Football: The year a Canary became a Ram

As 1996 draws to a close, few players will have as much to look back on as Derby County's Ashley Ward. This time last year he was at a Nationwide League club on the slide, today he is a Premiership player with a club on the rise. In between he has been transferred, become a father, moved house and undergone an operation. Here, in conversation with Glenn Moore, he reviews his year
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Ward is playing for Norwich in the First Division

"Things had started to go wrong at the end of 1995.We were high in the table and about to play at Leicester when we were told Martin O'Neill had left the club. It was a shock. Things went downhill from then on.

"We dropped right out of the promotion race and lost to Birmingham in the quarter-finals of the Coca-Cola Cup. It was just like the previous season, we'd been sixth at the end of the year then it all fell apart and we were relegated." FEBRUARY Carrow Road is beset by protest as fans turn on Robert Chase, the chairman. Ward becomes a dad "The fans had been brilliant down the years but they were now frustrated at what was going on. The only way they could vent their anger was at the games but it was the players who were placed under pressure. You would go out and sense that they wanted you to lose so they could put more pressure on the chairman. I don't blame them because they had a lot to put up with but it got so bad we would look forward to the away games.

"My daughter is born on the 25th, Dawn and I call her Darby." MARCH Ward is sold to Derby for pounds 1m. Ward and Gary Megson, the Norwich manager ,are surprised. His debut is - at Norwich "There had been bits in the paper about clubs being after me but I didn't take much notice because the manager had said I was not going to be sold. I had even agreed to buy a house.

"But the players did not know how bad the financial situation was. The chairman had to come up with some money so he sold me and Jon Newsome. Gary [Megson, the Norwich manager] was quite upset about it. I suppose they did it to survive.

"The first game was a nightmare, I couldn't believe it when I saw it on the fixture list. We lost and I should have scored. The only good thing was that the crowd were fantastic, they knew the transfer was the chairman's decision. They gave me a great reception.

"It was a good move, though. Derby were threatening to go up, there was a new stadium on the cards. Unlike Norwich it looked like a club going forward.

"The Norwich lads tell me they are all trying for babies and they are going to name them Lazio or Barcelona." APRIL Derby are promoted but Ward has stuggled to make an impact "I picked up a virus which made it difficult to train. We go up but I do not really feel part of it. We had an open-top bus ride and a few parties but the celebration was for the lads who did it over 10 months. I had not done anything to deserve it.

"I knew how they felt because I'd done it with Crewe two years before. I even scored the goal that took us up." MAY Ward scores his first goal for Derby "I scored at West Brom. It was nice to get off the mark. With hindsight it would have been a nightmare if I hadn't, as I do not play again until September. JUNE Ward holidays in America then looks for somewhere to live "I'm still trying to sell the house in Norwich. It's a strange story. I bought it after I moved. I'd already signed to buy it and I couldn't get out of it. And I still have a house from when I played for Crewe. Two houses and nowhere to live. It's very tempting to rent. JULY Pre-season preparations "Derby is the same as my other clubs, hard work, lots of running. It is a nightmare six weeks for any footballer. I'm communting from Manchester, one hour 45 minutes each way and it's stifling hot.

No time to watch cricket. I used to play with and against John Crawley at school level. He was an unbelievable player but I still used to bowl him out. AUGUST Ward misses start of the season after an operation "Just finish all the pre-season running when I have to have a double hernia op. I think I had the problem at Norwich. It was one of those aches which you think one day you wake up and it's gone but it got steadily worse. I worked hard in pre-season and with that and the hard grounds it brought the problem out.

"It means I miss the Manchester United game. My dad's a fan - I'm City, after all, I'm from Manchester. At least it's not the Old Trafford game.

"I started at City. I joined at 16, broke my leg, then got into the first team squad and made a couple of substitute appearances before breaking the other leg.

"That took longer to recover from and as soon as I was fit they sold me to Leicester. I still had problems until I had an Achilles op.

"Two pieces of good news. We sign Asa [Aljosa Asanovic] who was probably the best midfielder in Euro 96. Big surprise - how did we get him?

"And we have a home - we are renting John Harkes' house." SEPTEMBER Playing again "I finally get fit. It has been so frustrating being out. It matters more at a new club because they have not seen me. They could be asking: `What have we paid for him for? Does he play'?" OCTOBER Settling in "I begin playing on my own up front as Dean [Sturridge] is injured but when he returns we get a good partnership going. NOVEMBER Scoring "Score as we beat Leicester. Played them a few times since I left and always been in good form. I left because I was young and impatient. I wanted to play first-team football. Crewe came in and offered to pay Leicester what they paid City [pounds 80,000]. I knew Dario [Gradi] as I had trained at Crewe as a kid and knew his reputation for improving players.

"His coaching is as good as any in the country. He is prepared to work individually on every player, from 11-year-olds to the captain of the first team. He works all hours. There are times when there is an important first team game with a 7.30 kick-off and he's still coaching the under- 14s on the astro at quarter past.

"Also score at Anfield. One of those places that you dream about playing and scoring at when you're growing up." DECEMBER Mixed fortunes "Unlucky not to win at Arsenal. I hit the bar, they equalise in injury time. We're playing some decent football. People think teams that come up just battle and scrap but its nice to play some football. Paul McGrath's been a key signing. Finally sell house in Norwich."