A good character, too. Jamie Ward will always be fondly remembered by Derby County supporters. Always. That’s even despite his move across the A52 to Nottingham Forest, but nobody holds that against him, too much. He enjoyed incredible highs at Pride Park Stadium but also suffered some unbearable lows, too. He looks back at this time with no regrets, though.
A youth team player at Aston Villa before spells in the lower league with Stockport County, Torquay United and Chesterfield, who at the time were managed by Rams legend Roy McFarland, Ward joined Sheffield United in January 2009. He helped the Blades reach the Championship Play-Off Final against Burnley at Wembley, however, the occasion would end in the disaster only 11 minutes after coming on as a substitute as he was sent off. It was a learning curve.
Two years later, Ward swapped Bramall Lane for Pride Park Stadium, initially on loan, as then-Rams boss Nigel Clough was building a squad to compete at the higher echelons of the Championship table. From the moment he met the manager, he liked how he spoke about the game, but mainly how he treated him.
“We were in hospital, our first child was about to be born, when Nigel phoned,” he recalled in an interview with Colin Gibson for the latest episode of RamsTV Meets. “I had to ring him back to say I was in the hospital and would he be fine if I gave him a call after. He told me to enjoy the occasion because it’s life-changing. That was when I knew I liked him because I’d never come across a manager that spoke to me like that before. I came down to meet him and my dad said to me that if I messed about at Derby, then he will ruin my career.
“On that Saturday, Derby played Portsmouth away, the famous Tomasz Cywka incident where he got a roasting afterwards for costing the side a win, and I’d heard what had happened. Because I knew I was coming to Derby, I was looking for information and I saw Portsmouth had scored in injury time, so that was my first real memory of the place. A few days later, I was in the building and to be honest, it was probably the happiest part of my career.”
He looked happy, too. He was scoring goals and enjoying his football. Whilst his first goal for the club came in a defeat against Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium, his second goal, in a 2-2 draw against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park was nothing short of spectacular.
Ward picked up the ball and from around 35 yards out, he fired at goal, more in hope than expectation, and he caught the ball sweetly as it thundered past goalkeeper Julian Speroni and into the back of the net.
“It was a shot in a hundred wasn’t it,” he laughed. “Nigel was just a breath of fresh air. He had faith in me and was always one that said to shoot from 25 yards or closer and not to shoot from further. I hit it and as I did I heard someone in the background say something and all of a sudden the ball flew into the far corner. I couldn’t believe it.
“I only hit it because there wasn’t much else on. It probably caught the goalkeeper out and he didn’t expect it. Fortunately it went into the corner and I looked around and the coaching staff were smiling after! Nigel doesn’t like shooting from far out because the percentages of scoring are very low but thankfully that one went into the back of the net.”
Ward was making a name for himself at Pride Park Stadium. So much so that after five goals in 13 appearances whilst on loan, his move was made permanent in the summer of 2011. He started the season as the club’s main forward, alongside Steven Davies, but struggled for goals before the first international break of the season.
His first goal of the campaign didn’t come until Saturday 10th September. His first goal as a permanent Derby County player came in a memorable victory at the City Ground against Nottingham Forest. It was his first taste of an East Midlands Derby, too. It would come in controversial circumstances as well. After goalkeeper Frank Fielding had been sent off in the opening stages of the game, Derby were reduced to ten men and fell a goal behind as Andy Reid converted from the penalty spot.
However, Derby responded well and just before the half hour mark, Ward produced a superb piece of mastery to level the scoreline. There was uproar from the Forest players, however, as Chris Cohen had gone to ground and looked in pain but the Rams continued and scored their equaliser.
“I wish Chris Cohen never would have had that knee injury, because it is a terrible injury in the football world,” Ward admitted. “If I would have known it was that bad, I would have kicked the ball out but I just thought he may have been playing on it and trying to stop the game because we were going forward. The referee didn’t stop the game.
“The ball came forward from Jason Shackell to Gareth Roberts. Robbo played it to me and I just remember hearing Nigel shouting ‘play on’. Rightly so, too. If the game should be stopped then the referee should stop it, unless it’s a clash of heads. Essentially, it was 10v10 wasn’t it. Radoslaw Majweski tried to kick me and didn’t. Someone else had a go and a couple more too but they missed. I remember getting past one, Chris Gunter came across and he tried to nail me on the touchline and I got past him with a cheeky nutmeg. I meant it, too.
“I had no right to hit it but I just thought why not. It didn’t actually hit my foot properly, it hit the back of the foot more so more my heel and Lee Camp went to save it with his feet. If he had gone with his hands then he would have picked it up. People can talk about sportsmanship but three or four of their players surrounded the referee to get Frank Fielding sent off. Yes, it was a sending off but they didn’t need to surround him because he was always going to get sent off. As I was celebrating, Matt Derbyshire tried to grab me but it is just part and parcel of the game. You just have to get on with the game and defend it better.”
With ten men, the Rams went on to win the game 2-1. Jeff Hendrick introduced himself on to the scene with an incredible winner in front of the Derby faithful at the City Ground. However, he could and maybe should have opened his account prior to scoring that memorable strike, as he headed wide from close range in the second half.
“I could have throttled him,” Ward smiled. “It was harder to miss that header and I don’t know how he managed it. But what a great way to introduce yourself and score your first career goal. What an occasion. We weren’t expected to win the game going into it by many on the outside. To go and do that with 10 men was an unbelievable feeling.
“Steve McClaren came into Derby later on and his message was to make sure we keep 11 players on the pitch, because you don’t win anything with ten men. It was too early at the time because he had not long since come in and I was thinking: ‘I’m sure we beat you with 10 men a couple of years ago’ but I didn’t have the minerals to say it because I needed to play games!”
Ward had to battle mentally on occasions, not just at Derby but during his career, too. Injuries are part and parcel of the game, but the forward suffered with persistent hamstring issues which affected his journey as a footballer on occasions.
“It was frustrating,” he admitted. “It’s hard to explain but eventually you get used to it. The bit I found really hard was to keep walking off the pitch. Then you have to overcome the mental challenge because I would get injured when I was in really good form or speaking about potential new contracts. It just hit me hard because I knew I was going to be out for at least six weeks.
“I remember getting a phone call - this wasn’t a hamstring injury either - I had been in good form and we had played Bournemouth away. I tweaked my knee and Neil Sullivan - the physio at the time - rang me and said I would be out for six to eight weeks. I was just had to get on with it. But as soon as the phone went down, I started crying.
“I don’t know why I was crying but you know when it just gets you a little bit because I was doing well, scoring goals and assisting. I was playing in a good team and then I suffered this injury. That’s the side that people don’t see. It was a nothing injury, but because it had happened over and over with other injuries, it was just ‘here we go again’ but we live and learn don’t we? Don’t tackle in future!”
In September 2013, Clough departed the club with Steve McClaren taking over the managerial reigns. It was a decision which split the dressing room. Clough, someone who Ward held in high regard, had been at the club for four years but after sitting 14th after nine games, the club decided to make a change.
“Everyone was divided,” he recalled. “We were gutted because we liked Nigel. He was straight to the point, didn’t beat about the bush and said it how it was supposed to be said. He didn’t mess around in that aspect and we enjoyed his training but it came out of the blue. Nigel knew more but we always thought he was safe.
“I didn’t agree with it at the time but when you look at what happened after that, you can’t complain. All of a sudden we turned into promotion contenders. We didn’t know that was going to happen. We just had a new manager in and it was a case of just impressing him. He tweaked a few bits, got us solid at the back and we could always score goals. They worked on shape, pattern across the pitch and he just changed little things.
“He said he had watched seven or eight games and all of a sudden we turned into a force. He brought in Simon Dawkins, Andre Wisdom, George Thorne and Patrick Bamford, but it was the same core of players but we had an understanding of how he wanted us to play. Everything came off so you’re all on board and fully invested. The way that season went, it was beyond what we thought we could do.
“We knew we were good but we didn’t know we were that good. It took someone like Steve McClaren coming in to bring that out in us. You can see why he’s managed England and had a good career. He’s the best I’ve ever worked with on the training field, that’s without a shadow of a doubt. We just had that belief. We started to believe in each other. Chris Martin was scoring goals, as was Craig Bryson and Johnny Russell and I would pitch in. Bamford and Dawkins scored as well. It’s the best football I’ve ever been involved in.”
Despite an incredible run of form, that season would end in Play-Off heartbreak. We don’t need to explain what happened. And, the following season would also end in frustration, too. With Derby in a good position to progress forward, the Rams let their foot off the gas and fell short of reaching the play-offs.
“We were cruising - but then we just exploded,” he said. “Looking back, we thought we had done it and we were just ticking along. Instead, we should have had that drive and that mentality to carry on and going for the throat straight away, killing teams. We went away from that and only won two of the last 12 games, and that was against the bottom two teams, so I think that was more down to our character.”
However, that would prove to be his last season with the club. He didn’t know it at the time, but his 20-minute cameo at the end of a 3-0 home defeat against Reading would be the last time he donned the black and white.
“I didn’t know that was going to be my last game,” he explained. “I still thought the club would take my option up on my contract for the next year and I never even thought about being released. Unfortunately all good things come to an end. The only thing I don’t like about when it gets to the end at a football club is that you don’t get chance to say goodbye to the fans. That’s the same with everywhere that I’ve been.
“I seem to move in January a lot, so it would happen in the week without a weekend to say goodbye. I wish I was told before the game but obviously with a chance of still getting into the play-offs it wasn’t an option. I could have said bye and thank you in my own way. The fans were great with me, even after I had left the club and had joined Forest.”
Whilst it was a surprise to see the striker switch from the Pride Park to the City Ground, not many supporters held that against him. After four years at the City Ground, however, with loan spells with Burton Albion, Cardiff City and Charlton Athletic sandwiched in between, Ward departed the club. He briefly spent time with Scunthorpe United before the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed the league. Last season, he spent the year with National League side Solihull Moors but left in the summer and is now with local non-league side Buxton FC.