Football: Travelling man Ward strikes camp at battling Barnsley

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After a transfer, an operation, fatherhood and house-moving problems, Ashley Ward was hoping for a more stable 1997 with Derby County.

It did not work out like that. The striker has been hit for sixes and sevens, and not just while playing for his latest club, Barnsley. He has also suffered from meningitis. But, despite last week's thrashing by West Ham, Glenn Moore found him still in an upbeat mood.

Last April Ashley Ward sat back in the bath in the visitor's dressing- room at Old Trafford and thought contentedly "I bet this won't happen very often". Manchester United had just been beaten at home and Ward, a Manchester City supporter as a boy, had scored in Derby County's surprise victory.

Six months later he went back to Old Trafford, this time with Barnsley. As he recalled this week, "normal service was resumed". Barnsley were beaten 7-0.

Such a scoreline has become as much a feature of Barnsley's season as United's, only Barnsley usually have the "nil". Last week they were beaten 6-0 by West Ham United and, as with the 5-0 at Arsenal and 6-0 at home to Chelsea, the sages nodded and said "I knew they were out of their depth".

Yet Barnsley are still only two points adrift at the bottom and five points behind today's opponents at Oakwell, Crystal Palace, who occupy the last safety position.

"We've had some good performances, especially at home," Ward said, "that's why we are still in with a shout. If we beat Palace we go two points behind them and most of the teams in the bottom half have got to to come to our place [only Coventry, of the bottom nine, are still to play Barnsley at home].

"I knew it would be tough when I joined, everyone did, but we were starting to get it right. We had a terrible time at Tottenham [0-3], but apart from that we were doing well. Ade Moses and Arjan de Zeeuw were getting it together at the back and we had conceded one goal in the last three games, which was pretty good considering the way they've been going in. But Ade and Arjan were suspended last Saturday [against West Ham], we had to bring in two new lads, one making a debut, the other playing his second game, and we got hammered again."

The new pairing were not the only ones at fault and it would have been pretty quiet in the away dressing- room at Upton Park had Danny Wilson not been dishing out a major bollocking. "The gaffer was furious," Ward said. "It was a bad performance.

"It is difficult to lift yourself afterwards, it's humiliating. Professionals are not used to it. From an early age they have usually played in the better teams and it's not often people get whacked in the Premiership."

I put it to Ward, by way of consolation, that some of us have suffered 6-0 stuffings at regular intervals in our footballing life, but he responds, gently but with feeling: "It doesn't matter when you're playing for the Lion and Lamb. This is our livelihood."

Ward's ability to earn that livelihood was threatened last autumn when he was diagnosed as suffering from meningitis. The prospect of not being able to play football was the least of his worries as he waited for the results of the tests.

"It was frightening," he said. "The first few days they didn't know what type it was - the other type's a killer. My health is fine now, but I was ill for a week or so, then had to do nothing for a month. That was frustrating, especially as I had just gone to a new club. It was similar to when I went to Derby and needed a groin operation almost immediately."

When we last met in December 1996, Ward was striking up a good partnership with Dean Sturridge as Derby settled well in their first season back in the top flight. He ended the season with a reasonable eight goals from 25 starts and retained his place for the current campaign, but in September Jim Smith called him into his office.

"I was playing every game, but Jim told me an offer had come in and it was up to me. That more or less makes your mind up for you. Derby had earlier said they would not sell Dean for pounds 5m but they were prepared to let me go for rather less than a fortune [pounds 1.3m, rising to pounds 1.55m if Barnsley stay up], so it was obviously time to move on.

"I didn't want to risk being in reserves. Jim's always looking to the foreign market and he'd brought in Paulo Wanchope and Francesco Baiano as well as Deon Burton."

It was time for his sixth club in total and fourth in three years. "When I spoke to Danny I wasn't sure, but it's worked out great for me. I love it here. The supporters have been fantastic, the best I've come across. They've never once turned on the team, maybe they appreciate the difficulty of the task, but not every crowd would."

Most of Ward's moves have been at his employers' instigation and there have been reports that he may be sold if Barnsley are relegated. "You never know, but I'd like to stay here," he said.

The liking for Barnsley is partly because he has been able to move back to his native Manchester and, after years of housing problems caused by his regular transfers, he will shortly be moving into a converted barn which has been rebuilt by his father-in-law. With a second daughter due next month it will not be a moment too soon.

The first daughter was named Darby less than a month before he moved from Norwich City to Derby two years ago. "I've already had a few comments, but we won't be naming her after a football team," he said.

Ward, who has managed five goals in 18 matches for Barnsley, including very satisfying winners against Liverpool (at Anfield) and Derby, may have a new partner today. Norway's Jan Age Fjortoft was signed from Sheffield United for pounds 800,000 on Thursday.

"I assume he's support for me but you never know," Ward said. "It should be enjoyable playing with him. He's got experience, scores a few goals and is a big lad, so I won't have to challenge for every high ball now."

Three of the Premiership bottom four were promoted last year and three of the First Division's top four relegated which would suggest the gap is getting ever bigger.

"There is a gap. One problem for us is that teams down with us like Tottenham can bring in players like Klinsmann and Berti. There's no way we can do that - they may be on free transfers, but the wages are beyond us. The teams that have just come up struggle with injuries. We don't have the depth, not just in numbers but in quality.

"The speed of thought is a big difference. If you are pulled out of position in the Premiership someone goes in the space, in the First Division you can get away with it. People make better runs. You don't get as many goal chances either, for every chance you get at Barnsley you would probably get three for United or Liverpool. But I knew that when I signed."